'Lawless area': Brussels North residents draw attention to local violence and crime

'Lawless area': Brussels North residents draw attention to local violence and crime
Garbage and a sign that reads "I promise you a miracle" at a bus stop at Brussels' Gare du Nord train station, near the Brabant district. Credit: Belga/ Dirk Waem

The district around the Brussels North station, the Brabant district, has a reputation for violence and crime inflicted by drug gangs operating in the area. Now, the situation has deteriorated further, spurring locals to take to the streets in outrage.

Already in October 2021, residents, business owners and even the mayors in the north quarter of Brussels warned the violence and crime had become so bad that action from the federal government was needed. In recent months, serious crimes are committed on a daily basis, which locals argue put them at risk.

“The place has become a lawless area, without any rules in place, where gangs reign and rage with impunity,” Thierry Balsat, of an association set up by people in the neighbourhood named Les Habitants du Quartier Nord, told The Brussels Times.

The association organised a demonstration in front of the police commissariat in Rue de Brabant, where some 20 local residents gathered to draw attention to their sense of insecurity in the neighbourhood and demand more police resources.

“Something has to change because a real war is brewing between the mafias that are active here and the residents,” Balsat said. In the meantime, residents claimed they will block streets in the Brabant district every week until steps are taken.

Fear situation will escalate

When local residents have asked for more help in the past, the authorities responded that the situation has already improved.

An ordinance was issued last year, providing for a drastic restriction on nighttime and commercial activities, restricting the opening hours of shops selling alcohol and banning gatherings of more than five people posing a threat to public safety. A police report showed a slight decrease in crime.

“But terrible things continue to happen. It has come to the point that people are bringing in weapons into their homes to defend themselves,” Balsat claimed.

He said the locals fear the situation will escalate as it has in Antwerp, “where streets are also being terrorised” by mafias, and shootings and explosions have become commonplace in some areas as the presence of drug gangs increases.

“Will it take a stray bullet, as happened recently in Antwerp, plunging a family in our neighbourhood into mourning, to arouse the interest of our leaders?” Balsat questioned. “If nothing is done, there will be more deaths."

Lack of resources

While the demonstration on Tuesday took place in front of the police station, the criticism is not directed against the police. Locals have been calling for more officers on the ground for months, but are told there are no longer enough resources for this. 

“We have become the victim of this, but the local police have too,” Balsat said. “They have been made powerless due to the lack of resources.”

The mayor of Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode, Emir Kir, expressed his support for the demonstration, adding that he shares the concerns and feelings of locals.

A fire in Rue d'Aerschot near Gare du Nord. Credit: Belga/ Filip De Smet

“We have repeatedly raised the alarm and asked our ministers to make the security of this small perimeter a national priority. Some progress has been made, but this is not enough.”

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Meanwhile, Audrey Dereymaeker, spokesperson for the Brussels North police zone, who was also present at the demonstration, said the Brussels Region has already deployed additional police patrols by using staff from the federal police.

However, she did recognise it was a “neighbourhood with many problems,” adding that the police are “there to listen and look for solutions together” with locals.

Systematic solutions

Through a list of demands, local residents are asking for increasing the security presence in the neighbourhood. Specifically, for police to be better funding by explicitly asking Home Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden to deploy federal police units, install a 24/7 emergency line and have a specially authorised magistrate to work on the neighbourhood. 

Balsat recognised that poverty in the neighbourhood is one of the root causes and that the Federal Government should tackle the issue systematically. “It is true that many people here are living in poverty. This, unfortunately, makes it easier for gangs to operate in places with more poverty."

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