Brussels’ emergency fire and medical services (SIAMU) has released a statement in regards to a recent report from Unia that accused them of fostering a “xenophobic climate” that “legitimises punishable racist remarks and acts.”
Unia is an independent public institution that fights discrimination and promotes equal opportunities in Belgium, and their report was shared with the media after it was presented to Brussels Parliament.
“Unfortunately, we have to note that the report submitted by Unia to the Brussels Parliament concerning possible racism within our service does not contain our response to the report in question, which should nevertheless be an integral part of it,” SIAMU said in its statement.
“We think it is useful to point out that Unia's report seems to us to be subjective and one-sided, which is also acknowledged by Unia. Unfortunately, the report is also sometimes factually incorrect or simply misleading in terms of its ephemeral nature, its timeline,” the report read.
SIAMU emphasised that the conclusions of Unia’s report and a separate audit differ “clearly and distinctly, among other things regarding the systemic aspect of racism that Unia qualifies as ‘pervasive’.”
The statement also questioned the motives of the report.
Walter Derieuw, spokesperson for SIAMU, included a personal note at the end of the release that read: “As a citizen of Brussels, I am proud and grateful to be employed by the Brussels Fire Brigade, and I have to guess at the underlying intention/agenda of this deliberate, targeted and permanent damage operation that [SIAMU] is currently the subject of. Why is there a desire to discredit this force, made up of passionate women and men, as a whole?”
SIAMU’s 16-page response to the Unia study was originally intended for Unia only but was shared with The Brussels Times and other media outlets after the report was published lacking its response.
“We would like to emphasise that this response to your report is intended to explain the current culture and operation of the SIAMU and in no way to justify or condone acts of a racist nature which may have been committed,” the response stated.
In addressing allegations of a xenophobic culture, SIAMU highlighted the uniqueness of a firefighter’s working hours, which it said had a "very important impact on the relationship that the [firefighters] have with each other."
“The links that unite these agents go far beyond the traditional work relationship. They share a communal life. They prepare food together, sleep together and intervene together in situations that may jeopardise their physical integrity. They also share this time together for several years,” it said.
It added that this meant "group cohesion is essential for the proper functioning of the service. These conditions... create homogeneity in relation to which candidates from diverse backgrounds may find it difficult to project themselves."
SIAMU acknowledged that the uniquely intimate working conditions can lead to what Unia described as a force that’s "mostly white, Belgian, and male."
The group pointed out that "the number of firefighters from diverse backgrounds is, on the one hand, linked to the historical recruitment conditions which required Belgian nationality for access to the function of a firefighter, a condition which is still applicable for access to the senior management (officers)."
“In addition, it is still difficult to recruit officers from diverse backgrounds, given the very high level of integration in the police force required.”
Some of the more specific claims of racism and diversity were unable to be addressed in SIAMU’s response due to confidentiality reasons.
'History of discrimination and racism'
Allegations of racism against Brussels firefighters aren’t new. The Unia report was done in response to multiple testimonies from firefighters alleging acts of discrimination and racism, including the use of racial slurs.
One such incident occurred in 2019 when a Brussels firefighter had his helmet covered in racial slurs, and his locker broken into and filled with slices of ham.
The response from SIAMU expressed a desire to collaborate with Unia in order to evolve their practices as part of “a real process of cultural change, particularly in relation to diversity.”
“Indeed, we are convinced that this first step is essential in order to be able to act effectively on the lack of diversity and the acceptance of that diversity.”
One section of SIAMU’s response discusses structural measures both already underway and planned to improve diversity within Brussels’ emergency fire and medical services.
The statement concluded that SIAMU hopes to discuss the matter further: “We hope that the parliamentary debate, which will only take place in 15 days' time, will be able to take place calmly and constructively. The subject matter is certainly worthy of it.”
Helen Lyons and Lauren Walker
The Brussels Times