Residents, business owners and even the mayors in the north quarter of Brussels are saying that violence and crime have become so bad, that action from the federal government is needed.
A recent shooting this week in the neighbourhood of Saint-Josse is only the latest example of the problem, according to Dutch-language outlet Bruzz, which covered the issue in a special report featuring interviews with local stakeholders.
“Unsafe? No, it’s like a beach here!” one shop owner joked to a Bruzz reporter.
His shop on rue de Brabant is located close to rue d’Aerschot, where this week’s shooting took place.
Five suspects were taken in for questioning after that shooting, but all five were released, despite two remaining under suspicion for attempted manslaughter, assault and carrying weapons without a permit.
“I have had a shop here for 11 years, but the problems never came so close,” the shop owner told Bruzz.
“You used to have nuisance in the rue d’Aerschot, but no theft or violence against the residents and traders. I just want to remain free in my right to walk in the street without confrontation. We seem to be heading for a no-go zone, where gangs rule the streets like in some neighbourhoods in Marseille.”
Chairman Mohamed El Hajaiji of the Brabant Shopping traders’ association said they’ve attempted to have the issues with crime addressed, but no progress has been made.
“Nothing has changed for years, while we regularly consult with the police zone and the municipalities,” said El Hajaiji.
“Each time, they say that they are not responsible because it concerns migrants. Well, then the federal government should intervene.”
Business owners and mayors Cécile Jodogne of Schaarbeek and Emir Kir of Saint-Joost are asking for an urgent political consultation with Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden and State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi.
“The federal police and railway police must have a greater presence in the neighbourhood,” Jodogne told Bruzz.
“Already during the previous legislature, our municipality interrogated the then-ministers about this, but each time only promises came, no results.”
Kir agreed, adding that “the federal government and especially the judiciary must do its job.”
Business owners, who showed journalists videos on their cell phones of street brawls that they say are regular occurrences, said the issues have deteriorated during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When the shops were closed there was just visible drug dealing on the streets,” one store owner said.
“That has remained. I live in Zaventem and come here every day by train. Even as a man, I am often approached at the station. They ask me for money and if I say no, it can quickly escalate.”
The business owners also know many women who’ve been intimidated or harassed on the streets, both during the day and at night.
One woman was stabbed to death in broad daylight while walking her baby in a stroller in Evere.
“We hope that anyone who experiences [harassment] will file a complaint so that we have figures to fall back on,” said El Hajaiji.
Many already have – one person interviewed said they knew someone who’d filed a complaint 32 times.
But the situation seems to be getting worse rather than improving and residents point to the large amounts of transmigrants in the area.
Residents deplore the groups that hang around in the street at day and night, saying that they have developed a sense of impunity due to the lack of action taken by the public prosecutor in response to crime.
“A few years ago it started with theft. If the police picked them up then, they were certainly still afraid, but in the case of petty crime, the public prosecutor quickly says: let them go free. So they always go a step further,” said El Hajaiji.
“First it becomes theft with violence, then assault, then drug trafficking. And if they are then arrested, they get an order to leave the territory, but the police can do nothing else. It is almost as if there is a kind of competition in the streets to collect as many orders to leave the country as possible.”
The problems, El Hajaiji said, are mainly situated in the block of streets between Saint Lazarus Square and rue de Quatrecht.
“We’re asking the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration and the Minister of Justice not to simply release the transit migrants,” said the chairman of the traders association.
The shops in the area have already seen a steep loss in profits, but that’s no longer their main concern.
“It is really about our daily safety and that of our families,” said El Hajaiji.
Local residents share the same concerns. One couple in the area that Bruzz interviewed said they’re looking to move.
“We have a nice flat, but we cannot stay here,” the woman said. “I think it’s hell here.”
She asks her husband to wait outside their apartment for her when she comes home from evening classes, even if she’s able to find parking just outside their door, because she’s afraid of being harassed.
“I have already been attacked when I was just at home. They threw a glass bottle at my window,” she said.
“When I walk to the station, I always have my mobile phone firmly in my hand so I can call someone.”
She’s also had her car scratched multiple times.
A nearby shop owner says his van has been broken into and his customers are afraid to visit his store in person due to safety concerns.
“My customers have been asking more and more in the last year if I can deliver – they don’t like to come anymore,” Hakim Lagraoui told Bruzz.
“We have to clean here every morning because they squat on my doorstep. They just sit here on the steps. It often happens that I have to go to the shop at night because the alarm goes off. The police do what they can, but I don’t know what to do.”
The Brussels public prosecutor’s office told Bruzz that they cannot provide figures on violent crime in the neighbourhood behind the North Station and the Brussels-North police zone could not be reached for press questions.
Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said she has not yet received the request from the Brussels mayors.
“We are already in talks with the mayors concerned. We are aware of the problem and we are working on it with all the actors involved,” said her spokesperson.
The cabinet of State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi said it is “certainly prepared to help out if asked,” according to spokesperson Sieghild Lacoere.
In the meantime, people living and working by the North Station feel abandoned.
“I wonder if Brussels politicians still see the North Quarter as their jurisdiction,” said El Hajaiji.
“If so, take responsibility and put pressure on the federal level. If not, tell us. Do they see us as residents like everyone else, or as second-class citizens who just have to keep waiting for a solution?”