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Reach Out | Multinational outreach team speaks to undocumented migrants in Brussels

‘Reach Out’ team approaches migrants in transit in Belgium and France © Fedasil, 2020

Within the framework of Reach Out Project supported by ERRIN, the Fedasil’s multinational outreach team approaches migrants in transit around the Brussels-North station and the Maximilian Park and provides them with information about their rights and opportunities.
We follow them on one of their outreach missions.

“These are not easy conversations,” says one of the team members. “You can’t expect immediate results. I listen, ask questions, and try to inform the migrants according to their personal situation. We usually leave it like that. If the person has been in Europe for years and can no longer see a way out, or if their doubt whether they can make it to Great Britain after many, many failures, then the context is better suited to touch upon the subject of voluntary return. But if, on the contrary, I find myself faced with a person who just arrived in Europe two or three weeks ago, I won’t directly talk about voluntary return, but rather focus on the asylum procedure in Belgium, the Dublin Regulation, and other information which the person would be more receptive to.”

“These are not easy conversations” © Fedasil, 2020

We leave the Brussels-North station and head for the Maximilian Park. One would expect approaching undocumented migrants to be quite difficult, as these people usually prefer to remain unseen, but the individuals we met on the day turn out to be quite eager to talk to us. While the team member approaches the first person and asks him in Arabic how long he has been in Belgium and where he’s sleeping, we can see some other people look at us with interest. They approach the Team and await their turn to speak. Meanwhile, they chat with the photographer. One of them even asks to have his picture taken, making a peace sign with his hand.

“So far, these conversations have always been friendly,” says the Fedasil’s outreach team. “We come here three to four times a week. Between the two of us, we can speak eight or nine different languages. The fact that we can talk to people in their own language is a great asset, it immediately creates a bond of trust.”

The people in transit

While we are walking in the park, a person passes by and greets us in Dutch. When we ask him where he learned Dutch, he answers with a distinctly Bruges accent, “in Bruhhe.” He comes from Sudan and says he speaks Arabic, English, Dutch and Spanish, learning these languages thanks to the app that he shows us on his smartphone. “Every day I study two-three hours, I lived in Spain for four months and that’s how I learned Spanish.” We ask him where he sleeps at night. “There, at the end of the park,” he says. “I once slept at a shelter, but the next morning, I lost all my money and all my clothes.”

The outreach team explains that some migrants stay in the park for months; others disappear after a week. They gather in Maximilian Park and at Brussels-North station to take the train to Calais, Dunkirk or Zeebrugge. From there, they walk to a motorway service area where they try to hop on a truck heading to Britain. If they fail, they return to Brussels. “Here in the park they can count on their fellow countrymen for information and company,” says the Fedasil’s staff.

‘Reach Out’ team on one of their missions © Fedasil, 2020

One-on-one meetings

The outreach team also pays a couple of visits per week to emergency reception centres in Brussels. “There we can talk to each person individually in a separate room, it’s better than in the park where people come up and listen to what you’re saying. That is why most migrants do not dare to speak freely.”

As the project is a joint endeavour of the Belgian and French migration agencies, every Friday, the Fedasil staff visits their colleagues in Calais for joint outreach work, or have the OFII team come to Brussels. In Calais, they sometimes meet migrants they know from the Maximilian Park again. The months of outreach work already bear fruit and bring about many useful learnings. However, the team admits that some challenges still remain.

This story has been reproduced by courtesy of Fedasil.

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