The Hidden Side of Brussels

This post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium

When we think of Brussels, what picture comes to mind? Perhaps we think of the European Union institutions, luxurious offices and wide meeting chambers. Perhaps we think of chocolate shops and bars that sell hundreds of varieties of beer. We might even think of the Atomium, that strange, futuristic structure that dominates part of the Brussels skyline (if you haven’t seen it, google it, it’s quite amazing.). We might think of art deco-houses and terrible traffic, and we will probably all think of a modern, wealthy capital city, not too large, but big enough to be a tourist destination and a desirable place to live.


Yet, like any major European capital, Brussels has many different sides. There are the huge mansions of the embassies, and the sprawling suburban streets. There is also a hidden network of illegal, unsafe and depressing apartments, where the undocumented migrants live. Brussels might be a major European capital, but ten percent of its population lives without the legal right to work or stay. More than 100,000 people struggle each day to survive and stay off the streets. There are thousands of apartments that nobody would want to live in unless they really had to.

One family that Oasis works with had been evicted from a dirty, violent squat and for a while lived in decent social housing, but then, when they failed to pay the rent, they and their two children were evicted. They managed to find a place to squat in an empty apartment in the same block of flats, but were in constant fear that the police would knock on the door. On the occasions that the police did arrive, everyone froze and made no noise, hoping that the officers would go away, which they eventually did. Finally, they found an illegal flat that they could afford. It was a converted cellar, with so little air circulating that they couldn’t have a front door, and had to be content with bars keeping the world out. Next to the kitchen was the gas supply for the whole block of apartments. They worked hard and made a home out of it, and their children thrived in the local school.

It’s a testimony to the power and resilience of a loving family, but imagine this story told thousands of times over in one relatively small city. Think of the danger from fire, the health risks, the misery and depression that hangs over people struggling to live in these conditions. If this is what’s happening in Brussels, what about your city? What can be done to make sure that all people can be safe and thrive? Surely, whatever we feel about immigration at the highest levels, the well being of children living in our cities transcends all politics.

Every city has its public face, its prosperity and pride, and that’s good, but there is also always a hidden city, where the poor, the unrecognised and the marginalised struggle. We have to see both, and find solutions, so that nobody is left in misery.

We're starting an initiative to make the hidden parts of Brussels visible.

We're hosting a tour with the theme of Migration and Trafficking that will take tourists places they wouldn't usually go, places that prove that Brussels is a truly international city that bears the scars of the poverty and discrimination experienced by countless migrants. Making a difference in Brussels means more than bringing vulnerable people into community, it involves bringing long-time residents, visitors, and those who have only heard or read about the migration crisis in the news to see and experience the lived experiences of so many people. 

Learn more about our tour here. You can help us out by joining our tour, sharing with friends who are visiting, or simply sharing on your Facebook page.