Saturday

8th May 2021

Terror victims let down by Belgian bureaucracy

  • Maalbeek metro station last March (Photo: Eric Maurice)

Dressed in a smart suit, but with soot covering his lower face, a man in his mid-30s walked out of the Saint-Jean Clinic in Brussels.

It was early Tuesday on 22 March 2016 and a jihadist had that same morning detonated a bomb at the Maalbeek metro station in the EU capital.

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  • First bomb struck the international airport (Photo: Reuters)

Visibly shaken, the man briefly recounted what he had seen.

"There were so many injuries. It was horrific. I'm in shock," he told EUobserver at the time.

The metro blast had come quickly after a first bomb at Brussels International Airport.

Together, the explosions killed 32 people and injured over 300.

All told, 324 people from the attacks received hospital treatment. Of those, 224 stayed for more than 24 hours.

Almost a year later, Karen Northshield, a 31-year old Belgian-American, is still recovering at hospital.

A former top-ranking athlete, Northshield is still suffering from massive injuries.

Over the weekend, she told Belgian newspaper De Standaard that the government had abandoned her.

"How can you not take [care] of your own people, of your own victims?”, she said.

Her father accused the airport of seeking short term solutions for his daughter, who will likely require life-long care.

"The airport insurance company offered provisional, limited compensation if we would sign a statement releasing them of responsibility. We did not sign that statement," he said.

Brussels International Airport is yet to respond for a comment on her case.

But Florence Fay, a spokeswoman for the Saint-Jean Clinic, which also treated victims, said many people were struggling with insurance claims.

"One of the things that the victims said was there was no proactive action towards them to ask: ‘How are you doing? Are you fine? Do you need help?”, she told EUobserver.

The past 12 months have revealed a series of Belgian state security mistakes that allowed the attacks.

They have also prompted soul-searching in Belgian society over how Molenbeek, a Brussels district with a large Moroccan minority, had become home to several of the assailants.

Belgian bureacracy

The lack of proper care for the victims has exposed other problems with Belgian bureaucracy.

"The only thing that we can all agree on is Belgium has a very complicated state system and it is not easy for people [victims] to find their way around," a spokesperson from Belgium's minister of social affairs told EUobserver.

Various ministries have different lists of victims and different figures for emergency funds available to help them.

The justice ministry has a fund that grants people access to up to €30,000 for medical costs and up to €6,000 for funeral expenses, but not everyone knows it exists.

Over 1,300 people filed insurance claims following the bombings, but a lot fewer went to the ministry for help - just 370 by one account.

To further complicate matters, people who want psychological help have to seek treatment from micro-administrations in the Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels regions in the Belgian federation.

The ministry of public health did create a single contact point for victims, but insurance companies did not follow suit.

Meanwhile, the ministry's contact point still needs to be endorsed by a law, a so-called statute of national solidarity with victims of terrorist attacks.

The Belgian government said a vote on the law is being delayed pending the outcome of an internal investigation by a parliamentary committee, known as Comite P, into the alleged state security failures.

Once the statute becomes law, victims will receive a special identity card that entitles them to amenities like life-long pensions.

It is not clear when this will happen.

Insurance delays

Insurance companies have also been dragging their feet.

The firms generally pay out physical and so-called moral damages, but compensation for moral damages are only received when a victim's file has been nearly closed.

This could take years in some cases.

Earlier this month, Belgium's health minister Maggie De Block told insurance companies to quicken the pace.

"There were some meetings with the prime minister, with our minister, and the insurance companies, and they have agreed to pay the moral damages a lot sooner, like in the next week or next two weeks," said De Block's spokeswoman.

She said the companies had agreed to double the amount they usually pay.

Once the compensations is paid, extenuating medical costs will be covered by the yet-to-be-voted-on statute, she said.

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