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27th Jun 2022

Ukrainian refugees 'told to vacate Brussels homes'

  • Brussels is home to around 1.2m people (Photo: William Murphy)
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Ukrainian refugees in Brussels are being told to vacate homes because their hosts no longer want them there, says Alina Kokhanko-Parandii.

The 32-year old arrived from Kyviv, along with her mother and small daughter, in Brussels almost exactly three months ago.

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She has since found herself working as a liaison between the Brussels government and other Ukrainians as part of a wider city effort to include refugees in the decision-making and problem-solving process.

"We have a situation where people want to go on holidays and they don't want Ukrainians to stay at their homes," she told EUobserver on Monday (20 June).

"They want them to leave their homes and we know that there are Ukrainians on the street," she said, noting some find themselves sleeping at the Midi train station in central Brussels.

Aside from an acute housing crisis that is set to get only worse, Kokhanko-Parandii said that the Belgian administration and its numerous municipal communes in Brussels are too slow and cumbersome.

Belgian landlords also don't want to rent out apartments to Ukrainians because their temporary protection status expires in March of next year.

Typical Belgian rental contracts often stretch for three, six or nine years. Other landlords are also wary of receiving deposits from Brussels' public centre for social welfare, also known as CPAS.

Ariane, a special transit point for arriving Ukrainians, run by the Flemish Red Cross in the most affluent Brussels-neighbourhood of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, is said to have deplorable conditions.

Some are finding themselves stuck at the centre for weeks on end, unable to register in order to secure their rights — as guaranteed under the EU's temporary protection directive.

Kokhanko-Parandii said some Ukrainians also find it difficult to adjust.

"You come here and just have to start from the beginning," she said.

Kokhanko-Parandii is not alone in her quest to solve the problems.

Among others is Ekaterina Clifford, a 47-year old Russian who has been living in Brussels for the past four years.

"Nobody expected to be hosting families for so long, for some people, it's also just expensive," she said.

According to city officials, a large portion of residents of Brussels spend around 50 percent of their monthly income on rent alone.

Clifford said volunteers throughout all of Belgium are working overtime to find Ukrainians housing so "that they don't end up in the streets."

The issues, and others, have confounded authorities who are working to try to iron out all the difficulties.

Housing problems

Pierre Verbeeren is one of those. He is also Brussels' government coordinator on Ukraine.

He said Brussels currently hosts some 8,000 Ukrainian refugees, a figure that is expected to increase to around 12,000 before the end of the year.

"The main issue is housing," he said.

The plan to solve it includes turning office spaces into collective housing units for refugees, an idea that could later be used to address an acute homelessness crisis in the city.

But Verbeeren notes that such decisions are not made without first getting the Ukrainians involved, a novel approach in Brussels.

"The first principle is 'nothing about Ukrainians without Ukrainians'," he said.

"We integrate Ukrainians and beneficiaries of a temporary protection in all the decision making process, in all the places we discuss about in Ukraine," he said.

This includes setting up working groups dealing with areas like private housing, education, jobs and health.

Heads of staff of all the Brussels ministers, working group presidents, along with Ukrainian representatives, then all sit together in a global task force to deal with problems.

But he concedes the situation remains frustrating.

"Brussels citizens giving hospitality to Ukrainians are fed up with all the administration, because it's too complex," he said.

"Citizen solidarity is seen as a failure of the state for a lot of people," he added.

He noted efforts are underway to create a synergy between institutional support, ordinary people hosting refugees and community outreach.

"It's something new, and it's something difficult, and it's not yet a success. So let's be clear, it's not yet a success," he said.

The approach made by the Brussels regional government aims to integrate Ukrainians without creating double standards for others also in need while at the same time providing information outreach to as many as possible, he said.

UN refugee agency

It is a strategy that also leans on the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) support and its officer, Alphonse Munyameza who is working with Verbeeren.

"They really took the UNHCR playbook on community engagement," he said, in reference to the city's decision to involve Ukrainians.

He said people like Ukrainian refugee Kokhanko-Parandii and the Russian national Clifford have been designated as special person of contact or 'spoc'.

The spocs meet with the UNHCR once or twice a week to provide the agency with an overview of what is happening.

"We try to make sure that the community not only is informed, but also reacts to the needs of the population," he said.

This article was updated on 23 June to clarify that Kokhanko-Parandii works solely with the Commission Communautaire commune.

Disclosure. The Left Group in the European Parliament had invited EUobserver to a field trip in Brussels to discuss the issue of refugees, along with MEPs Cornelia Ernst, Malin Bjork and Anne-Sophie Pelletier

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