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14th Aug 2022

Record-high numbers at Belgium's 'transit centre' for Ukrainians

  • A Ukrainian refugee hangs laundry at the Ariane transit centre in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)
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A transit centre in Brussels for Ukrainian refugees hit a record number of residents last week, amid a worsening housing crisis.

Ariane is a former business centre in Brussels converted into a temporary shelter run by the Flemish Red Cross.

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The six floor four-winged building with around 240 rooms is designed to allow people to stay up to three nights, offering only basic services.

But some have been there 50 days, posing numerous questions on how to treat traumatised people and others that require special needs.

Some, for instance, come from Ukraine's Mariupol where the United Nations is currently investigating Russian war crimes.

On Friday (8 July), the centre was accommodating 995 residents, a record high since it first opened in mid-March. Around 40 percent are families with children.

On paper, it can house 1,500, a figure that could soon be reached, leaving administrators scrambling to hire new recruits.

They are currently staffed with 55, not including volunteers, and are looking for at least 20 new social workers. Around half speak either Russian or Ukrainian.

Among those staying there is 48-year old Kostyantyn Frolov and his 52-year old wife Olena Manko.

Both are from Odesa on the Black Sea, a port city that has been the target of repeated Russian missile strikes. One such missile last week hit a recreation centre and apartment block in Odesa, killing 21 people.

When EUobserver spoke to the couple on 29 June, they had been at the Ariane centre for already a week.

"Everything is well organised. We have food, we have a place to stay," said Frolov of Ariane.

"We came to Brussels to find a job, we don't want social handouts," he added.

"[But] we don't know how long we will stay here," he said.

It is a question that is on almost everyone's mind.

Currently, around 21 percent of the residents stay more than 25 days. It is a trend that spiked in June.

On 10 June, only around 2 percent were staying more than 25 days. This increased to 8 percent on 18 June and then to 23 percent on 29 June.

Many are single men with psychosocial or medical needs, or large families, both of which are difficult to match with Belgian host families.

And so long as people remain at Ariane, they won't be able to work or access other rights. It means the transit centre is turning into a reception centre but with only basic facilities meant to accommodate people for one, two or three nights.

Ukrainians arriving in Brussels first go to Heysel, another facility where the state immigration office gives them EU protection status. They must then find a home, where the local municipality then completes the paper work to active all the rights linked to the EU protection status.

If no immediate hosting match is made at Heysel, they are sent to Ariane transit centre until a housing solution is found.

But in June, only around 5 percent were matched to Belgian host families or other accommodation options proposed at Heysel. The remainder, or 95 percent, were sent to Ariane.

Ausra Madzajute Ayhan is a Flemish Red Cross deputy manager at Ariane.

"We were not created as a specialised centre to provide and meet all their needs," she said.

But efforts are still being made. People with limited mobility are now taking showers or getting bathed twice a week at local elderly residency homes.

The more able bodied use showers at Ariane, separated by sexes.

Feeding a thousand people three meals a day is also posing some logistical problems. To avoid long lines, they divide up the meal times according to residency floors.

Each wing has toilets, also separated by sexes. But the rooms are basic and have no locks. Cooking is not allowed and there is no onsite laundry to wash clothing. Instead, people are given tokens for laundromats in the area.

Staff are also trying to keep the children entertained, said Ayhan. This includes weekend activities, board games and movies.

A small library with some 150 books in Ukrainian has also proven popular, she said.

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