By Khaled Diab
Belgian media hysteria over crime and calls for zero-tolerance policing miss the real issue – social exclusion in the inner city.
16 February 2010
To the outside world, the scariest thing about Brussels is probably its bureaucracy. In Belgium, however, Brussels has something of a reputation for being an unsafe city where criminals of Moroccan and other immigrant extractions rule its mean streets and certain neighbourhoods are no-go areas not only for law-abiding citizens but also for the police.
Three recent incidents, including a dramatic one in which a police officer was shot with a Kalashnikov during a getaway after a thwarted armed robbery, have confirmed this perception in the minds of many.
The predictable media frenzy – with a tone that would be familiar to a British audience – about street crime and the need for “zero tolerance” followed hot on the heels of the tragic shooting, and voices of reason and nuance have been drowned out. The police even took to the streets to call for more resources and pay, as well as stiffer sentences and faster judicial procedures.
In addition to idle musings about who polices the police during such a protest (a friend suggested that perhaps anarchists and activist should get the chance to stand on the other side of the barricades), I wondered whether the Belgian capital's image is deserved and whether more draconian security measures are really the answer.
According to available statistics, Brussels has, by northern European standards, a high petty crime rate and it is top of the European league when it comes to domestic burglaries but is one of the safest capitals in the world – and possibly the safest in Europe – when it comes to violent crime, particularly murder. And despite the current media stampede, in the first half of 2009 Brussels registered the lowest crime rate in almost a decade.
Like many Brussels residents, my wife and I lived for years without problems beyond some minor annoyances, on the edge of what is regarded as one of the city's more dangerous neighbourhoods.
The public debate, carrying as it does racial and religious undertones, has not surprised locals in Brussels's problem areas but it has caused widespread disappointment. “The violence we hear about in the media is the exception and not the rule,” Kamal, a 32-year-old Moroccan, told me. “With all this talk of zero tolerance, respect has reached zero level. We need a public debate, but one based on mutual respect and acceptance.”
The sense of disillusionment is pervasive, especially in Kuregem, which is regularly portrayed as some kind of urban “war zone”. Eric Gijssen, a video artist and social worker who has lived in Brussels for two decades and works with young people in Kuregem to help them find their voice through the medium of film, has noticed a growing apathy among his charges.
“The youth I work with and other locals are becoming increasingly apathetic,” he said. This is a far cry from the active and engaged young people we met some years ago at the Alhambra centre who were keen to challenge stereotypes and misperceptions. “They no longer believe this will make a difference, and have turned their backs on the media to find their own information sources and forums online,” Gijssen added.
While he acknowledges that there are plenty of problems, he finds that the sensation-seeking elements of the media and self-serving politicians are only making a delicate situation worse. “Instead of stigmatising entire communities, we must first of all engage with the youth and offer them alternative perspectives,” he said.
Gijssen and others with grassroots experience see the fixation on security aspects of the Brussels question as short-sighted and even counterproductive. Instead of attacking the symptoms with a fist of steel, what is required is treatment of the root causes: poverty and social exclusion.
While it is not inevitable that poverty will lead to crime, ignoring the strong correlation between the two is disingenuous and an easy way for politicians and society to cop out of their responsibilities to create opportunities for the marginalised.
In Brussels, the contrast between wealth and poverty is extremely stark. As the country's main economic dynamo, Brussels has a per-capita GDP that is 233% that of the EU average! However, most of the wealth generated in the city is earned by people who live in its plusher suburbs or who commute there from other towns.
In contrast, inner-city Brussels, unlike most other capital cities, has the highest unemployment rate in the country (17.6%) and, according to Gijssen, in places like Kuregem, youth unemployment can be as high as 50%. Unsurprisingly, this chasm can often lead to feelings of resentment on one side of the wealth divide and fear on the other.
“In places like Kuregem, young people have very little or nothing, and not much of a future to look forward to,” explains Gijssen. “One thing is essential: more investment.”
But rather than investing more, the authorities have been siphoning off funds from community projects in Kuregem and other poorer neighbourhoods in Brussels and, at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, immigrant neighbourhoods have fallen off the political radar when it comes to employment and education.
“If jobs and other opportunities are found, then this security problem will vanish,” Kamal told me. “We need to combat social exclusion through better socio-economic integration.”
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 8 February 2010. Read the related discussion.