Clara Montay and Bianca Ferrari, Vice, March 31, 2021
Christel from Brussels hosted over 50 migrants over an 18-month period, starting in 2018. An enormous feat, especially considering the 52-year-old shouldered all the costs herself, with the exception of a few donations from friends and family.
Christel initially got involved with refugee aid organisations back in 2018, distributing food and sleeping bags at the migrant camp in Brussels’ Maximilien Park. Gradually, she started getting requests to host people from a local NGO, the Plateforme Citoyenne, but her kids were hesitant about having strangers at home.
Eventually, Christel decided to take in two refugees who were on their way to the UK, for one or two nights a week. But after the first experience went well, her contact asked if she could host three more. “Ultimately, Woadosa, Ibrahim and Salomon [some of her first guests] ended up staying long-term,” she said.
Most of the refugees who stayed with her were from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and generally in the same age group as her own children, between 16 and 29. “They were very devout [Christians] and prayed a lot,” she said.
Christel said her experience was mostly positive, but there were also some tough times. Sometimes, she was overwhelmed with requests. “Once, at Christmas, I ended up with seven migrants at home – that’s just too many people.”
The cost of her solidarity began to pile up. Her water bill ran up to €1,000 a year and her electricity to €240 per month. “It was massive, and there was never any help from the government, of course,” she said. “And yet somehow, you still figure out how to get by.” Friends would run errands for her or give her money, and she’d often be given unsold fresh food from local stores.
Eventually, she decided she had to take a break. Her phone number was circulating in migrant groups and people started showing up unannounced. “We never got a weekend alone as a family,” she said. “Financially and psychologically, it was just too much.”
People like Christel, who lend assistance to migrants, are protected by the 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, explained Elisa de Pieri, researcher at the Europe regional office of Amnesty International. The declaration requires states to guarantee “a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders”, de Pieri said, but individuals and organisations aiding refugees often become the target of laws prohibiting the “facilitation of illegal migration”.
These laws are meant to take action against people smugglers, but in practice they’ve been used against people trying to help, especially since 2016, “when the environment became hostile”. According to a 2020 Amnesty report, between 2015 and 2018 at least 158 people and 16 NGOs have been investigated or prosecuted for facilitating irregular migration. Another list compiled by reporters at Open Democracy found 250 cases in the same time period, mostly in Italy, Greece, France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Spain. “And the trend is certainly not decreasing,” de Pieri said.
Christel said she’s happy she could help and that she’d do it all over again. “During the war, Jews needed smugglers to help them, and those people were considered heroes,” she said. “Instead, we as a society have this weird, collective amnesia about immigrants’ plight. It’s scary, and it’s disgusting.”