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Brussels steps up campaign to clean up Midi station

15:55 09/09/2023

Brussels prime minister Rudi Vervoort will speak on Tuesday to the Brussels parliament’s home affairs committee to discuss the continuing problems surrounding Brussels-Midi station.

This commitment follows the federal government’s adoption, on 1 September, of an action plan coordinated by the National Crisis Centre to clean up the station, focusing on fighting crime, help for drug addicts and the homeless, and the need to build new infrastructure.

A huge control operation carried out the following day resulted in the arrests of 60 people.

Vervoort blamed the situation on a range of issues including Brussels’ lack of new crown prosecutor, inadequate policing and on the removal of Brussels-Midi’s in-situ police station some 10 years ago.

Behind these problems lies “the challenge of moving toward a regionalised police and justice system”, he said.

“This is the dream in Flanders. They have a justice and interior minister. But will you trust the management of all these areas, bringing together thousands of police officers into one territory with major issues to just one person? What powers are we going to give him?”

As it stands, what should be a grand entrance to a beautiful city for some 50,000 travellers a day is anything but. The Avenue Fonsny entrance is awash with bottles, cigarette ends and more often than not people drunk and/or fighting.

“Coming from Mexico City, I am used to experiencing this feeling of insecurity, but I have never seen this level of dirt in other international stations in Europe,” said one tourist.

“The smell is very strange,” another tourist from Brazil told La Dernière Heure.

Official police figures show that 146 armed robberies were committed at or near the station in the past year and more than half of these involved a knife or pistol. Local residents and politicians believe, however, that this is an underestimate.

According to police, the increased crime rate is spurred by the rapid rise of drug use – notably crack – in Brussels. The most common offences are theft and extortion.

In addition, Flemish newspaper De Standaard reported that the number of criminal acts taking place around Brussels-Midi was as high in all 13 major Flemish rail stations combined.

Belgian interior minister Annelies Verlinden, from the centre-right CD&V party, said that some 3,500 crimes were recorded around the station by Saint-Gilles commune in 2020 and 2021 - about 10 a day. In 2019, before the pandemic, the figures were even higher – 4,205.

In the face of this crisis, Sophie Dutordoir, chief executive of Belgium’s national railway operator SNCB, sent an open letter to politicians, emphasising how important it was to improve the security and cleanliness around the station, and calling for a meeting with all relevant stakeholders from local police to the federal government.

But Flemish separatist politician Tomas Roggeman (N-VA) told De Standaard that this letter, while well intentioned, would mean “everyone risks passing the hot potato to each other”.

Ultimately it is a problem that needs far more measures and finances than it is receiving, said Saint-Gilles mayor Jean Spinette.

He added: “The Gare du Midi in Saint-Gilles commune is as if the imperial ship from Star Wars had landed in a small village.”

Written by Liz Newmark