deBuren’s Checkpoint Europa series focuses on refugee crisis


Debates, film screenings and other events at the Flemish-Dutch culture house explore the EU’s response to the current mass displacement of people from Syria and other war zones

The great asylum debate

Imagine if every year people in Belgium were asked to vote in a referendum to decide how many refugees from war-torn countries like Syria would be accepted into the country. How many would you vote for? How many thousands would you be willing to accept? Would you, given the choice, perhaps be unwilling to accept any at all?

The idea comes from one of the participants in a debate taking place in Brussels on 6 October, organised by the Flemish-Dutch culture house deBuren and part of a series of events over the next three months on the theme of migration.

There’s barely a day goes by now when the refugee crisis is not headline news. For several months, Brussels has seen a growing number of asylum-seekers, unable to be processed rapidly enough by the authorities and camping out in tents provided by the Red Cross in a nearby city park.

The people of Brussels have rallied to the cause, turning up in hundreds to volunteer to cook for the refugees, translate for them and administer the tonnes of gifts brought to Maximilianpark by thousands of other well-wishers – food, clothing and toys. The generosity of ordinary people was such that the Red Cross eventually had to cry halt: There was simply too much for their services to handle. 

“The Checkpoint Europa series is concentrated on diversity with an emphasis on migration, hospitality and border policy,” says Ann Overbergh, a programmer for deBuren. “We always work based on what’s happening in the world, so we keep up to date with what’s urgent. We noticed when we were finishing our programming for this half-year that we were all working a lot with migration themes, probably because we all felt it was becoming so urgent. So we decided to put everything together.”

Point of view

The series includes a book launch, a play, a discussion with journalist Jef Lambrecht, three documentaries and debates (see below). “We always approach our topics from the point of view of different disciplines. We have documentaries, we have debates."

We knew they were going to come, but we decided to bury our heads in the sand

- Karel Smouter

As far as “different viewpoints” are concerned, the most radical probably comes from British lawyer and journalist Luke Gittos, who writes for Spiked Online and takes a libertarian stance. There is no one, however, from the “Fortress Europe” tendency of the right wing.

“I would have liked to have had one of those voices on board as well because it would be more representative and provide more of a debate,” Overbergh says. “I did contact several people that I knew had a different stance, but nobody was available. I guess they knew that the majority of the audience would have a different opinion, and they would not be preaching to their own choir.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the aforementioned quota referendum idea is a suggestion from Karel Smouter, deputy editor of Dutch news website De Correspondent, and someone who has travelled to the borders of the EU to see what the situation is like on the front line.

“The bottom line,” he tells me, “is, OK, we’ve known that Syria is in trouble for four to five years now, yet as Europeans, we’re still in the mode of responding to an emergency – responding instead of preventing or taking corrective measures”.

It’s all driven by extraordinary events, Smouter says. “Every time disasters happen in the Mediterranean, you see European leaders taking action, and we’ve seen round after round of this sort of action for years now. But the only result we have seen is that more people are coming.”

Another approach

He points to a tragic paradox: Syrian refugees are almost guaranteed, under the Geneva Convention of 1951 on the treatment of people fleeing from armed combat, to be granted asylum wherever they apply. But to reach the place where they can apply, they first have to break the law – sometimes, as in the case of three-year-old Alan and thousands more who have drowned in the Mediterranean – at the risk of their own lives.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 3,000 people have lost their lives in 2015, and the number may have grown by the time you read this. In 2014, the total was 3,279.

“I will be arguing for another approach, which is more along the lines of realism about this world as it is,” Smouter says. “We knew they were going to come, but we decided to bury our heads in the sand.”

Europe is going to have to revise its relations with the countries of origin

- Filmmaker Dagmawi Yimer

His suggestion is for EU countries to decide their own quota on a democratic basis. “So they consult their people on how many asylum-seekers they can accept and then start preparing for it, instead of being overtaken by a stream of people they never thought would actually arrive. I’ll argue in the debate for more realism and a more proactive approach.”

Taking part in the same debate, which is in English, will be Dagmawi Yimer (pictured above), who fled his home in Eritrea in 2006 and made the same trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa that killed about 1,600 people in the first four months of this year. Since then he has lived in Italy, making films and working for the refugee association Archive of Migrant Memories.

“I’ll be giving a life testimony,” he says, “since I’ve been on the same journey as many migrants. I would like to describe my own experience of the journey and talk about the wishes and desires of many of the people who undertake the trip. And of course I will try to explain how I understood European policies when I migrated here, how they have changed and what mistakes have been made.”

He agrees with Smouter that the EU did not take action soon enough. “By trying to hide a problem that’s persisted for a long time, they left room for traffickers to get stronger and for local police to become corrupted,” he says.

The more Europe tries to tighten up its external frontiers, Yimer says, the more it encourages the human traffickers and turns refugees into criminals. “Europe is going to have to revise its relations with the countries of origin, resolve whatever kind of situation or war is going on. And for the duration of the emergency, those places just within the European borders should be able to gather people to be relocated within other European countries.”

Debates and documentaries

Among the other events forming part of the Checkpoint Europa series are:

A discussion in Ostend with veteran journalist Jef Lambrecht on the roots of IS, the radical faction from whom many Syrians and Iraqis are fleeing.

A performance of the play Marieke Marieke, based on the novel De vlucht (The Flight) by Johanna Spaey about a Flemish and a Dutch woman who meet when the Fleming flees her homeland during the First World War. The original is reworked by the actors, Kaltoum Boufangacha and Aminata Demba, to relate to the current situation.

Halfway Home, the launch of a book by Kurt Deruyter of photos taken in some of the areas of Brussels where migrants end up living.

Our City, a documentary by Maria Tarantino on the multiple identities of Brussels.

Zone Zero, a documentary and discussion on the Gesu convent in the Brussels commune of Sint-Joost, where in 2013 the municipal council cleared out 150 squatters, including immigrants without papers, to make way for what will eventually be a luxury hotel.

Photo top: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/Corbis
Photo above: Courtesy