On the way to the closed centre of Bruges

Few people have access to the centres in which foreigners are detained while awaiting to be deported. An associate of the Jesuits Refugee Service (JRS) takes us to the closed centre of Bruges.

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Closed centre in Bruges

Every Wednesday morning, my colleague and I are walking from the narrow streets of Bruges, where we live, to the outskirts of the city. We stop before a picturesque building with a crow-stepped gable. A closer look at the building reveals that there are grills fitted on the windows.

This is the “Centre for illegals of Bruges” (CIB). We are already in the view of the surveillance camera. After ringing the doorbell, the big metallic door slides open to let us in. We hand over our identity card to the guard at the entrance. Our belongings are put away in a locker, as we are only allowed to take writing material and mobile phones (without a camera) with us. At that moment a guard comes along, lets us through a door, and locks it again right away. We cross an inner courtyard surrounded by high walls. It is meant to discourage anyone from climbing. On the other side of the courtyard, another door opens and closes behind us. After going through a few more doors and climbing up the stairs, we reach our destination : the “day rooms” (salles de jour).

About a hundred people are gathered here, and divided in three groups : two groups of men, one of women. One can meet the entire world there : people coming from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Turkey, Ukraine, Kosovo, Albania, Brazil, and Jamaica ; Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans, many people from Sub-Saharan Africa, Chechens, Armenians, and so on. Most of them are between 20 and 40 years of age ; some are only 18, others are older. All those people do not have residency permits ; they are waiting to be sent back home. They spend the day in those “day rooms”, and the night in dormitories. Lunch is scheduled for all three groups before they are allowed out to get some fresh air in the inner courtyard.

The atmosphere of anxiety, frustration and aggressiveness, or, on the contrary, an attitude that portraits gloomy weariness is striking. The mix of so many culturally different people living on top of each other, the noise, the uncertainty about the future, and the compelling inactivity creates high levels of tension. People feel they are not treated fairly : “we are locked up like criminals, whilst we have done nothing wrong…”.

As for us, more than anything else, we try to listen to them. This is not always easy : sometimes they gather in a small group around us ; people smoke in the hall, play the pool and the television stays on. In a corner of the room, the Muslims start to pray out loud. In addition, you hear the continuous walkie-talkie conversations from the omnipresent guards. People sometimes speak a difficult mix of languages : English, French, and Dutch with sometimes some German, Spanish or Italian. My colleague also speaks Polish and Russian. When necessary, we call an interpreter on the phone for help.

At midday, we eat our picnic in a small room used for meetings between detainees and their lawyers. We then return to the “day rooms”. After having had our share of shared misery, a guard takes us back downstairs. After going through another series of doors, and discussing with the assistant-director, we get back on our bikes. We are free, but they remain locked up. The large majority of them will stay so until the “removal order” is implemented.

Do you know that there are five detention centres in Belgium ?

Pieter-Paul LEMBRECHTS SJ