This Is a Refugee Camp


Zoe and I got an email the other day from Stephen Dau, a writer and expat who’s been living in Belgium the last ten years or so. He wanted to draw our attention to his current project, a series of reports from the refugee camp that has sprung up, seemingly overnight, in a park in the center of Brussels. Since the beginning of September he’s been documenting life in the camp, interviewing residents and volunteers, for a series of blog posts. Though the camp may disappear any day now the refugee crisis will not, and Dau’s close, humane read of the complicated reality of life in this one (relatively) small camp provides a perspective on the crisis I’ve yet to find elsewhere, and one gravely needed. His intimate, nuanced approach to this sprawling story is the sort of literary reportage that finds little purchase in the 24-hour news cycle. In his words:

This crisis is about refugees, certainly, as people, as individuals. But it is also about global income inequality. It is about ‘western privilege,’ the idea that the accident of where you are born determines almost entirely where you are allowed to travel during your life, and your income level and your health and your life expectancy. It’s about security: no one has any idea who these people camped out in the park in Brussels really are, and it’s a fairly safe bet that some of them, if not many, were carrying weapons in Syria or Iraq a month ago. It’s about the role of the mafia and other groups that prey on the vulnerable, who are charging 1100 euro a head for every single migrant they traffic. That’s a massive windfall. What are they going to do with all that money?

It’s about politics. The crisis has unleashed in Europeans the human, humane instinct to care for these people, but at the same time unleashing a right-wing, neo-nazi backlash (see the Golden Dawn party in Greece, esp. but also others). It’s about the political football these people have become, and it’s about the politics of NGOs, as agencies like the Red Cross and Oxfam spar over who gets to take credit for running the refugee camps, thus ensuring their own visibility and, therefore, continued financial contributions.

And it’s about the blowback of US policies in the Middle East the past ten years. This is what happens when you spend 2 trillion dollars and nearly a decade of time violence-ing a place. There are consequences. It really does feel like chickens coming home to roost.

He’s got four reports up so far; we hope to have more from him featured here on the Rumpus in a few weeks. Give the first set a read here: This Is A Refugee Camp.

Martha Bayne is a writer and editor in Chicago. She is editor-in-chief of Belt Magazine, an ensemble member with Chicago's Theater Oobleck, and author of Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time (Agate, 2011), a narrative cookbook drawn from the long-running community meal project she organizes at Chicago's Hideout bar. For more go here; find her on Twitter @marthabayne. More from this author →