More and more crime at Brussels South Station: 'Tourists have never seen anything like it'
Police officers attacked, community streetworkers giving up, fights and stabbings: incidents in and around Brussels’ South Station Brussel Zuid are mounting as local residents’ feelings of insecurity peak. What is going on in our country’s busiest rail station and can the situation be turned around?
"We always advise our customers to come straight to the hotel and not to speak to anyone on the way," says hotel manager Abel of the B&B hotel overlooking the South Station Brussel Zuid. "It’s worse than Paris here. Many tourists have never seen anything like it. This is no good for the image of Brussels."
And that image is damaged further with each incident. Just last Saturday, as reported by the daily Het Laatste Nieuws, a family from Antwerp filmed how a missed train turned into "a night of horror" during which they witnessed several brawls. It is yet another example of violent and drug-related incidents rocking the neighbourhood, and in the meantime the police seem to be struggling to control the situation.
From the beginning of 2023 until the end of May, Brussels South Zone police carried out 238 security interventions in the South District, Prime Minister Rudi Vervoort (Francophone socialist/PS) told parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee last week. "In the meantime, the number has risen to about 300," Sarah Frederickx , spokeswoman for the South police zone told Brussels media outlet Bruzz.
"We are very busy and attend scenes with many more officers than normal patrols. The South Station also gets extra attention in the South Zone’s summer plan. Police ensure an increased police presence in difficult neighbourhoods."
What has this yielded so far? "Hard to quantify, but thousands of charge sheets have been issued and hundreds of arrests have been made," Frederickx says.
Yet the sense of insecurity in the neighbourhood still seems to be on the rise. Manager Paolo Morandini of the Italian restaurant Amodo Mio can’t take much more. Only last Friday morning the glass door of his restaurant was shattered by vandals using a heavy parasol base. Marks on the metal frame of the door show where the thieves tried to get in, he says. He’s looking for another job after the holidays.
Things are not much better for retailers in the station. At both Dunkin’ and a grocery shop selling Belgian specialities, the police have to be called several times a week. The local Sushi Shop has even installed a real "panic button" under the counter, to contact railway security directly. "I’ve only had to use it twice myself," says a student worker. Whether she likes working here? "If I had the choice, I would leave immediately."
"We are aware of the problem and have also hired our own security people and installed cameras here” says spokesman Dimitri Temmerman of Belgian rail. “The railway police have direct access to the cameras. This year we have also already increased the number of joint checks carried out with federal police by half."
In coming years the railway company is also banking on the renovation of the old postal sorting office, which should become "a new entrance to the station and include several commercial outlets". According to Temmerman, this will upgrade the entire neighbourhood.
"Even if the neighbourhood is upgraded, a railway station will always remain a place with many tourists," says police spokeswoman Sarah Frederickx. "Often we see that crime is very much focused there." On top of that, the spokeswoman also points to the rapid rise of crack use in Brussels as a cause of the increasing number of incidents. "Crack certainly triggers more violent incidents. Users need a new dose more quickly. This causes very aggressive thefts, to get hold of money for a new dose quickly."
For the short term, the police believe that cooperation between the various security services at the South Station in particular could provide solace. "The problem is that there is no unity of command, which is actually a typical Belgian problem. Everything that happens inside the station is the responsibility of the federal police, while everything outside ends up on our plate. Especially the federal level is struggling with a huge shortage of manpower. That means we have to sort a lot of things too."
Police Zone South has asked for a more integrated approach. That proposal is also currently under review. "Only if we join forces can we improve the approach," Frederickx told Bruzz.