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Brussels residents open their homes to migrants

Growing numbers of migrants have flocked to Brussels in recent months. Belgian immigration services are overwhelmed so locals are stepping in to help.

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Brussels residents open their homes to migrants

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Maximillien Park in Brussels is the Belgian capital's unofficial gathering point for migrants and refugees.

Growing numbers have flocked to the city in since the Calais "Jungle" - a shantytown in the French port city - was dismantled in October.

Belgian immigration services are overwhelmed so locals are opening their homes to foreigners in need.

The Gilis family went to Maximillien Park to see what they could do to help.

"When my dad suggested it to us, we had to think about having a quote-unquote stranger live in the house," says Charlotte Gilis, "but in the end we agreed to it very quickly".

"There are six of us at home," Dimitri Gilis, Charlotte's father, explains. "Two little ones, my partner, the two older ones and me. So if we're going to have someone to stay they obviously have to sleep somewhere. It's the two older ones who gave up their room so we could accommodate two people". 

When the volunteer host movement first started in September, just 10 families came forward. Now activists say more than three thousand families have offered to help.

"She's learning, she's interested in understanding more about migration policy, in digging a little deeper," Mehdi Kassou, a spokesperson for the BXLREFUGEES volunteer group, says after talking to Charlotte Gilis. " I think it's great, it's the most beautiful part of this whole experience".

The two migrants from South Sudan who go home with the Gilis family travelled across 20 countries before they got to Belgium.

They've arrived at a time when both Belgium and the wider European Union are engaged in heated and often bitter debates over migration policy.

"It's pretty hypocrytical," Dimitri Gilis says. "On the one hand we say we welcome people and on the other there's very little solidarity between European states. In the end it's the countries who serve as the port of entry for Europe who are overloaded".

"This family in Brussels is very, very good. People in Belgium are very kind, they love everyone. And we return that feeling," says one of the migrants at the Gilis house, who didn't want to give his name. "These people have welcomed us. I don't have any problem in submitting application for asylum here". 

As the Gilis family spends its first evening with its new guests, Belgian lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow police to seach private homes if they suspect them of sheltering unauthorised migrants. People who host or help the migrants could also be sanctioned.