What follows is not the description of a futuristic movie, nor is it the description of a well hidden place in a remote region of a totalitarian country or a far-fetched story; what follows is the description of a place located in Belgium, a country that proclaims itself to be welcoming and respectful of human rights. The description is as neutral as possible.
Once upon a time, ten years ago or so, a government decided to build a place away from prying eyes where human beings arriving at the airport without the correct documents could immediately be imprisoned. These correct documents enable human beings to stay for set lengths of time in this land of plenty called Belgium, itself located inside Fortress Europe that allowed itself to choose who had the right to reside in it and who had not. Hence this government, prompted by the nationalist right party, since then forbidden – the Vlaams Block- decided to build a ‘centre’ to stick all these foreigners who had been ‘selected’ upon their arrival. This centre belongs to a private company called ‘Biac’, and it is rented by the State (the State rents the space to a company to imprison people on a territory that is not entirely Belgium since it is a no man’s land…).
Magnificent today! Building works finally over, and the centre baptised ‘Caricole’ because of its circular shape (so as to disorient its inhabitants?) has come out of the blue to become reality.
Located next to its fellow brother the 127bis made for people waiting to be deported (repatriation centre), the Caricole can be accessed from the airport through a direct door. It cuts a fine figure there in the colourless fields, all round with its wooden panels that already look rotten. However, to be able to see those panels, one must slightly screw up one’s eyes because the building is surrounded by frightening solid black wire nettings, around 4 metres high, all thorny. Besides, certainly for security reasons, it is surrounded by moats that have not yet been filled with water… And an armada of cameras is watching and watching…
Located only a few metres away from the Brussels National airport runways, it has 90 places in theory.
But don’t worry, inside the centre one can not hear anything of the air comings and goings, everything has been very well soundproofed. In this brand new house, everything is immaculate white.
For the moment, around fifty ‘residents’ are detained there.
The staff consists of a hundred people employed by the Foreign Office, and of about twenty people employed by private companies for food and cleaning.
Everything has been planned and organised: interview rooms for meetings with lawyers, visitors’ room where the ‘residents’ may welcome visitors, not alone one to one but in a big room with 5 tables and 6 chairs. There is even a corner where children can play, everything planned! Walls, ceilings and doors are all painted in white. Visits are allowed from 2 to 4 p.m. The staff, almost all there, is composed of social assistants and guides, nurses and doctors at the disposal of the residents. Contrarily to what happens in the other centres, here there is no uniform, the people dealing with the detainees are all dressed in civilian clothes. They are not guards but guides. They can speak several languages.
A watching station with multiple screens enables to watch the surroundings and entries of the centre in real time.
Rooms have been foreseen for the ‘intake’, i.e the welcome of the residents. There they get information sheets in several languages. There they have the medical examination which consists in a standard check-up and if necessary special examinations. It is also the place where they get the ‘fit to flight’ certificates which means that they are OK to be deported. They have a locker where they can leave their goods, they get a mobile phone with which they may use their personal card. If they wish to ring their lawyer or the Foreigners Office they may do so for free. They each have a badge to access their bedroom. Circulation is free, they may even go to the courtyard between 7.30 a.m and 10.30 p.m.
The courtyard is not big, about 2x60m², and the other spaces where they can play football or basketball are only accessible if accompanied with a guide – because of the external wire nettings.
Everything is painted white, except the corridors which indicate the color of the ‘aisle’ – blue, orange, brown, … everything looks the same since we are in a circular environment.
Now, what would a centre be without any isolation cell? About 3×4 m, with a bed and a toilet as only pieces of furniture. The ‘windows’ remind of arrow slits because there are only two and they are approx. 10 cm wide and 1,50 m high, and the only view from there is the fields’ emptiness.
There are other rooms: a library, a room for table tennis and fitness, Internet access for issues related to asylum, creativity room… Opening hours are indicated just like any other information on the doors, in Dutch only. Would this no man’s land territory be Flemish?
There are two big relaxation rooms with free access. One has a television and a billiard table, and there is also a smokers room. The two big rooms are under surveillance since one space between both is occupied by guides, in the other space looking like a counter one may ask for tea or this kind of things for example.
Bedrooms also are painted in white, they have two, four or sometimes six beds. They had been foreseen for families but, respecting the law, they are not used for that or only occasionally for one night before a deportation. Bedrooms are free of access during the day, they have a TV that is on between 7 and 10 a.m and between 7 and 11 p.m. They have a bathroom and a toilet.
Meals are taken together at the canteen, self-service, the food is correct, the acoustics is disastrous, like everywhere else in the centre anyway.
That is a description of the place. It does not mention the feelings of the people who are imprisoned there. As organised and sterilised as it may be, the Caricole still remains a place that is concealed from view, with detainees waiting weeks and weeks for their case to be dealt with … with only planes and fields behind barbed wire and firmly-closed windows for a view.