As a crime journalist in Tirana, I spend my days visiting crime scenes and courts and writing about the widespread drugs, prostitution and murders across the city. In Brussels, crime defines at least three main districts in Brussels. After all, the capital is not just high-rise buildings, the Place de Luxemburg and the Grand Place; it’s also Schaarbeek, Anderlecht and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. These three boroughs in the north and west of the city are mainly populated by immigrants; around 80, 000 people are Arabs and Africans, whilst at least 3 out of 5 criminals in Belgium are not Belgian-born citizens.
As a criminal journalist, I’ve learnt how to recognise faces. I see these faces as I enter Schaarbeek in the mid-afternoon. There aren’t many people around in this northern part of Brussels, but the mix is mostly Turkish, Moroccan and African. In Molenbeek in the west, residents have attacked police cars with molotov bombs and stones; during the muslim riots of September 2009, they were even pelted with gas cylinders. Internet videos record the moments where police keep guard in the street leading into Molenbeek, throwing water on crowds of people.
Official Belgian police data indicate an increase in petty crime in the first six months of 2009
Anderlecht seems to be the most dangerous district; in early February it was reported that the Institute Supérieur Industriel de Bruxelles was moving its campus away because of the increasing muggings of its students in the district. Official Belgian police data indicate an increase in petty crime in the first six months of 2009. The police advise residents not to leave their homes in case of burglaries. ‘My television antenna was stolen when I left Brussels for a few days with my family,’ says one Albanian immigrant over a café in Schaarbeek. He has lived here for years, part of the-between 30, 000 and 60, 000 Albanians in Belgium. ‘In most cases, citizens do not receive much information. I used to live in Molenbeek, where I saw a person slaughter three people with a knife with my own eyes. There was no news in the media or any police communication about the crime.’ I find no official responses as to the causes of this criminal increase, but this elderly resident puts it partially down to the crisis. ‘In 2009 many Albanian, Arab and Turkish immigrants job cuts after the crisis; they’re the first to be fired or to get lower wages.’
Over in the Rue d'Aerschot or Aarschotstraat, the sex industry is also struggling to get out of the economic crisis. ‘Many people come and spend here, but fewer of us make it here,’ says one Bulgarian sex worker, 19, who moved here a year ago. Other girls confirm that their income is lowering. For years, the red light district was a refuge for the local economy, but even this business has declined. As a crime journalist, I don’t find myself writing happy endings in Albania, a country which has applied for EU candidate status; but it seems there are few in Europe’s bureaucratic capital too.
*for arms trafficking and holding C4 explosives and dynamite as well as Albanian police uniforms, in an investigation dating from 2008