Belgians take to 'refugee holidays'

By Stephen Castle
Tuesday 07 January 2014 04:57
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Holidaymakers must be in bed by midnight and even the management says the food is basic. But, since it opened to the public on 17 August, a holiday centre at Westende on the Belgian coast has welcomed a judge and a politician, and attracted media attention from as far away as Finland.

The centre, called De Passage, is home to 300 asylum-seekers and is the setting for a social experiment. So far 32 Belgians have enrolled, each paying ¤19 (£12) for full board. Guests can use the centre's facilities, which include a swimming pool and sports area.

The director of De Passage, Claudia Larson, says most of the holidaymakers want to understand better how the other half lives. "It is not possible to have a normal holiday here," Ms Larson says. "People ... cannot drink in the centre or smoke in the rooms. Breakfast is a piece of bread with cheese, no buffet. The meal is basic, average Belgian food, which comes with water."

The intention is to redress the negative stereotypes surrounding asylum-seekers. Guests are given information on how the system works and invited to play football or basket ball with the centre's more permanent residents. Ms Larson admits that some refugees were initially concerned they would be participating in a human zoo, but says they are now positive.

"They say, 'When we walk down the street no one wants to greet us; these people have come especially to have contact with us'," Ms Larson says.

But the real education is for the holidaymakers. "One woman came here with three children and she wanted to show them life doesn't always revolve around Game Boys and PlayStations."

The initiative has proved only a modest success. More than half the 80 beds set aside for holidaymakers are empty, although De Passage is expected to attract a large number of school groups once the new term begins next month.

But by any standards De Passage is never going to compete with Club Med. One Belgian newspaper journalist who spent a night there incognito noted that after a "very frugal meal" at 6pm there was "no communal activity and no place for people to gather. Everyone goes back to their room."

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