BRUSSELS – ‘’I am scared. Everyone could be an attacker’’ says the Belgian sex worker Marie* (64), who has been working in the Linnéstraat since ’92. She has become more careful and doesn’t let everyone in anymore. ‘’I am alone, my dog will not protect me if someone attacks me. I’d rather lose €30 instead.’’ In the last few years she has seen the street change dramatically. From friendly to aggressive. ‘’The sex workers here are unsafe and the street is lawless.’’
At the beginning of November there were two attacks of abuse and violence in the Linnéstreet. The first one was on November 1. Two men – one of them was a minor – walked into the “carré “* of a 63-year-old Nigerian sex worker strangled her, threw her on the floor and hit her. They searched for her money and left her for almost dead. The second attack was a week later when a man broke into another Nigerian sex worker’s home (60 years old). The man threatened the woman with a knife, dealing blows to her before fleeing home by car with cash, with the woman later taken to the hospital.
These attacks were not the first to happen in the Linnéstraat. In June last year, a Nigerian sex worker (23) got murdered, and according to Utsopi, a collective for sex workers, there has been an increase of violence in the street since 2016.
In the Linnéstraat all the red lighted rooms are called ‘carres’, which means that you rent the ground floor of a house. The rules say that only one woman can work there and its allowed to be open for 24 hours a day. Marie calls a carré ‘a place where everything is allowed’.
Contradictions and dividing lines
The Linnéstraat is part of the red-light district in Brussels North, an area around the North station. When you look up you see a couple of shining skyscrapers from big Belgian banking companies. However, if you look up on the other side of the station you do not have to look that high up and you will see dust on the – cracked- windows of the old buildings.
Brussels North is also split into two municipalities; Schaerbeek and Sint-Joost ten Node, where the Linnéstraat is located. In both of the areas there is a red-light street. The difference is according to Daan Bauwens from Utsopi, a collective for sex workers, the regulations. Even if these two red-light streets are separated by a small alley with a falafel shop on the side, the life of a sex worker is very different in each street.
Red lights arrive late
Marie is one of the very few Belgian sex workers in the Linnéstraat. The rest are almost all Nigerian women. When you walk into Marie’s “carré“ it is almost like you are walking into her living room. She is watching tv, a speech of Macron on French tv, and sits in her comfortable white leather chair on the small platform in front of the red-lighted window. Her tiny barking dog dances around and only calms down when he sits on her lap. While smoking Marie grabs her phone and starts the story about the attacks in her street by showing pictures. She slides through them. It is that kind of pictures that you need to close your eyes, look away and then look at it again. It is painful. Marie tells that the women has been beaten with a metal bar. You can see the dents of the blows.
The above stairs neighbours heard the noise and called the police. ‘’That saved her, because when they walked down on the old wooden staircase the loudly creaks scared the men away’’ says Marie. The ambulance arrived immediately, but the police took an hour to get there. ‘’Even though the police station is around the corner.’’
Police zone spokesperson Audrey Dereymaeker says it was a busy night. ‘’There were many incidents that evening with higher priorities than this incident.’’ What mattered to the police was that the attackers were already gone. ‘’We could not do a red-handed act. That made the incident less of a priority that evening.’’ The police did stay in touch with the ambulance, but Marie does not believe this. ‘’I was there when the ambulance arrived and took the women to the hospital. When the police arrived, they were surprised that the victim was not there anymore.’’ According to her proof that the police did not stay in touch.
‘’But the logic of this attack is strange. It is different than usual.’’
The victims of previous attacks and acts of violence are young Nigerian women tells Marie. They have a lot of customers and therefore automatically more cash lying around in their “carré.” The attackers act at first like a customer, they have sex and after it they start complaining that it was not good enough. They demand their money back, ask for more cash and start abusing the women. With these two attacks the victims were old Nigerian women and the abusers did not have sex. Straight after they walked in, they started the violence.
The increase of violence started according to Daan Bauwens (Utsopi) since 2016. ‘’With the previous mayors of Sint-Joost ten Node the red-light district was part of the neighbourhood, but Emir Kir, the new mayor, wants to get rid of it. He created a dividing line between the neighbourhood and the Linnéstraat.’’ Bauwens calls his new regulations a ‘political strategy’.
Mayor Kir said to Bruzz that he wants to make the Linnéstraat a ‘neighbourhood like everywhere else.’ He is therefore massively investing in the street. In 2018 the mayor bought eleven buildings to make residential houses out of them and there are more to follow. According to Marie he is buying the houses way above market value. ‘’He has bought a house of seventy square meters for almost three hundred thousand euros’’
Next door to Marie the new mayor has bought a house as well. She does not think the houses will turn into a residential house. ‘’They put concrete on the front door and on the upper floors they open the windows for a tiny bit.’’ It’s quite indiscrete. You really have to stop walking, stand still and look above. ‘’When it is raining, it blows in and slowly creates mould on the walls, but in the long-term the mould will go to the house next-door and it will become unliveable.’’ The mould has not reached Marie’s house yet.
‘’According to the new mayor buying houses is a way to combat human trafficking’’ says Marie. ‘’However, with this strategy he is trying to move out all sex workers.’’ She even thinks human traffic is now more than ever. ‘’Right now, there are almost no regulations, everything is allowed.’’
Eggs and stones
When you walk into the Linnéstraat you see small groups of young boys. They stand close to each other, shake hands and exchange drugs. Marie tells that she also often sees young boys in her street who support the mayor. They throw eggs and stones against the red-lighted windows. ‘’They want to harass us, but especially the Nigerians.’’
She thinks these boys want to terrorize the neighborhood and scare away sex workers. ‘’They want to create insecurity, so that customers do not dare to come anymore. This will also mean less income for us.’’
Police zone spokesperson Audrey Dereymaeker says that she has never heard any information about the harassments. However, Bauwens says that the Nigerian sex workers simply have no leg to stand on. ‘’They do not speak any of the national languages and are afraid of the police, because they fear that they will be sent back home.’’ Only in case of an emergency they will call the police, like one of the attacks. ‘’Sex workers hardly ever contact the police’’, says Dereymaeker. ‘’We realize that we are not aware of everything that is going on in the neighborhood. We are not naive.’’ SafetyAccording to Bauwens there is no real investment in the safety of the neighborhood of Sint-Joost ten Node, while in Schaerbeek the situation is much better. Dereymaeker disagrees with this. ‘’There is no difference in the amount of safety in both neighborhoods.’’ She tells that the police treat the areas as one zone. ‘’The fact that it is about two municipalities does not matter. They both have the same amount of police patrols.’’ However, there has been more attacks in the red-light district of Sint-Joost ten Node than in Schaerbeek. According to the police it is not possible to increase the amount of patrols in the Linnéstraat. ‘’We simply have not enough manpower for that.’’ But would more police in the street be the solution if the Nigerians are too afraid to approach the police? ‘’I cannot say anything about that’’, says Dereymaeker. ‘’It would not matter’’, says Marie. ‘’There are patrols right now as well, but we hardly see them, and they arrive late when there is an attack.’’ According to Marie the police and the municipality should listen to the needs of sex workers. ‘’Not announce new regulations without talking to us.’’ Otherwise nothing will change according to her. ‘’The sex workers will remain unsafe and the Linnéstraat lawless.’’
* Marie is not her real name. This is the name she uses as a sex worker. Her real name is known by the writer.