(In)security at the VUB campus

“You can’t trust everyone”


At the beginning of the second semester, de Moeial sent out a survey to all VUB students. In this article you will find the results of the 335 fully filled in surveys. 207 students of campus Etterbeek took part, 62 of the respondents study in Jette and 3 students are staying on campus Kaai.

By Maud De Vos — Translated by Anna van Wuijckhuijse — Images: Alan Jockmans
“Students on campus Jette feel less safe than the students on and around campus Etterbeek” read the headline of de Moeial in 2013 after a survey by the Student Council  to which the VUB reacted with some extra measures. A lot of concerning facts have surfaced since then. Bomb reports, attacks, harassment stories, warnings for pickpockets and more. Has something changed in the past five years? How safe does the average VUB student feel? Where can you go when you’re in danger? And do students in Jette still feel less safe than the students on campus Etterbeek? de Moeial asked this to the students in 33 questions. The survey only shows the results of a sample of the VUB population, but does give a good indication of the campus safety experienced by the students in 2018.
“Sexism, racism and homophobia are unfortunately still a reality in our society, and also on our campus. We can’t bury our heads in the sand now.”
Lisa Wouters, VUB-meldpunt

Open borders, closed doors

We start optimistically, 86% of all participating VUB students feels safe on campus. There is no significant difference between campus Etterbeek and Jette, only on campus Kaai 2 of the 3 participating students felt really unsafe. A large majority (77.6%) of all respondents think that all VUB campuses are equally safe, nevertheless, 14% sees the other campuses as more dangerous. Countering this, a small 7% view campuses in other cities as more unsafe. Campus Etterbeek is known for its island like atmosphere, a green, Dutch speaking space in the middle of a busy capital city. The fact that the rector wants to bring the students into the city is no secret, but does the VUB student want the city onto the campus? 35.5% of the respondents would prefer a closed campus over the current situation, so a campus onto which not everyone can enter. A striking result regarding the current policies of the VUB, since the rector works especially hard to create an open campus in the big city. The majority of the candidates for the next Student Council are also not in favour of a closed campus, although they do want to open a debate about this if that is what the students want.

Remarkably, 67% indicates that the infrastructure of the campus might influence their safety feelings. Are these feelings justified? Professor Criminology, Elisabeth Enhus, specialized in, among other things, safety and metropolises explains: “There are a lot of factors that lead to  an unsafe feeling, but criminality is usually not one of them. The amount of punishable crimes that happen in an area is only loosely correlated with the unsafe feelings of the population.” So we don’t have reason to fear now and then? Numbers show that 6% of the participating students has been robbed on campus. Also the security office has noticed an increased amount of reported thefts. Pickpockets in the cafeteria, stolen laptops in the dorms, bike cages against the disappearance of bicycles, … Serge Gilen, head of Facility Services, talks about the dangers of a capital city: “We live in a small community, however, it’s located in a very public area in Brussels accompanied by all of the dangers of a capital. Students just have to be careful.” Liesbeth Fieremans, coordinator of security at the VUB agrees with this: “Students rely on the mutual social control that plays a big role, they go to the restroom and leave their laptop behind without supervision for example, but you can’t just trust everyone.”

“Can it become safer? Yes, I think so, but with security measures you always have to take privacy into consideration,” explains Gilen, “In Leuven and Hasselt, and I think even at our neighbors the ULB, they have a ‘campusflik’ (a permanent police agent on campus ed.). Does that improve the security at night? No, but you do get more visibility during daytime. But that is currently not being considered.”

The security isn’t only there to open buildings or guide drunk students to their dorms. Gilen: “First and foremost we stand for the security of the buildings and the members of the university. But we also have a lot of other smaller activities, like first aid, or when someone loses their keys and sometimes we’re even unfairly used to receive packages.” These side-activities happen because the security is available on campus 24 hours a day. Fieremans “Students can really always call us, our phone number is written on the back of your student card and next year the first years will get a list with the most important phone numbers.

Justified fear or socialized behavior

The VUB has 15,939 students this academic year, of which 3,411 internationals. The respondents of the survey give a representative image of the reality regarding gender. With 60.8% female, 37.8% male and 1.3% non-gender-specific. However, we only managed to reach 9.2% international students, which is a lot lower than the 21% internationals walking around at the VUB.

There are no significant differences  between these groups, even though more men indicated feeling safe than women (91% versus 82%). That doesn’t surprise Enhus: “The insecure feeling of women lies strikingly higher than that of the men in our society. Young women almost exclusively have this feeling out of fear of being sexually abused. All possible dangers are also often pointed out to women at a very young age, which later translates into a built in reflex to avoid certain roads, take precautions when going home alone at night or even not take to the streets at all. A recent study of young women in Brussels showed the same image: women feel like hostages as they can’t move through the city freely because of all sorts of mechanisms that they themselves have created, especially by avoiding groups of men. The city will always be some sort of embodiment of our patriarchal society. Because of that behavior, an inverted movement is actually taking place. Consequently, women preventively stay away, there is less violence against them. The group with the most victims in all forms of violence and theft is young men. This is what we call the ‘fear-victimization paradox’, those who are most frequently the victim are the least afraid. And vice versa.”

That tendency isn’t drawn from the results of the VUB survey, no differences were found between the genders in coming into contact with violent or inappropriate behavior. In total 43% of the respondents has encountered a form of violence or theft, under which 47% has experienced more than one form of violence. The most frequent occurrences are catcalling  (75 cases) and verbal violence (44 cases). Additionally, seven people indicated being drugged, ten students already experienced being spied on and two people have been raped on campus. There were also other disturbing situations written down by students in the questionnaire like homophobic violence, a rating being screamed at you on a scale of 10 or being followed by someone.

Lisa Wouters, co-founder of the VUB-meldpunt (a hotline for inappropriate behaviour) reacts: “There have been notifications since the official establishment of the hotline, both from students and staff, about different forms of verbal and physical abuse and violence. This isn’t really surprising. This kind of behavior happens everywhere where you find interactions between people. Sexism, racism and homophobia are unfortunately still a reality in our society, and also on our campus. We can’t bury our heads in the sand now.”

Fear or danger? Call 11 11

The VUB doesn’t leave its students alone when it comes to security. Even so, 37% doesn’t know where to go if they ever feel unsafe on campus. Also, 30% of the participating students doesn’t know about the campus emergency number. Fieremans: “This emergency number is 24/24 available and you can call it whenever you feel unsafe or are in danger. We really try to increase our publicity amongst the students. I was at the Kick-Off and there are a bunch of posters around the university.” When someone does contact the security services, it is usually for practical reasons. For example to report a stolen bike or lost keys. 61% never needed to (or never did) contact the security services, only 43% of the people who did this had the feeling that actions were being taken after the statement. Gilen reacts: “That question is often asked, but we can’t give information about all cases. Sometimes because it’s part of an ongoing investigation, but we’re also bound to professional secrecy and the laws of privacy. Our cases are transferred to the police, but we don’t communicate about this. All reports are kept and considered, it’s therefore really important that students report cases because otherwise we can’t take them into consideration”, stresses Fieremans. “On another important note, we always refer students to other workers like the study guidance center, where you can go for psychological help”, Gilen continues.” And we always encourage people to report it at the meldpunt. So that the incident is also registered in their administration and the needed measures can be taken.”

Wouters confirms this again: “Of course, every case of inappropriate behavior is one too many. However, safety can never be achieved for 100%, but we are trying our best to make it as safe as possible for the students. That’s why it’s extremely important for students to report anything that bothers them or that they’ve experienced. But still a lot of students indicate that they won’t call the available emergency number when they feel unsafe. Reasons for this are that they’re scared that the security won’t react fast enough, they’re scared their problem isn’t big enough or they directly call the police to safe time. Fieremans: “We prefer  someone calling too quickly over not calling at all. When you call the emergency number, someone will answer within three seconds and because we know the campus and are located very centrally, we can immediately be there.” Gilen continues: “Of course you can always call the government emergency services, but you should also inform us. Imagine there’s a gas leak, you can call the fire department, but also warn the security. They know the procedures to receive and guide the emergency services, and also handle the communication linked to such incidents.” The emergency number can also be reached with the internal lines on 1111.

Nighttime economy and mental cards

64% of the asked students feels least safe on campus between sunset and sunrise. The rest always feels the same level of (in)security. Although only a small amount of students indicated feeling unsafe on TDs. “The fear at night time isn’t a new phenomena”, says professor Enhus: “If you look at old cultures, and even now, night is always seen as a threat. That is molded into the human identity. The last decades, the so called ‘nighttime economy’ has introduced itself. Promoting nightlife has been a conscious strategy for many cities to advertise their city. That is accompanied with going out and consuming alcohol, and as an additional consequence also with disturbances and violence. It’s as if there’s a cleavage between normal life and nightlife, people are going out in a group and then amplify each other’s behavior. In a group you can do things that you’d never do alone. This is a known phenomenon with which especially British cities are struggling at the moment.”

Another phenomenon described by criminology is the ‘fear of the other’: “The idea of ‘the other’ arose from urban studies, and this is quite interesting, it explains that people sort of have a mental map of the spaces they know. Where you go shopping, where you go out, and so on. We know approximately what kind of people live there, how things work, in short you can say that this is the normal day to day life in this neighborhood. Once you exit this space, although this isn’t proven yet, it might be that you feel less safe because you don’t have this knowledge. If there’re often groups of people in your neighborhood, this is no longer something that makes you feel unsafe. When you see this in an area you don’t know, the whole situation changes.” With this you can clarify the perception of why students don’t dare to study in Brussels. “If you’re from a protected environment in which you, for example, only came into contact with Flemings, and then all at once get confronted with an extremely diverse city like Brussels, where 110 nationalities all live together, it is possible that ‘the other’, people who speak a different language, have different habits, wear different clothes… can create a feeling of unease. But is this really a feeling of insecurity? I’d rather define this as unease or unknown.”

White knight politics

In the survey, students were asked about their feeling towards military presence on campus. Since the attacks in March 2016, soldiers regularly patrol on and around campus. The respondents indicated that the presence to the military makes them feel neither safer nor unsafer on campus. “Those soldiers  are not even allowed to do anything, but we do disable the entire operation of the army and police force. You can’t imagine what dramatic consequences this has (like big pressure on family and social life of militants, limitations of training possibilities for foreign missions and bad consequences for the daily work of the police, ed.). And those measures don’t do anything, it doesn’t help against criminality. It’s pure populism”, says Enhus.

Enhus continues: “I think that this feeling of fear is enlarged. It’s important that the perception of it being unsafe here is countered, we have to be clear that that isn’t the reality. In the name of insecurity there have already been countless measures which have only lead to more rules, more control and more cameras, through which we have to give up a big part of our safety if we continue with this. I find this cheap talk. The Western world has had a constant decrease in criminality since 2010, even the amount of attacks have gone down in comparison to the past. The only thing that has changed, is that everyone can be affected now, which makes it infinitely more difficult to deal with because we can no longer avoid it. We call that the ‘reassuring gap’: we’re not succeeding in convincing the people that criminality is statistically decreasing as the insecurity feelings are only increasing. Does this have anything to do with the mass media that reaches us every day? Feelings of fear are also stimulated by stories of others, that often start to lead their own lives. This is just playing in the hands of rightwing white knight politics.”

Therefore, fear and unsafe feelings aren’t easy to describe, let alone research the whole concept. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the security of the VUB community doesn’t deserve any attention. Wouters: “Students can go to many places on and around campus to talk, ask or report certain behaviors. Security is also a serious point of attention in the new campus masterplan that’s currently being developed.” Enhus concludes: “To a certain extent, feeling fear is very healthy, maybe it’s some sort of gut instinct, we can’t blindly walk into problems.”

Security: 02 629 21 76, Infopunt: 02 629 20 11, Emergency number: 02 629 11 11, Contact hotline: meldpunt@vub.be.

Also read:
(On)veiligheidsgevoel op de VUB-campussen
Hoe weinig we weten over onveiligheid
VUB-studente misbruikt op campus Jette

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