Brussels, the City of Sirens

Belgium is one of the safest countries in the world, sharing rank 19 with the Netherlands on the 2017 Global Peace Index of the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The Australian think tank ranks each country based on its society’s level of safety and security, the degree of militarization, and the extent of domestic and international conflict. Yet Belgium’s buzzing capital of Brussels seems to be plagued by the continuous wailing of sirens. With the threat of terror in Europe and more recently the Brussels attacks, Belgian authorities have doubled down on their security efforts both in military and policing terms.


In May 2016 the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Security Jan Jambon claimed a great success in combatting crime and attributed it to the increased military and police presence scaring off criminals. Data from the federal police indicate that overall crime rates have indeed steadily decreased in recent years. Recorded criminal offences have dropped by 17% from 1.063.153 in 2011 to 880.766 in 2016 on a national level. Yet the devil hides in the details. Whilst petty crime such as theft and vandalism have steadily decreased since 2008, more serious criminal offences such as the illegal possession of firearms, human trafficking, and terrorism-related incidents have strongly increased between 2008 and 2016

Belgium faces a bleak problem in its connecting capacity for Europe. Belgium serves as an important hub towards Europe with the port of Antwerp being the 17th biggest port in the world, and the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam. The permeable borders of the EU’s Schengen zone additionally contribute to the ease with which criminals engage in illicit activity. Illegally acquired arms became a focal point of international attention once again after the Paris attacks of November 2015, with media reporting on the Belgian role in arms trade and its history of lax arms control up till 2006. This lack of regulation on firearms has consequentially led to a big stockpile of illegal weapons in Belgium. Concrete numbers on illegal firearms are disputed due to a lack of proper oversight and neglect by the Belgian Central Weapons Registry, according to the Flemish Peace Institute. The commonly floated number of 630.000 to 1.1 million illegal firearms in Belgium is unreliable, but more recent and reliable police data indicate a strong increase in the possession of illegal firearms, cases of human trafficking and terrorism-related charges. Recorded cases of illegally possessed firearms increased from 2.393 in 2008 to 4.575 in 2016, cases of human trafficking increased from 749 to 1086 (an increase of 45%) during the same time period, whilst terrorism related-charges slowly increased between 2008 and 2013 from 139 to 218 and accelerated strongly between 2014 and 2016 from 398 to 753.

Soldiers and police patrol the Brussels’ Grand Place, located in the city’s tourist area | Dirk Waem/AFP via Getty Images

The federal police attributes the rise in terrorism-related charges to the war in Syria and the related generally increased threat of terrorism in Western Europe according to police reports on the trends of police crime statistics. It additionally notes concern regarding the possible return of Belgian nationals who have left Belgium to fight in the Syrian war. These so-called ‘returning foreign fighters’ may have been traumatized, radicalized and/or trained during their period abroad, which could impose possible security risks upon return to their country of origin. Similarly, the police report emphasises that the increase in human trafficking is linked to the migration crisis and that the majority of interceptions occur on the French border as well as along the coast en route to the United Kingdom.

Belgium has witnessed a steady decline in crime rates for nearly a decade, yet more serious criminal activity has seen a strong increase in recent years. Whilst petty crime is declining, the combination of a big stockpile of illegal firearms, porous borders, and the ongoing Syrian civil war have led to a surge in more perilous criminal activity such as human trafficking, the possession and trade of illegal firearms, and terrorism-related incidents. With the public image of Belgium on the line in the wake of European terrorists attacks related to its capital of Brussels, it is no wonder that the city is still rife with sirens.