Swipe through the demographic evolution of Brussels

Brussels is the most diverse region of Belgium. One in three inhabitants has a non-Belgian nationality. The figures on origin tell an even more diverse story. Almost 70% of the registered residents have their roots abroad.

In 2018, Brussels will have 1,198,726 inhabitants, of whom 781,619 will be Belgians.

The top 10 non-Belgian nationalities are headed by the French (63,394), followed by Romanians (39,703), Moroccans (36,225), Italians (33,109), Spaniards (28,341), Poles (24,352), Portuguese (19,474), Bulgarians (11,829), Germans (10,659) and finally the Greeks (9,161).

The nationality figures do not say everything about the diversity of the Brussels population.

Almost two thirds of the inhabitants of Brussels are of foreign origin, of which the largest group is of Moroccan origin. The figures also only reflect the registered inhabitants of Brussels.

The number of people in irregular residence does not appear in the statistics. To estimate this number is not self-evident.

Together with our digital partner Q-arts, we have developed an interactive website that explains the evolution of demography in Brussels. Visitors can search by region or municipality. They will also find the complete list of nationalities living in Brussels.

A second touchscreen – “Brussels. A Lovely Melting-Pot” – is an interactive visualisation of the Brussels demography, developed by Karim Douieb. The rich cultural diversity of Karim’s roots defines his identity and it is with great joy and humility that he has donated this work to the museum.

24 wavy panels

Brussels has not become super-diverse overnight. Twenty-four panels show the dynamics of the various waves of migration.

Guest workers from the Mediterranean region and their families

After the Second World War, Belgium is in ruins. Reconstruction requires a great deal of energy. Coal is then the energy source par excellence. Soon there is a shortage of labour.

In 1946, the Belgian government signs an agreement with the Italian government. Manpower in exchange for coal. Thousands of Italians come to work underground. This work is heavy, dirty and dangerous. The housing is of poor quality.

In 1956, a major mining disaster occurs in Marcinelle, Charleroi. A lot of Italians die. The Italian government demands better working and living conditions.

After hesitation on the part of the Belgian government, the Italians withdraws from the agreement.

Belgium is looking for new partner countries. An agreement is signed with Spain as early as 1956 and with Greece in 1957.

Many men come to Belgium to work at the invitation of the state and the employers.

They are given the name ‘guest workers’.

New labour migrants come directly to Brussels.

In 1964, agreements are signed with Morocco and Turkey. Nevertheless, the informal route proves to be much more popular than the formal one. At that time, so many employers are begging for workers that work and residence permits are quickly issued.

In 1970, Brussels has 1,075,036 inhabitants, of whom 33,641 are Spaniards, 28,354 Italians, 23,188 French, 21,852 Moroccans, 9,496 Greeks, 6,917 Dutch, 5,291 West Germans, 5,263 British and 4,347 Turks.

At the beginning of the seventies the crisis strikes. The government announces a freeze on labour migration. This does not mean the end of migration to Brussels.

It does mean the end of years of influx of young, cheap, mainly male, labour from the Mediterranean region.

Family reunification remains an important form of legal migration in the coming years, while expatriates, residents of EU countries, students and asylum seekers are granted the right of residence.

The evolution towards a super-diverse Brussels

The image of migration in Brussels is slowly diversifying.

At the beginning of the 1980s, human mobility within and to Europe is fairly limited.

Until 1985, asylum seekers are virtually absent from the public debate. The procedure is in the hands of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Local reception is provided by a private refugee network.

The Red Cross, which appeals to NGOs, smaller charities and private individuals, takes care of Hungarian families (1956) and Vietnamese boat refugees (since 1975), for example.

The local public centres for social welfare (OCMW/CPAS) bear the costs of material, social and medical assistance. The number of applications is relatively low.

This does not prevent a Brussels local authority from deciding in 1982 not to register any more foreigners. The pressure on OCMWs/CPASs is also increasing. Suddenly, the story of refugees and migrants is on the political agenda.

In 1986, during an emergency meeting, the government decides to open the Petit-Château in Brussels as an asylum centre.

On 14 November 1986, an asylum seeker from Ghana is registered as the first resident in the Petit-Château. During the years, the centre takes care of more than 80,000 people.

War and instability leads to a permanent influx of residents with a number of peak moments: The fall of the Wall (1989); the first crisis in the Balkans (1993), the second (2000); the conflicts in the Great Lakes region (2000); Iran (2000); Syria (2011); Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (2015).

The presence of the Petit-Château, the Immigration Department and the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons contributes to the diversification of the Brussels population.

In addition, the presence of the European Commission and the international institutions also leaves an important mark on this diversification. The number of European civil servants rose from 300 in the 1950s to 40,000 today. The enlargement of the European Union also ensured the free movement of workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, among others.

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