The Building Wanderers of Amsterdam
Rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave and cannot do so, even if they wanted to
In North Amsterdam, just across the river from the central station, there is a neighbourhood of shipping containers. These containers are mostly used for storage, with the exception of a couple of crunchy (hippy?) design firms. One of these containers, on a quiet street at the edge of the neighbourhood, houses over thirty men.
As I walk in, one of them shakes my hand and offers me an apple. Another one, Hossain from Libya, is happy to answer my questions. As I pull out my camera, he says: “Wait, don’t take a photo yet. I must arrange my things nicely.” He sits on his mattress, one among nine others on the floor of a room the size of a LUC single, “I must look like a good refugee.”
Held Captive in Europe
Over 100 refugees were evicted from “de Vluchttoren” on September 30th, another abandoned building they had been squatting in for four months. After packing up their belongings and cleaning the premises, the group walked to City Hall demonstrating for change in the Netherland’s flawed asylum-seeking procedure, leaving the latest of their past fourteen temporary homes behind. A number of them found shelter in this container.
Twelve thousand asylum applicants were rejected from the twenty-five thousand who applied in 2014. These thousands of rejectees have fallen into a grey area of Dutch law, and are now homeless and without means of earning a living.
Pretend you are an asylee. After being rejected, you will be told that you are not to work and rent or buy property in the Netherlands. The key legal document which defines if you can be called a refugee, your rights and the legal obligations of states to you – the UN Convention Relating to Refugee Status – also prevents the Dutch authorities from deporting you back to your home country if the situation there is considered dangerous to your race, religion, membership in a social group or political opinion.
The Netherlands deported 4,400 people last year, while 4,110 left voluntarily, the Volkskrant reported.
At this point, you may want to travel to another country to try your luck at asylum there. With your papers or lack thereof, your travel is limited to Schengen countries. You soon learn that the Dublin Agreement – a regulation under the Geneva Convention that applies to all EU countries – bans you from applying for asylum in other EU countries if you were fingerprinted on arrival to the EU, which is the case for most asylum-seekers. Local municipalities insist that providing you with housing is not their responsibility either. You end up trapped in Europe, unable to work or find yourself accommodation, stuck in a system that seems to perfectly create an illegal immigrant.
The Authorities Are Lost Themselves
Last November, the Council of Europe admonished the Netherlands for failing to provide basic amenities for rejected asylees who have not or cannot leave the country. Dutch policy makers scrambled to create a policy called Bed-Bath-Bread (BBB). The program began by turning an unused prison in Rotterdam into an accommodation centre. It lasted six months before evicting residents with a 48-hour notice.
The program has since revamped itself into two night accommodation centres in Amsterdam. The individuals I interviewed found these centres restraining. BBB residents enter the centre at 5pm and have to leave at 9am the next morning. Their night activities are restricted and they cannot leave the building between those hours. It also only has a capacity of 135 people. If a BBB resident fails to show up for more than two nights in a row, they stand to lose their spot and have to re-register.
We Are Here
In 2012, a mixed group of a hundred asylum-seekers and rejectees named themselves “We Are Here” to form a stronger collective voice. The group gained national attention when they set up a makeshift tent camp in Amsterdam’s Diakonie gardens in 2012, but attention quickly waned and newspapers moved on to “fresher” topics.
Since then, We Are Here has found a loophole to put to good use in Amsterdam, their temporary solution – squatting in abandoned buildings. Squatting, or ‘Kraken’ in Dutch, was made popular in the housing shortages after the Second World War. A vacant building could be turned into an official squat by placing three things which signal domestic occupation: a bed, table and chair. Squatting became de jure illegal in the Netherlands in 2010.
“They come and knock on the door but when they see us, they know we are refugees,” said Ahmed Omar, a former Vluchttoren resident who came to the Netherlands from Somalia seven years ago. The authorities seem to have developed an unspoken relationship with members of We Are Here and tend to turn a blind eye to refugee-filled squats. “They know it is better for us to be in here than out on the streets with normal people and tourists.”
Ahmed and many other Vluchttoren residents wandered the streets of Amsterdam before finding another building to squat in. “We have moved from house to house, building to building, street to street. I may know Amsterdam better than my home country”, he said.
Ahmed said he fled Somalia after being threatened by Al-Shabab for refusing to join their military forces. Upon hearing that Ahmed was in danger, his childhood best friend, a German citizen, gave Ahmed his passport which Ahmed then used to fly to France while pretending to be his friend. Ahmed applied for asylum in the Netherlands but was rejected shortly after.
Ahmed came to LUC last month with other We Are Here members to screen a documentary about their situation. He volunteered to give a tour of their current squats – they are spread out through three squats in Amsterdam.
The “Vluchtloods” group lives in a container office in Amsterdam Noord, close to IJ-Hallen flea market, the Smaragdgroep moves from church to church, but most members stay at “Vluchtgemeente”.
“Vluchtgemeente”, or refugee town, is a large building just a stone’s throw away from Amsterdam Lelylaan station. Ironically, the building was formerly Amsterdam North-West’s City Hall. The width and structure of Vluchtgemeente is similar to the LUC building, but three storeys tall.
Women live on the ground floor in rooms that were formerly offices. Volunteers use the main conference room to conduct Dutch language classes, and large fundraising dinners happen in the cafeteria.
Men, who form the majority of residents and refugees coming into the Netherlands, fill office cubicles on the second and third floor. Most residents have grouped their rooms geographically with the Sudanese staying with the Sudanese, and the Iraqis with the other Iraqis.
Volunteers from the surrounding neighbourhood have stepped in to lend refugees a hand in setting up their living spaces. We Are Here has an active Facebook page that they use to request food donations and provision of other basic needs. Ahmed recalls an elderly retired electrician coming into the building in the first days to help the group wire the building and tap into the electricity. Others have donated mattresses, blankets and hotplates. Piles of donated bread and vegetables line a tabletop at the entrance and are a free-for-all for the Vluchtgemeente residents. At the moment, the residents are trying to set up Wi-Fi in the building.
Katy, a volunteer with We Are Here, says that things are more stable now. She remembers when the BBB program ended and refugees were out on the street. “It was in the winter and it was cold,” she told LUC students at the documentary screening. “I took someone into my house who kept trying to commit suicide because he was driving the rest of the group to suicide as well.” Katy has recently started studying basic administrative law to give her more autonomy in helping refugees with paperwork.
The Netherlands is getting crowded. Some 24,000 refugees arrived in the Netherlands in 2014 and the Dutch cabinet expects 50,000 refugees to arrive this year. Feeling a strain on finances, the ruling coalition of the VVD and PVDA passed an agreement last month to reduce social security benefits for refugees and remove them from social housing priority lists.
“Blame the immigrant” rhetoric and capitalising on fear is a political trick that is working to the favour of anti-refugee far-right Freedom Party (PVV). PVV, who won 15 seats in the most recent 2012 elections, are shooting up the polls amid the refugee crisis. A survey by daily De Telegraaf states that PVV could command up to 35 seats in the 150 seat lower house, if elections were held today.
While Germany has agreed to take 40,000 refugees, France 30,000 and the UK 20,000, the Netherlands has agreed to 9,000, a figure proportionate to the population but does not account for a shrinking population of youth and a fertility rate below replacement ratio.
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