By Ina Schebler
– Sheyi greets the men unloading shopping carts and carrying the stuff up the wooden stairs that make it possible to enter the parking garage. He passes by them and walks into the dark staircase that leads several floors up to his room. The stairs are dirty, the walls smeared with letterings often featuring the slogan “Geen mens is illegaal” (No human is illegal). His room is tidy; all blankets lie neatly folded on the beds. His lunch, rice and chicken, is simmering in a pot on an electric stove. Some friends are drinking tea on the table in the center of the room. However, his room is far from an ordinary Dutch apartment.
The ceiling’s panelling is partly hanging down, isolation material falling out. Most beds are marked off with cloths of various fabrics, colours and patterns hanging from lines stretched across the room. The windows are covered as well, dimming the light but not the freezing cold that prevails in the whole building. Sheyi, wearing a blazer and white shirt, shares the room with seven other men. He likes nice clothes and says if everything in your life is against you, then you at least have to make yourself happy. The building, called Vluchtgarage (Refugeegarage), is squatted and inhabited by around 120 people of mostly African and Middle Eastern origin who came to the Netherlands to seek asylum, but whose applications got rejected. The room looks indeed how one would imagine a refugee camp in a conflict ridden crisis area, but this is Amsterdam and these people are legally not recognized as refugees.
“Can you imagine you run away from your country and you come here and you are expecting to get a better life, but when you come here they take your fingerprints and they hear your story and they say: ‘We don’t believe you’”, says Bushra. Like Sheyi she is part of We Are Here (WAH), a self-organized protest and action group of around 400 rejected asylum seekers that formed in 2012. Their goal is to make themselves visible and break the silence that veils their existence and living conditions. That a group of undocumented migrants raises so much awareness and is so present in the media and public discourse, makes Amsterdam’s situation unique and causes politicians, from the municipal to the national level, trouble.
Sheyi came from Nigeria and applied for asylum in the Netherlands. However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) rejected his request, which means that he had to leave the country. Like many others, Sheyi did not leave. Resham flew from Nepal to London with a valid visa in his passport, expecting to be able to return and continue leading his jewelry and handicraft business after some weeks. At some point the visa expired and the situation back in Nepal had gotten even worse. Today, he calls it the worst mistake of his life deciding to apply for asylum in the Netherlands. He spent three years in a refugee centre near Groningen and in foreign detention. Because the Nepalese government did not cooperate, he could not be returned to his home country once his application for asylum got rejected. Instead, he was put in front of the gates and told he had to leave the country on his own responsibility within 48 hours. But where should he have gone? He cannot return, he cannot stay here and whenever he enters another country, they will see that his fingerprints are registered in the Netherlands and following the Dublin Regulation they will send him back there. So, he started a protest in front of the gates and after some days more and more refugees joined, the media turned up and one asked him kindly to leave. When he refused to do so, they explained that he had to go to Amsterdam because there were organizations to help him. He got his transport paid and then slept on Amsterdam’s streets.
“You are not allowed to be here and you can’t leave,” describes Ernst van den Hemel of their situation. He is on the management board of the foundation Here To Support (HTS), which provides the WAH group with a legal framework. The refugees themselves and supporting organizations argue that it was either too dangerous for them to return, or their countries of origin did not cooperate. Djoelia van der Velden, intern at Refugee Organizations Netherlands and volunteer at HTS thinks that the Dutch asylum system has many flaws. For instance, it is the refugees’ responsibility to prove that they have a legitimate reason to seek asylum. However, this is difficult for people who might not have official papers, whose government is mired in conflict or who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and find it hard to talk about their experiences. “I find that strange, because asylum is supposed to offer people protection. I think it should be the other way around: Your asylum should be rejected when there is proof you are not in danger”, says van der Velden and points out that many WAH members are from Somalia. “Somalia is the number one failed state of the world. Everybody knows that and the Netherlands just keeps insisting on sending people back there. I think, as long as you do that, it shows that something is either wrong with your information, with you as a government, or just a lack of interest in human beings. And I find that very disturbing.”
Amsterdam’s municipality, on the other hand, is convinced that almost everyone could return if they wanted to. Raya Kirzner is the advisor of the mayor in these matters and describes the difficult situation that the municipality of Amsterdam finds itself in: “It’s really easy to only hear the sad stories and the inhumane parts of the stories, but it has to be put into perspective and seen what the possibilities are for governments to work with this group.” Oddly, the municipality’s position is quite pitiful as well, as they are trying to balance orders from the national government with the demands of the WAH people protesting in front of their door, as well as dealing with pressure from the European Commission of Social Rights (ECSR). On November 10th, the ECSR ruled that the Netherlands had to provide undocumented migrants with shelter, medical assistance and food. In December, the municipality opened the Bed, Bad en Brood (Bed, Bath and Bread) night-shelter (BBB), which can house up to 75 people.
Resham sleeps in the BBB. He has to leave the former Kindergarden building at nine in the morning, can only return at five and gets breakfast and dinner there. He can bring one big and one small bag, which are locked in a storage room because personal belongings, except for the most necessary ones, are not allowed in the shared dormitories. He mostly spends his days in public libraries, parks or talking with organizations or his lawyer. Resham is currently trying to get his case opened again, but he does not want to stay in the Netherlands. He wants to go to England or, even better, to India, to where his family fled.
Usually, Sheyi is a calm guy with a smile on his face, trying his best to radiate dignity and ignore the fact that many consider him to be just a homeless refugee. After the WAH had fought in court for months, the inevitable happens on March 31st and the police appear in the Vluchtgarage. They tell people they have to leave by April 8th. While volunteers help the WAH group to move mattresses to storage and the inhabitants try to find shelter at friends’ places, Sheyi’s despair breaks the dams of self-control and floods his hope away. In a voice filled with panic, anger and despair he says: “I want to work. I want to have children. I want to have a wife. I want to have a key to my own house, not for a Vluchtgarage.” He does not have any friends in Amsterdam that could host him.
The week before the Vluchtgarage’s eviction is also stressful for Harrie Herfs. He is the BBB’s manager of care and policy advisor for the NGO HVO-Querido, which the municipality pays to organize the shelter. Although the WAH group announced that they refuse to go to the BBB, Herfs prepares a second shelter for another 60 people, in case they change their mind. WAH finds it inhumane that one has to stay on the street during daytime, but Kirzner says: “We have a lot of strict regulations to follow and I know a lot of people are not happy with that. They think we should do more and we should do otherwise, or we should do 24-hour shelter. But Amsterdam thinks that if we arranged that for people, they would never have the motivation to go and seek a better life elsewhere other than being illegal in Holland.”
“How can a human being be illegal?” asks van der Velden. “They are not illegal, because they cannot be illegal as a human being (…). Maybe them staying in the Netherlands is illegal, so that places the illegal part outside of them as a person.” However, their legal status has far-reaching implications for the individual persons. If Sheyi’s presence in the Netherlands is illegal, he is not allowed to work, which means he does not have any legal means to earn money. That in turn implies that he cannot buy food or pay the rent for a flat without external support. Lacking those basic needs, he can hardly justify having a family. One time he says: “I want to marry a black wife. I want to marry a white wife. I want to marry a Chinese wife. I don’t care! I just want to marry. Let me be a husband! Let me be a father!”
“I look like I don’t have a purpose in my life”, says Resham examining the photo in an exhibition. The picture shows him sitting in the ASKV office, a Amsterdam-based NGO that supports rejected asylum seekers in their reapplication for a residence permit and provides them with the basic means to survive. Resham often spends his days there to use the Internet to do research on organizations, institutions, laws and the news. From there he writes letters to ministers, invites Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and calls the BBC. He has folders of collected documents, letters and articles. He knows about laws, treaties and rights and he is angry about the Dutch system. His most often used sentences seem to be “I am totally dissatisfied” and “day by day I am waiting.” Just like Sheyi, he sees his life being wasted waiting.
Camiël Siebler and Tuğba Özdemir are social workers at the BBB. They have to enforce the rules that others higher up in the system have decided on, and they are the ones who know the refugees personally. Özdemir finds it hard to send people out in the morning, especially the women, because they are even more vulnerable. Siebler says: “In the beginning I was feeling guilty.” Now he does as much as he can to support “his boys”, as he calls them, by simply treating them with respect and as human beings. “It’s not nice to send someone on the street”, he says and adds “you can’t change the world by yourself. That’s not possible.”
The police escort the remaining refugees, supporting protestors, volunteers and WAH members from the other three places that they live in from the Vluchtgarage to Amsterdam’s city hall. Sheyi is not among them. He went to the south of the Netherlands close to the German border. He still doesn’t know where to go or what to do. The procession of people carrying bags, backpacks, suitcases and banners causes a sensation in the city centre. Journalists buzz around them and record interviews, even more so when the refugees announce they will not go to the BBB, but sleep on the street, visible to everyone. In that week, the BBB and undocumented immigrants are the number one topic in parliamentary discussions and the national news.
Savannah Koolen, founder and coordinator of HTS, thinks that discussion about shelter draws the attention away from the actual issue, namely that asylum laws have to change. “We really have to admit that there are people who cannot return to their home country. And in the meantime, when people are here, they need to have education, they need to have a prospect in life, they need to have the right to work.” The municipality clearly refuses to provide this, mainly because even the very basic BBB is already only tolerated but not legalized or supported by the government. Kirzner says, sometimes it feels like the national government makes laws and a system that was designed that if people aren’t getting a permit, they are leaving back to their countries. Only in daily life you see that people who don’t get the permit don’t leave but stay. So then it’s a local problem and not a problem only in The Hague. Koolen says, “Nothing is arranged and everybody knows that these refugees in limbo are in the Netherlands.”
Siebler thinks that providing a bed, bath and bread is a good start. However, it is just treating the symptom, not dealing with the actual problem. “The BBB takes care for these people in this vacuum situation, and for the time being it’s okay, but it cannot be a permanent solution”, says Herfs. He would like to add some kind of perspective to the homeless fugitives’ lives, and he would prefer to provide a full-day shelter, but first the WAH members should accept the BBB. He says about them: “They are staying out of any kind of control” and cause the municipality a lot of trouble. However, Herfs proposes that once their basic needs are secured, one could talk with the municipality about further arrangements. He thinks if all undocumented refugees that are living in Amsterdam came to the BBB, those would be numbers that one couldn’t ignore anymore. Whether the BBB is a peace-offering by the municipality or a tactic to hide the problem behind four walls, is open to interpretation.
It indeed seems like interpretations play a determining role in the prevalent conflict. Every involved party tries to work within the legal space and with the means they have. However, between those with the most decision-making power to those whose lives are determined by those decisions, some crucial information seems to get lost: They are not just illegal immigrants, they are humans. Sheyi and Resham are not different from any other person. They are not the problem. They have a problem.
Resham’s last words in our first interview are: “It’s a disaster. It’s a humanitarian disaster.”