The topic of refugees in the Netherlands often serves as a litmus test for people’s pre-existing political views. Asylum seeker are used as emblems for political party platforms, whether crowing about successful integration or seizing upon stories of criminal activity.
But how informed are these opinions on both ends of the political spectrum? How much do most people truly know about the range of conditions in the camps across the country? Who are the people that end up in these camps, and how did they get there? What is their fate when their applications – and eventual appeals – are denied?
By Traci White and Evi Kiorri
According to the Central Bureau for Statistics, in 2018, there were 20,500 asylum seekers and 6,500 of their family members in the Netherlands. In total, there are up to 250,000 refugees living in the Netherlands, most of whom are already naturalised.
But who are they and where are they coming from? In the Netherlands, according to Vluchtelingenwerk, most refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia in search of a new life free of persecution. People seek asylum for a wide range of reasons, but international law can be very strict when it comes to granting asylum status to applicants.
The IND website says that applicants in the Netherlands are eligible for asylum if they have “real reasons to fear persecution” in the form of torture or inhumane or cruel and unusual punishment due to “race or social group, religion, nationality or political convictions”; if they have a legitimate fear of random violence due to an armed conflict; or if a family member recently received an asylum residence permit.
What rights do asylum seekers have once they are here? Jacquline Egbers, spokesperson for the northern region of the Central Opvang Vluchtelingen (COA), has been a part of the organisation for more than 20 years and has seen every stage of the system. She says that public perceptions of conditions in the camp tend to wrongly envision applicants living in the lap of luxury.
“We regularly hear from people that think asylum seekers are just taking without giving back and that they lead a pampered life”, she writes via email. “What people don’t realise is that asylum seekers in a reception centre have to live in one unit together and that they have to share their facilities with complete strangers. Their weekly allowance is the same as a welfare recipient gets, and they have to pay for many things themselves.”
How refugees and asylum seekers themselves feel about their legal rights also depends on where they come from and their prospects of being allowed to stay in the Netherlands. People who have come to the Netherlands on the grounds of medical necessity are deeply grateful to have access to world class health care. People who are fleeing a war zone are likely to feel profound relief to be out of immediate harm’s way, even though their own sense of safety is often shaken by post-traumatic stress disorder, concern for relatives left at home and coping with the trauma of seeing their country destroyed.
|THE ASYLUM PROCESS
If an asylum seeker manages to make it to the Netherlands, what does the application process actually entail? After initial inspection by the Royal Netherlands Military Constabulary (Marechaussee), registering in Ter Apel, undergoing multiple medical exams and a six-day rest period,applicants meet with a non-government affiliated lawyer and the IND (with an interpreter) conducts an initial interview with applicants about their “identity, nationality, journey to the Netherlands and reasons why they left their own country.”
On day two of the process, applicants’ lawyers discuss the first interview. On day three, the asylum seeker takes part in a second detailed interview with the IND. On day four, another meeting with the lawyer and interpreter takes place, and in theory, by day five, the IND will begin considering the case.
If the IND notifies a person that they intend to decline the application, the applicant can discuss this with their lawyer and appeal to the IND. On day seven or eight (although the process can take up to 28 days, and an extended procedure can take up to six months), applicants should hear one of four possible responses:
If the IND decides on option four, the applicant is taken to a secure section of a reception centre and banned from entering any other European countries. The applicant is put in touch with the Dienst Terugkeer en Vertrek(Repatriation and Departure Service) (DT&V) to “help you arrange repatriation to your country of origin”. Denied applicants are also provided with information from the Internationale Organisatie voor Migratie (International Organization for Migration) (IOM) “if you want to leave the Netherlands of your own volition.”
Denied applicants are meant to have up to 12 weeks to prepare to leave the Netherlands,butthey can also appeal the IND decision, during which time the courts may let him or her remain in the country. People who are meant to leave can be placed in a vrijheidsbeperkende locatie(VBL). “Under certain circumstances, the Ministry of Justice and Safety is legally permitted to deprive a foreign national of his or her freedom in order to eventually deport him or her.” This approach is considered a last resort.
Falling through the cracks
Even though the staff at the COA camps are dedicated to creating safe conditions for their inhabitants, there are some holes in the asylum law that make it easier for some people – including children – to fall through the cracks. NRC reports that over the past five years, 1,600 children have gone missing from AZCs, some of whom may now be living with family in bordering European countries, but some of whom may have ended up being exploited. Most of the children are from Morocco or Eritrea.
Dutch LGBTQI+ organisations have criticised the policy of requiring confirmation of some applicants sexual or gender identity and the lack of protections in some facilities for queer people. There may be some temporary comfort in the knowledge that they have escaped persecution or eventually being ‘outed’ in their home country, but they often end up sharing space in Dutch camps with people who exhibit the same disdain for LGBTQI+ people that their home country did. And for people who have been deemed “stateless” under Dutch law, there is often a feeling of hopelessness and being trapped with no future here, no country to go home to and no freedom to travel somewhere else.
In recent weeks, revelations about how the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Safety effectively hid the number of crimes allegedly committed by asylum seekers have cost VVD secretary of State Mark Harbers his job: Harbers announced he would step down on the 21st of May. The figures included four alleged rape cases and 31 attempted murders, which DutchNews.nl reports were classified as “other” and therefore could not be traced back to asylum seekers.
Around half of the reported crimes were supposedly committed by asylum seekers from countries that have been deemed “safe” by the Dutch state, primarily from eastern Europe and northern Africa. Individuals from these “safe” countries have also been accused of being disruptive and violent on the bus line that serves the Ter Apel asylum seekers centre. The bus line, with a 5 euro round trip ticket price, has been in service since mid-May and should run for the next three months. The bus drivers themselves told the Dutch newspaper NRC “true asylum seekers” do not cause problems.
Jacquline Egbers acknowledges that there is also a misconception within the general public that the COA is somehow responsible for the conduct of the residents outside of their facilities. “Many people also seem to have the impression that the COA can ensure that asylum seekers always behave and live here without problems, and that we are responsible if someone behaves irresponsibly”, she says. “We just try to provide them as much guidance as possible and to prepare them for life here with information during conversations with our residents and by putting them in touch with the right agencies.”
Since 2015, in an effort to handle an increased number of asylum applications, the Netherlands has had its own list of 60 safe countries of origin. These are nations where the Dutch national government has deemed there is no indication of torture or inhumane treatment, or evidence of persecution based on race or religion. De Volkskrant describes how many applicants from these safe countries travel from one European country to the next, even though their home countries are not seen as a risk. While the countries on the list are not active war zones, many offer only limited financial opportunities for inhabitants, but seeking to improve your economic or job prospects are not sufficient grounds for asylum.
There are different conditions that asylum applicants have to meet in order to qualify, such as coming from somewhere that the Netherlands has not deemed a safe country of origin (with potential exceptions for LGBTQI+ individuals and medical necessity). One group that is in a particularly complicated position are Palestinians.
The conundrum for Palestinians born outside of Palestine, typically in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, is that if they are not granted asylum, they have no officially recognised nation to be deported back to. Unless they have taken on Jordanian or Lebanese citizenship, they are classified as “stateless”, as are a number of other ethnic and religious minorities, namely Mollucans (from Indonesia, due to the Indonesian National Revolution to end Dutch colonialism), Roma, people of Surinamese descent and migrants from the former Soviet Union.
Like most of Europe, The Netherlands is not one of the 137 UN member states that officially recognises Palestine as a nation. In 2018, Trouw pointed out that The Netherlands is also one of only a few countries that does not have a standardised procedure for stateless people, which means that those individuals have no legal means to ask for a court to officially recognise them as stateless. The one apparent exception to the rule is Palestinians who were living in Syria and fled the ongoing civil war there: they are considered refugees of war.
A 2011 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called out The Netherlands for this legislative limbo, but the existing legislation has yet to be amended or addressed by the Dutch parliament. In June, the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam announced plans to help residents without a nationality to become recognised as stateless due to the lack of action by the national government.
Beggars can’t be choosers
Stateless asylum applicants in the Netherlands are not allowed to work, cannot open a bank account, cannot attend university and are not permitted to travel abroad. Like thousands of Palestinians, Hasan and Bakir*, who have been living with their families in a freedom-restricted camp in the Frisian town of Burgum for years, both spent much of their lives outside of Palestine, moving around the Gulf states for work. Ending up in the Netherlands was not Bakir’s goal, per se. He says that as asylum seekers, beggars effectively cannot be choosers: the country where they are taken to depends on how much they pay, who transports them, and the means of transport. But the fact that accepted asylum seekers are eligible to apply for Dutch citizenship after five years (stateless individuals can apply after three) makes the Netherlands a logical place to try: “I did not want to pass my statelessness on to my children”, Bakir says.
Bakir, his wife and their four children came to the Netherlands two and a half years ago, and have been engaged in a protracted legal battle to obtain asylum status ever since. Bakir says that the family heard back from the IND six months after they arrived that their application was declined, and then the family appealed the ruling in the courts. This resulted in two different rulings, once in their favour and once against. The family appealed again to the Dutch high court, a process which lasted one and a half years, but that was ultimately denied.
Bakir’s most urgent concern is the fate of his 16-year-old daughter: once she turns 18, the family fears that she will have to leave the camp. According to the COA website, minors are entitled to accommodation at the asylum seekers centres until they turn 18, at which point they will have to go through the same procedures as adult asylum seekers. “This is a very dangerous situation for us”, he says.
Engbers says that families who are seeking asylum, including those in the freedom-restricted facilities like Burgum, can remain in the camps until their youngest child turns 18. “If their child’s 18thbirthday is approaching, these conversations are intensified and we notify them of the consequences of making certain choices when their kid turns 18,” Engbers says. “If people cooperate in their departure, then they can continue preparing at the freedom-restricted location in Ter Apel. If they choose not to, then the family’s accommodation will no longer will be provided after their youngest child turns 18.”
Engbers confirms that the Burgum facility where Bakir and Hasan are living with their families is a freedom-restricted location “for asylum seekers and their children who have exhausted their appeals.” Living in the camp means that adults have to check in on work days and they are not allowed to leave the municipality without express permission. If the adult camp inhabitants fail to check in once or twice, they face a fine of 6 euros – the third time they fail to show up, the Dutch Alien Police will be notified, and he or she will be designated as a VOW: person departed, destination unknown.
|LOCATIONS OF AZCs IN THE NETHERLANDS
There are 12 asylum seekers camps (AZCs) located across the north, most of which are in Friesland and Drenthe. In total, these northern facilities can accommodate roughly 7,920 inhabitants.
Photo source: Screenshots from COA
After a brief phone conversation, Bakir walks over to his fellow Palestinian resident Hasan’s home and knocks on the door. When he is on the line, his frustration with the restrictions of the camp and the futility of his family’s position is palpable in every word. “These kinds of camps are pushing residents to be aggressive toward the community”, he says.
Hasan worked in marketing and risk management for a bank in Dubai for ten years, at which point he says the country would not permit him to remain any longer. He says that the Dutch people he and his family have met have been lovely, but the isolated camp does not even feel like it is a part of the Netherlands.
In addition to the daily fines and travel restrictions, Hasan says that he has witnessed alarming incidents where in-camp health facilities turned away pregnant women and botched surgeries. Engbers says that like all COA facilities, medical care in Burgum is provided by the GZA (Gezondheidszorg Asielzoekers), and that the level of care provided at all camps is the same. “If anyone has complaints, they should notify the GZA”.
In personal terms, access to education has also been challenging for Hasan’s family: he says that his son, who has a learning disability, was not allowed access to schooling for about a year. Engbers says she cannot comment on individual cases, but that all school aged children in the camps are supposed to go to school at facilities provided for by the municipality.
It’s not really important for me to stay in Europe
Hasan’s family has now been waiting for two years for the DT&V (Repatriation and Departure Service) to find another country that is willing to take them. The authorities have reportedly been reaching out to Lebanon and Somalia, which Hasan says he knows are unlikely to accept them. But where they go next does not matter a bit to Hasan: “I would go to the Gaza Strip if it was possible. It’s not really important for me to stay in Europe”.
Both of the men are well versed in the rights that asylum seekers do or do not have in the Netherlands and other European countries, and they have tried every logical legal route. There are some exceptions for stateless people, including something called a vergunning buiten schuld for people who cannot leave the Netherlands through no fault of their own. According to De Volkskrant, even though statelessness is not recognized as grounds for granting a resident permit, many Palestinians who come from Syria are recognised as asylum seekers because they are fleeing a war zone.
There is a lot of terminology that gets tossed around in conversations about asylum seekers in the Netherlands. Here is a list of definitions and explanations of the various agencies, statuses and resources that are involved – and how much they cost.
AZC: Asylum Seekers Centre. Run by the COA (Central Organisation for Asylum Seekers),there are 60 opvanglocaties– reception centres – for asylum applicants across the Netherlands. Inside the AZCs, each adult receives an allowance of 44 euros for food and 13 euros for other general expenses. They are allowed to earn up to 14 euros a week doing jobs inside the centre. Refugees are allowed to work up to 24 weeks a year outside of the camp, and a portion of their salary goes back to the AZC.(source: vluchtelingendata.nl)
Bed-bad-brood: Literally bed, bath and bread, these are not residential facilities but rather reception facilities. There are five such facilities across the Netherlands – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven, and Groningen – which accommodate around 1,500 asylum seekers (the so-called restgroep) in total whose asylum requests have been denied. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has allocated 48 million eurosfor a pilot to run the five centres.
COA: Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, which is responsible for the reception of asylum seekers and preparing them for a future in the Netherlands or elsewhere. In 2017, it cost 735 million euros to provide housing at the COA centres across the Netherlands, to pay their staff, to provide on-site health care and other general living expenses (roughly 37,000 euros per asylum seeker).
DT&V: Repatriation and Departure Service. This government agency provides personal supervision, travel documents and certificates, and handles forced departures for denied asylum applicants. (source: english.dienstterugkeerenvertrek.nl)
Economic migrant: A person who leaves their country of origin purely for economic reasons that are not in any way related to the refugee definition, in order to seek material improvements in their livelihood. (source: ec.europa.eu)
Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. (source: oxforddictionaries.com)
IND: Immigration and Naturalisation Service. This Dutch government service works with every foreign person who wants to travel, live and work in the Netherlands. The IND works with regional international welcome centres in the Netherlands to provide local service and processes asylum applications. The IND is a part of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Safety. (source: IND.nl)
Migrant: While there is no formal legal definition of an international migrant, most experts agree that an international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. (source: refugeesmigrants.un.org)
Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War or ethnic, tribal or religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
Staatloos: A person who has been rendered stateless (no passport, unregistered birth) due to the collapse of their country or region, or its lack of legal recognition: Palestinians, Rohingya (Myanmar), Kurds (Turkey and Iraq), Roma and Mollocans (Indonesia) are considered stateless in the Netherlands. There are currently around 4,000 recognised stateless people in the Netherlands, and they can apply for Dutch citizenship after three years. There are up to 8,000 who have not yet been recognised.
Statushouder: A “status holder” is an asylum seeker with a temporary or conditional residence permit (Van Dale, 2012). Once they have been granted a permit, they are eligible to receive welfare and have a right to social housing, but an ongoing housing shortage in many major Dutch cities means that many approved applicants remain in the camps for a long time.
Veiligelander: A citizen of a safe country, this is an asylum seeker who comes from a country on the Dutch list of safe countries of origin. The official Dutch government policy is to send people who come to the Netherlands from these countries back home. (source: taalbank.nl).
Verblijfsvergunning: A permit which allows a person to live and work in the country where he or she is a resident. In the Netherlands, these can be granted based on a relationship with a Dutch person, being a highly skilled knowledge migrant, a student, an employee, an asylum seeker or refugee, an au pair, or a foreign investor.
Vergunning buiten schuld: This residence permit is designed for people who are unable to leave the Netherlands through no fault of their own, according toDe Volkskrant. The IND only grants this permit very sporadically, and a person will only qualify if they can demonstrate that they have done everything within their power to return to their home country (source: vreemdelingen-advocaat.nl).
Vertrekplichtige asielzoekers: Asylum applicants whose application has been denied and are required to leave the country – in theory – but they often end up living in bed, bath and bread (bare minimum) facilities because their countries are not technically safe enough to return to.
Uitgeprocedeerden: Similar to vertekplichtige asielzoekers– asylum seekers whose application has been denied and are expected to leave the country within 28 days or be forced out. Some stateless individuals and other denied applicants may end up staying in certain camps or at the bed-bad-brood facilities relatively indefinitely while appealing their denial or awaiting the DT&V to find a country that will accept them.
Some asylum seekers, especially those facing multiple unsuccessful legal appeals, may end up in bed-bad-brood facilities like the one run in Groningen by INLIA. Last year, the non-government organisation and asylum seekers interest group INLIA celebrated its 30th anniversary. But Helmer Roelofs, one of the group’s coordinators, did not take pride in that milestone: he would prefer that the foundation did not need to exist in the first place. By the year 2019, Roelofs says that the problems that asylum seekers face should have already been resolved.
INLIA was founded in 1988 by a group of churches and religious communities in the north of the Netherlands in response to the many hundreds of people who would come knocking at the church doors as their last resort when their asylum applications were rejected by the Dutch government.
Roelofs says that after receiving a negative response to their request for asylum, applicants were left alone and hopeless. “The church has given sanctuary to people in need – not to hide them, but to demand the attention of the authorities”, says INLIA’s coordinator.
Initially, the church and the community would ask government authorities to revisit their decision and re-evaluate the documents and the file of the asylum seeker again. “The decision can be made based on incomplete information, or documents that haven’t been translated correctly, or interviews that have gone wrong”, explains Roelofs. “You cannot decide and properly examine the cases in 8 days”, which is the standard length of time within which the Immigration and Naturalisation Services, the IND, aim to evaluate each asylum application.
Bed, bath, bread
The INLIA foundation started by providing legal advice, informed in part by fact-finding missions in the countries of origin of the applicants that they presented to the IND and the court in the hopes of changing Dutch asylum policy.
But in 2000, INLIA faced a major challenge: a change to Dutch law meant that applicants who were rejected would wind up homeless without any government support. “More and more asylum seekers were put on the street. They had the right to stay in the facilities during the first round of the procedure, but if they go for a second round or if they ask for a regular residence permit or to study, they’re on their own”, says Roelofs.
Another obstacle is the housing shortage. Even in cases where asylum applications were approved, many people remain in the shelters due to the lack of available houses. “They were waiting in our facilities unable to integrate”, he says, which meant in turn that new asylum seekers had to wait for a spot to be freed. In 2016, INLIA decided to create another shelter in Eelde to host the asylum seekers who expected to be relocated in their new homes. “We introduce them to their new neighbours and the surroundings, so when they move there they can integrate more easily”, INLIA’s coordinator says. The Eelde project will remain open until 2020, but the future past that point is uncertain.
INLIA and the regional religious communities asked the local authorities to take action for all the people that lived in the streets. A collaboration between the municipality of Groningen and the local churches emerged in the form of bed, bath, bread (bed-bad-brood), an emergency aid shelter for homeless asylum seekers, in 2015.
Roelofs says that INLIA’s goal is to give asylum seekers their lives back. The main focus of the foundation is to provide new opportunities to asylum seekers to build their lives again. “We don’t offer a microwaved meal, but we offer them money, pots and pans, and we show them the way to the supermarket so they start taking care of their own lives”, INLIA’s coordinator says. “We try to engage them. We provide English classes, Dutch classes, painting, sewing, sports facilities – things that can ensure a normal life”, he says.In many cases, the asylum seekers are undocumented or the government has doubts about their nationality and their identity, which makes finding a solution very challenging: asylum seekers are trapped, as they cannot stay in the Netherlands nor can they return to their countries without their identification documents. In those instances, INLIA contacts the embassies of the country of origin or sets up appointments for the asylum seekers to get documents that prove that they are who they claim to be.
“What we try to do is help people regain their identity and their nationality”, he says. “Our ambition is to initially help people that are in need, but also to try and find out where the policy is going wrong”, Roelofs continues. The local churches are supporting INLIA economically, and the municipality of Groningen is covering the rent of the hotel, the rent of the boat and the wages of the employees. At the same time, private donators can get a tax reduction by supporting INLIA.
In Groningen, INLIA hosts between 50 and 300 asylum seekers at a former hotel and a boat. Some of them are lucky and stay in the shelter for a couple of weeks and they find a solution, while other may stay for a couple of months or even years. “Some of them came in when we started, and they stay still with us”, says Roelofs.
*These are fictional names which are being used to protect the identity of the interviewees. Their real identities are known to the Northern Times staff.
Photo source: Directie Voorlichting/Flickr