The nature of a society is exposed at its margins
October 16, 2014 — Comment
Written by Kim Atkinson
This graphic account of the plight of the undocumented in Amsterdam first appeared on the web site Dreaming in Exile.
Since 2012, a group of people from a number of countries have formed a group in Amsterdam called ‘We Are Here’. There are men and women, old and young. Some have been here for many years. Others are relative newcomers. What do they have in common? They all came to the Netherlands in search of protection. Another common factor is that they have all since been denied residence – their asylum claims refused, or their temporary refugee status taken away. They have been ordered to leave the country, but have refused to do so, either because they fear for their lives if returned to their countries of origin, or because they don’t have the documents necessary to return.
In the Netherlands, refused asylum seekers who do not cooperate with their deportation do not receive provision, such as food or shelter, from the state. Since 2010, municipalities have been banned from offering them emergency shelter. This means that these people end up on the street, and are dependent on churches and charities for help. They live in the shadows, struggling to survive.
‘We are here’
In September 2012, a number of people in this situation came together in Amsterdam and decided it was time for change. They wanted to be visible and to make their situation known. They stepped out of the shadows and declared ‘We Are Here’, and ‘we need solutions’. The group gained national attention when they set up a tent camp in Osdorp, where they lived for over two months. When the tent camp was evicted, some members of the group were put in immigration detention and the rest were turned back out onto the streets.
Their next ‘home’ was the Vluchtkerk (refugee church), a squatted empty church that was turned into a cold, but at least dry, shelter where the group spent the winter. They stayed here for six months before being evicted again. Since then, the group has moved eight more times, as buildings are squatted and then after varying amounts of time, evicted.
At one point the authorities in Amsterdam offered the group six months’ shelter in a former prison known as Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven). Many of them took up the offer, but others were refused as they were not on the original lists of those that had handed their cases over to the Dutch Council for Refugees. Other members of the group refused the offer because of traumas with prisons arising from earlier spells in immigration detention or persecution in their own countries. Temporary shelter was found for a number of women and sick people. The others were literally back on the street again.
Throughout all this, the group has done everything they can to draw attention to their plight. They have held many demonstrations, engaged with local and national politicians, and held campaigns through social media. They have built a large group of supporters from all walks of life, who have helped them to survive.
The group is currently split over a number of locations including a garage (Vluchtgarage) and a squatted building (Vluchtgebouw). The conditions in these buildings are abhorrent. More than 100 asylum seekers are cramped into small spaces and there is often no running water, sanitation, electricity or heating. They are dependent on supporters to bring them food and clothing, and often to give them a place to shower or wash their clothes.
The conditions have been taking their toll on the asylum seekers in both locations, both physically and mentally. There is often not enough food for everyone and the stress of the conditions, combined with constant uncertainty about the future, fears of detention or deportation and traumas from the past, have a heavy psychological impact. Many of the group have fled from violence and conflict situations, and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Organisations such as Amnesty International, Kerk in Actie (Church in Action), and the Dutch Council for Human Rights have spoken out repeatedly about the unsafe conditions and volatile situation in which the group exists.
On 18 June 2014 the Dutch Council for Human Rights (College voor de Rechten van de Mens) visited the Refugee Garage and reported the following:
‘More than 100 men aged between 18 and 65 years currently live in the ‘vluchtgarage’. They come from (amongst other places) Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia. The property has toilets, but no showers or hot water. It is difficult for them to wash themselves and their clothes. Also, the power supply is not working properly. The men are dependent on donations for food, clothing and beds. Twice a week volunteers bring food, but this is not enough. The result is that disputes arise about food. The men have no privacy, and sleep and live close together in small rooms. Due to a shortage of space, the inhabitants now spread out into the garages and parking deck. The living conditions lead to tensions. The ‘vluchtgarage’ offers them a roof over their heads, but it is not a safe place. Some men also indicated that they had requested medical care in the hospital but had been turned away because they have no insurance.’
The Council initiated talks with the city government and the Ministry of Security and Justice amongst others, and issued the following warning:
‘The situation in the Amsterdam ‘vluchtgarage’ is getting out of hand. Therefore the Dutch Council for Human Rights calls on both the city of Amsterdam and the State Secretary for Security and Justice to take direct measures to remedy the extreme hardship. Prevent that things go so far that people actually die.’
Nothing was done. Last week, the fears of the Council came true.
Somali asylum seeker Nasir Guled died in hospital after ending up in a coma following a fight with several others at the garage. He had been in the Netherlands since 2008, after fleeing Somalia in fear for his life when his brother was a victim of violence. With tensions running so high in the garage, this was not the first fight to have broken out. It was however the first to leave a man dead, another two in police custody, and the rest of the group with another trauma to deal with.
Another man, Ibrahim Toure, also ended up in hospital last week after falling through a banister in the stairwell of the other building where the ‘We Are Here’ group is living. He is still in intensive care with extremely serious head and back injuries.
The huge number of asylum seekers dying at the borders of Europe has been making headlines recently. Much less attention is given to those living in the margins of our own society. Human rights, it seems, are not guaranteed for all, even in the Netherlands. The ‘We Are Here’ group has done a lot to make visible the plight of refused asylum seekers. There are however many more people in the same position as this group currently in the Netherlands. The conditions in which these people are living, or existing, are no less shocking.
Rights not respected
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’
This is elaborated further in the following legislation:
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
- The European Social Charter (ESC)
- International Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
- European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
- International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
In January 2013 the Conference of European Churches (CEC) lodged a complaint against the Netherlands with the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) regarding the lack of basic provision afforded to refused asylum seekers. In a preliminary ruling in October 2013, the Committee issued a ‘decision on immediate measures’, stating that undocumented migrants ‘evidently find themselves at risk of serious irreparable harm to their lives and their integrity when being excluded from access to shelter, food and clothing’. The ECSR implored the Dutch government to:
‘Adopt all possible measures with a view to avoiding serious, irreparable injury to the integrity of persons at immediate risk of destitution, through the implementation of a coordinated approach at national and municipal levels with a view to ensuring that their basic needs (shelter, clothes and food) are met.’
As yet, no action has been taken by the Dutch government. In July 2014 the ECSR issued its final ruling. The State Secretary for Security and Justice, Fred Teeven, has made it clear that he is not yet going to take any steps to comply with the ECSR’s recommendations. Since the death of Nasir Guled, when organisations including Kerk in Actie, Amnesty International and the Dutch Council for Human Rights have again called upon the government to offer basic provision to refused asylum seekers at risk of destitution, he has said that supporting those who do not have the right papers to be on Dutch soil would be to declare the asylum system ‘bust’. The mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, has declared that his hands are tied and he can do nothing while national policy forbids assistance by municipalities.
The ECSR decision was not the only expression of concern the Netherlands has received from the international community. In May 2014 a German court refused to send a Somali asylum seeker back to the Netherlands, where he had been refused asylum, under the Dublin Regulation (which asserts that an asylum claim must be dealt with in the first EU country in which an asylum seeker sets foot). The court’s reasoning was that, if returned to the Netherlands, the man ran a considerable risk of being subjected to ‘inhuman treatment’. The German court affirmed that ‘Human values cannot be qualified by asylum policy.’
The Netherlands is a party to many international human rights agreements, is currently ranked fourth in the world in the Human Development Index (HDI) and often holds a very high position in human rights rankings. As such, the country plays an exemplary role in the area of human rights. It is simply not good enough for it to ignore the advice of the European Committee of Social Rights, the Dutch Council for Human Rights and organisations such as Amnesty International, and to maintain that allowing refused asylum seekers access to basic provisions necessary for their very survival is not an option because it does not fit with the country’s current migration policy.
The reality remains that although the authorities would prefer that asylum seekers left the country as soon as their claims are refused, for a number of reasons there are still large groups of these people living here in dire situations. It would be naïve to assume that policy in this difficult area of migration could ever cover all eventualities. Exceptional cases and situations that do not fit within the tidy edges of the policy will continue to occur. Third countries will refuse to cooperate in the provision of travel documents, conflict will cause large numbers of people to flee and will leave large numbers stranded, mistakes will be made in asylum procedures and refused asylum seekers will do their best to avoid deportation back to situations where they fear for their lives. It is necessary to work on resolving all of these individual issues simultaneously. It is unacceptable to let people suffer in inhuman conditions and die on our streets while doing so.
They say the nature of a society is exposed at its margins. What does that say about us?
Kim Atkinson is part of Transnational Migrant Platform and is currently taking an MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. She blogs at Dreaming in Exile.
Read an IRR story: ‘From despair comes resistance‘
Read an IRR story: ‘The Hague: refugees evicted from protest camp‘
Read an IRR briefing paper: ‘Accelerated removals: the human cost of EU deportation policies, 2009-2010‘
References:  In some instances, municipalities cooperate in offering emergency shelter to small numbers of refused asylum seekers. So Stichting Noodopvang Dakloze Vreemdelingen Utrecht (SNDVU) provides temporary shelter and (legal) support to asylum seekers who are not entitled to support from the Dutch government but are in a regular legal procedure to obtain residence, involved in the “Perspectief” programme, are working towards organising their return to their country of origin but do not yet have the necessary papers, or have an acute (medical) condition which means that they would not be able to survive on the streets. More information here.The municipality of the Hague is currently also offering temporary shelter to a group of refused asylum seekers (mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan): http://www.nu.nl/binnenland/3866327/haag-biedt-asielzoekers-sacramentskerk-tijdelijke-opvang.html (in Dutch).  For example, since December 2013 a group of churches in Utrecht has provided a night shelter for undocumented men in the city: http://toevluchtutrecht.nl (in Dutch)  See http://www.mensenrechten.nl/berichten/situatie-vluchtgarage-mensonwaardig (in Dutch)  Ibid.  Letters sent in July 2014 from Nasir Guled’s legal representative to the State Secretary of Justice and Security and to the Mayor of Amsterdam asking for help (in Dutch).  (Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands (Complaint No. 90/2013). You can read all the documents related to the complaint including the initial complaint, subsequent reactions from both the Dutch government and the Conference of European Churches, here, and the ECSR’s decision on immediate measures here.  Duits vonnis: asielzoeker loopt risico in Nederland (in Dutch).  Court ruling – full text (Verwaltungsgericht Darmstadt – Beschluss)
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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