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Asylum Seekers Squat in Empty Buildings While Waiting for Netherlands Approval

The northwestern European country expects to take more refugees but important questions remain.

A banner hangs off a building in Amsterdam calling to welcome all refugees. (Photo: r.g-s under Creative Commons License)

While the Netherlands is expected to take a further 7,000 refugees under the European Union’s proposed quota plan, on top of the 2,000 already agreed to by the Dutch government in May, a stark question remains: what will happen to the numerous rejected asylum seekers – often waiting years and too scared to return to the countries they have fled – who are squatting in empty buildings across the country?

The Netherlands has agreed with the quota plan, unlike some Eastern European countries and Baltic states, but would like to see better facilities in safe countries in the region as there is no point in asylum seekers coming to a European country which refuse refuge, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice explained.

A contentious remark for We Are Here, an organization of refugees who united in Amsterdam to promote their collective struggle. Their website proclaims that they are ashamed of the way refugees are treated in the Netherlands.

We Are Here has some 225 immigrants from approximately 15 countries. Their search for asylum has failed for now but they continue to appeal through various courts including the Court of Justice of the European Union.

They regularly demonstrate in Amsterdam’s tourist packed centres for what they seek – a more generous refugee policy – while running the risk of being sent back to their country of origin or to the country of arrival in Europe. They want decent shelter. There is ‘enough for everyone’, they say.

One of the collective’s coordinators Luul – not her real name – has been squatting for a year with 74 other asylum seekers in an empty Amsterdam building owned by the Dutch municipality. She believes there are thousands of asylum seekers in the Netherlands who are waiting and hoping to, eventually, receive status.

Four hundred people are living on Amsterdam’s streets, she says. Most of the time it’s hard to live in squats, evictions are regular. Churches and charities help, some live with friends. Although squatting is illegal in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, squatters are not evicted until the owner of the building has filed a report and proved that he has serious plans for his property.

Luul was 16 when, in 2010, she escaped from southern Somalia after being forced from her home by the Islamic militant group, al-Shabaab which is allied to al-Qaeda. The group recruited large numbers of children from school and abducted girls for forced marriage to fighters.

Al-Shabaab demanded that Luul’s 15-year old brother become a soldier. ‘My father said that his son would have no part of it. Two months later my father was shot in a small mosque early in the morning,’ she said. Her brother had died in a bomb explosion at his school.

‘They took me to a man I was supposed to marry. I spat at him, insulted him, and was put in prison. A 2 metre by l metre prison cubicle. I was there for 3 weeks with 3 other girls. They refused us water. On some days we had food, on others none. They whipped us daily. For a long time I thought I was going to die.’

‘Then another group came and there was a fight; al-Shabaab ran, left us in the cells in the middle of the night. We started running, me and the other girls. I went to an aunt who contacted my mother, and then my father’s best friend, I called him uncle. He said he would get us out of the country as soon as possible. We had to leave or face being stoned to death.’

‘We started our journey by car. For almost a week, passing through controlled routes in Somalia and other countries. We were stopped once but the border guards did not know that al-Shabaab was looking for us. Two of the girls with me were taken from the car, because they were not wearing burkas. It was too hot.’

These 2 teenage girls were later publicly shot by firing squad in the centre of the town of Beledweyne, near the border with Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab accused them of being spies for the Somali government.

Luul hid on her day’s journey into Kenya in a net strung between the wheels of a mule cart. She made it with false documents to Europe, bound initially for Sweden but transiting through Amsterdam where she was sent to an adult detention centre.

‘I was too tired to understand anything. I was treated like a criminal, I just wanted to feel safe again. To be told, don’t worry, we are going to protect you. I was not supposed to be there for 3 weeks, but to go to an underage facility. To be rested, become familiar with the new country.’

Five years later after learning Dutch at school she continues to appeal to higher courts for refugee status. She believes the immigration system does not work in a humane way. ‘Asylum seekers are unprotected, there is no perspective on what they have suffered. They claim their stories are often not believed but how do they get proof?’ New proof of their stories is either impossible to get or would endanger their lives. They want to study, to work.

‘But we are out on the street. We didn’t expect to find ourselves in this situation when we came here as refugees. In fact, we lack all basic human rights. Where do we stay? First we stayed in a tent camp, followed by many different squatted buildings. What we need is a permanent solution.’

Asked why cases like Luul’s are turned down, Yvonne Wiggers, spokesperson for the Dutch State Secretary of Immigration, Klaas Dijkhoff, said, ‘It is not possible to say something about this particular case. But it is generally the case that asylum seekers may be given asylum in the Netherlands if they need protection from persecution in their own country on account of their race, religion, nationality or beliefs, or if they risk being tortured were they to return to their country.’

Wiggers explained that it could take only 8 days for asylum to be granted, this despite so many people waiting years for status. ‘It could be longer, when, for example, immigration officials need to do more investigation. An asylum seeker does not need any evidence like photographs, but has to tell a credible story. But they are checked for instance if names/places don’t add up in relation to the areas they said they had come from.’

We Are Here claim that they cannot return to their homeland. This may be true in some cases, but none of them has tried to get a ‘buiten schuld verklaring’ – a document that confirms that it is not the refugee’s fault that he or she cannot go back home but which might make them eligible for legal status in the Netherlands. Very few have requested the authorities help with finding documents or other proof that might sustain these – a fact Luul denies. ‘We asked, but did not get it.’

Ali Juma from Burundi has been waiting 11 years for refugee status. He says that he has been constantly turned down because there was not enough evidence to prove his claim of persecution. Now the Red Cross is involved and tracking down his family and friends for proof of his story.

‘Red Cross have no power in first world countries. It has more impact to approach them for help in developing countries,’ he said. This problem was not something that had occurred to him. Why wasn’t he informed this was possible rather than waiting for more than a decade? He has no answer.

We are Here also claims the Dutch Government is violating the Geneva Convention by denying the basic human right for protection and safety.

Jasper Karman, spokesperson for Amsterdam’s Mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, said courts had ruled that the shelters known as ‘Bed, Bath and Bread’ (BBB’s) made available by the municipality of Amsterdam meet the legal requirements for providing shelter at night. They are for refugees who have exhausted their asylum options.

Karman said that the BBB shelter opened every day at 5.00pm, providing dinner, a hot shower, a bed, room to store personal belongings in, a laundry room, and breakfast. When it closed at 9.00am the residents are given 2 tram tickets to travel to a doctor, a location where activities are being organized or the city centre. The buildings are supervised and are usually old schools or empty children’s day care centres.

‘We have deliberately made the decision not to offer 24 hour shelter (as most of the refugees request), because then we would be offering the kind of shelter that is the ministry’s domain. This would not only be illegal, but would undermine our constructive relationship with The Hague, and we need to find a solution for this difficult problem.’

‘We have made it very clear that under no circumstances will we create more than these 135 shelter places; Amsterdam cannot solve this problem alone and cannot by itself offer refuge to a seemingly endless stream of refugees,’ Karman said.

An Amnesty International report from 2013 on the detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers echoes similar recommendations that it made in its first report back in 2008. The Ministry of Security and Justice has drafted a new Return and Aliens Detention Bill which addresses some of the concerns. Under the new law, foreign nationals will have more freedom while being held in detention than they do now. For instance, they will be able to move freely within the detention centre between 8.00am and 10.00pm with minimal supervision; be entitled to at least 40 hours of daytime activity each week and be allowed to make phone calls on their mobile phone (but cannot use the phone’s camera or have internet access).

The recommendations from Amnesty International’s report include:

  • establishment of a rights based, all-inclusive approach to irregular migration in which measures to ‘combat’ irregular migration and crimes such as human trafficking and other human rights violations and abuses are balanced with increased protection for the victims;
  • immigration detention should be used only if, in each individual case, it is demonstrated that it is a necessary and proportionate measure in conformity with international law;
  • provide traumatized asylum-seekers and victims of human rights violations with the necessary time and means to prepare their asylum applications;
  • Under no circumstances should victims of human trafficking be penalized for their illegal entry into the Netherlands or be administratively detained while awaiting their expulsion. Neither should victims of human trafficking be prosecuted for crimes committed where they have been compelled to do so.

Asked why the recommendations had not been addressed despite the first report coming out 7 years ago Ruud Bosgraaf, senior press officer in Amnesty’s Amsterdam office explained that it was a sensitive issue in Dutch politics between both parties in the coalition government, the Labour party and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

‘The lawmaking process sometimes takes years and years in this country,’ he said.

These kinds of explanations are not what displaced people seeking a permanent, safe home want to hear.

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