A crime to exist in The Netherlands

By Irene Broer

Behind high dikes, the tiny kingdom of The Netherlands bravely defies the icy waters of the North Sea. It’s an old habit of the Dutch: putting up defenses from outside threats. But lately, the dikes are increasingly being replaced by harsher anti-immigration policies.

wearehere

Mention The Netherlands, and images surface of Gay Pride, windmills, Queens, cows, ladies behind windows, canals, cheese, bikes and stroopwafels. Of course, there’s always a wild story of someone who thoroughly enjoyed Amsterdam – and all it has to offer.

For many, the open-minded Dutch culture that made all the aforementioned possible (you’re welcome), stands for diversity and an unquestioned acceptance of those who think, look and act differently.

But lately, tolerance is losing its high game in Dutch society. A new law is in the making, that deems it a criminal act for refugees and other asylum seekers to stay in the Netherland without a residence permit.

Already, years of right-wing politics have made it extremely difficult for people to get asylum in The Netherlands. The process of determining if a person’s story is horrendous enough to justify a permit takes months, sometimes years. In the meantime, the often traumatized refugees are locked away in detention. No phones or internet allowed and kept inside their cells for the majority of the day, the detainees remain isolated from the world.

At this very moment, more than a hundred refugees in detention centrums in Amsterdam and Rotterdam are on hunger strike, in protest of their “inhumane treatment”.

The majority of all asylum seekers is denied access into the Dutch land of milk and honey – after which they are sanctioned to leave the country by their own means. Needless to say, hardly anyone can afford a trip back to Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Angola – or whichever place they fled from.

Often, the person ends up roaming the streets, devoid of legal employment, housing, education and healthcare, until they find the chance to hitch a ride and try their luck elsewhere in Europe. Clearly, the life of a denied asylum seeker is nothing to envy. Now that the Dutch government is about to criminalize this sort of existence inside the Dutch borders, illegal residents might be forced to retract even more into the margins of society. Skeptics warn that in the threat of police raids, arrests and imprisonments, the vulnerable group of refugees will become more invisible.

Luckily, not all Dutch people agree with the severe treatment of asylum seekers. Chanting the words “No human is illegal!” (Geen mens is illegaal!) , hundreds of people have gathered over the past months in dozens of protests.

One of the most notable citizen’s initiatives to help rejected asylum seekers is that of the “Refugee Church” (Vluchtkerk). In the night of 1 December 2012, the squatter’s movement broke into the St. Joseph’s Church in Amsterdam. The Church no longer being religiously in use, those involved with the operation sought to transform this bunker-like structure into a safe haven for rejected asylum seekers.

vluchtkerk2

Photo: ANP

Soon, the neighbours pitched in and built kitchens, sleeping places, bathrooms and heating. It didn’t take long for the Church to become flocked  with about 100 rejected asylum seekers, and it has been occupied ever since.

The residents are assisted by many volunteers, who work to ensure their physical and mental well-being, and who provide legal help.

Photo: ANP / Olaf Kraak

Photo: ANP / Olaf Kraak

Not willing to accept the status quo for themselves or other asylum seekers to come, the residents are actively seeking publicity, and with success. The combined expertise of the residents and volunteers has resulted in a smooth-running website and a series of 10 films, each depicting the story of a resident. With these platforms, those voices the Dutch politicians would perhaps rather ignore, are heard loud and clearly.

In agreement with the Municipality of Amsterdam, The Refugee Church is allowed to be open until the 1st of June 2013. After that, the residents will be evicted and sent back into the streets. With the new law pending, the question is whether the rejected asylum seekers will fight against their “illegality” in some other way, or if they will be criminals on the run.

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