“Why did you come tonight to this meeting?”, an AT5 reporter asks one of the visitors of an information evening in Amstelveen, a municipality in the suburbs of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “To defend my neighbourhood. This has scared me to death. Well, the whole thing is all of a sudden very near you.”* It is one of the many reactions to the opening of an emergency asylum centre in Amstelveen, which in this occasion is more emotionally charged due to the large Jewish community living in this neighbourhood.** However, it is not an uncommon reaction of inhabitants of any Dutch town, village or municipality confronted by the influx of asylum-seekers*** in their neighbourhood. Quotes such as “I cannot let my daughter outside alone at night anymore” or “All they do is come and take our money and houses”, are frequently heard in the media.
And then, unavoidably, come the ‘incidents’. First in Oranje, a small village of 140 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands, where the decision was made that in total 1.400 asylum-seekers will be sheltered. When the Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice came to explain the reasoning for this decision, his car was blocked and attacked by the angry residents of Oranje. A nitrate bomb is what scared the inhabitants of Woerden, a small city close to Utrecht, on Friday evening 9th of October. A group of about twenty men with black coats and balaclavas broke into the gates of the recently opened emergency asylum centre and threw nitrate bombs, fireworks and eggs at the facility. The shaken group of 148 asylum-seekers, many of who came here to escape violence, have been relocated to a different location four days later. This week, councillors of the municipality of Rijswijk (close to The Hague) have received threatening letters in response to the announced opening of an asylum centre. One of the letters read: “First of all, what a lovely daughters you have… Mmm. If that asylum centre will come, I will go and look for them at school.”****
So far, it have been mostly Dutch citizens who publicly exercised, or threatened with, violence – not those feared refugees. While they are being portrayed as criminals, racists and free riders, a fair share of Dutch society is getting more and more anxious with ‘such people’ living around ‘their’ corner. It is as correspondent Rob Wijnberg rightly puts “the fear of high numbers”. If the news tells you every day that there are “ten thousand refugees” here and “millions of refugees” there, the whole subject will dehumanize eventually. In the end, one does not notice that those numbers actually represent individuals. Fortunately, there are also positive reactions to the influx of refugees. Last Saturday, the people of Onnen (a small village in the north) organized a party for asylum-seeker who were sheltered in the neighbourhood and in Woerden, after the attack, there were so many people bringing food, clothing and flowers that the municipality was overrun by the donations.
Short to say; the European migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands, dividing its people as well as its politics. There is a clear divide between those that would like to discourage or even block asylum-seekers from coming to the Netherlands (or Europe for that matter) and those looking for a solution within the framework of European cooperation and who are working for a sustainable solution to this issue. But the protection of refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, entails more than only their safety. It also pertains a perspective to rebuild or continue to build a life for themselves and their families. If that is still not possible, as is often the case with sheltering refugees in ‘the region’, then the actual protection of refugees is in the end not guaranteed (see also: protracted refugee situation).
In my opinion, anyone who thinks that the solution to this problem lies in the closing of the ‘gates of Europe’, does thus not understand the core of the migrant crisis that we are facing. The solution lies in European cooperation, similar as to what the unfortunately heavily criticized German Bondskanselier Angela Merkel has been propagating. Responding to the critique to her stance toward the crisis, Merkel said that “slamming the door ‘shut in the 21st century of the Internet era is an illusion.’” For instance, one of the options for European cooperation would be to broaden the possibilities for legal seasonal labour within the EU for people from Eastern Europe. This would be in order to confront or even avoid the misuse of our refugee policy by economic migrants from, especially, the Western Balkans.
Perhaps it is important to keep in mind that this is not only an abstract issue for politicians in the European Parliament, the Dutch government or town municipalities to act upon. ‘The whole thing’ is literally ‘very near you’, as the visitor of the information evening in Amstelveen told us. When the Dutch Red Cross called out for help two weeks ago, I signed up to volunteer – and with me, as it turned out later, 10,000 other Dutch citizens that week. The day after they asked me if I could come and help at a recently opened emergency asylum centre in Amsterdam. Already 600 asylum-seekers were sheltered in the huge building on the outskirts of Amsterdam and when I arrived, busloads with new arrivals kept on coming. Because there was such a large influx at the moment, it was deemed impossible to register all the newcomers and it was decided they first had to be given food, water and a bed. In this chaotic setting, I cleaned used camp beds from dirt of their previous users, handed out food that was donated by the catering of Schiphol Airport, explained to people where they exactly were (address? city? Amsterdam?), and played with the children that gathered in the recreation room. There was a mobile shower-facility outside the building that looked like the showers after a multiple-days-music-festival and the food for babies was too little. What I am trying to portray here is the situation that these people, these families like yours and mine, ended up in. Not for us to pity them, but to realise that this is not only happening somewhere on television and is for politicians to deal with. This is what is happening now, right around your corner.
* (Newsreporter) “Waarom bent u op deze bewonersbijeenkomst?” (visitor) “Nou, om onze wijk te verdedigen. Nou je schrikt je eigen de pest. Het komt dan wel heel erg dichtbij”. News item AT5, 13/10/2015
** According to several Jewish organisations, it unwise to locate refugees (400 in total), “many of whom have grown up with the idea that Jews are their enemy”, in one of the only municipalities in the Netherlands with clearly recognizable Jewish inhabitants and institutions.
*** Although a large part of the immigrants that enter the Netherlands would be considered refugees, such as people from Syria or Eritrea, there are also those to be found who cross our borders due to economical reasons. Economic immigrants are officially defined as asylum-seekers. For the sake of generalization, I therefore decided to use the term asylum-seekers instead of refugees. Please see the definitions for asylum-seeker and refugee in the conflict dictionary for more information.
**** “Ten eerste wat een heerlijke dochters heb je… Mmm. Als dat azc er nog komt, zoek ik ze nog wel eens op op school.” NOS News, 14/10/2015