Two weeks ago, some 100 asylum seekers – mostly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan – were evicted from their temporary tent camp in Amsterdam. By the end of the day, 96 of them were back on the streets, with nowhere to go and seemingly no one to help them.
Amsterdam’s mayor offered to give this particular group of failed asylum seekers one month’s shelter after their eviction. The refugees didn’t take him up on the offer because they feared they would disappear from the public radar if they didn’t stay together as a group. This particular aspect of the asylum problem – what to do with refugees who are not allowed to stay in the Netherlands but who cannot return to their home countries either – is a perennial problem.
Sociologist Merijn Oudenampsen is part of a group of sympathisers who have helped find the asylum seekers from the tent camp temporary shelter in a disused church, the VluchtKerk. (The Amsterdam real estate developer who owns the church has, remarkably, agreed to its use as a shelter for the winter months.)
RNW spoke to Oudenampsen about why the asylum debate is different now.
Are the Dutch shirking their responsibility?
"In general, there used to be an idea that the state has responsibility in terms of giving shelter to people with no place to go. The municipalities had a role in providing shelter, too. Now they’re left on the streets. There’s a new hard line policy from The Hague that’s pressing to make it illegal to give aid to undocumented people. So if I provide help to people who don’t have the documents to stay or go, I’m liable."
Is that policy, of criminalising aid to undocumented people, already in effect?
"Not yet, but it is the policy hardliners from Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party and the VVD of Prime Minster Mark Rutte are pushing for, the policy supported by the Deputy Justice Minister Fred Teeven. And the Amsterdam city council has given in under the pressure and tried to make the asylum-seekers in Osdorp disappear. For the mayor, they became a public order problem, these people were visible. But it’s strange if he thinks the problem will disappear if the asylum seekers are out of sight."
So the asylum seekers debate seems to have taken an ugly turn?
"The problem keeps returning. Local governments now are under pressure from the national government. And the Dutch [political] right wants to adopt laws in contradiction of international human rights treaties. There is a distorted public discourse now in the Netherlands regarding immigration and asylum seekers, and a strong political effect of these statements. They have a chilling effect on people. And official institutions, too, are under pressure to not provide help."
"The asylum seekers need to stay visible and press for a political solution. There needs to be a solution from the government. It’s not up to voluntary organisations to provide shelter. We don’t have the resources. They can stay in the church through the winter months. But this problem is not going to go away."