Life in the shad­ows

Many failed asy­lum seek­ers in the Nether­lands can­not re­turn to their home coun­tries be­cause of fears of per­se­cu­tion. They live on the mar­gins, strug­gling to sur­vive. Is­mail Ei­nashe re­ports

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Am­s­ter­dam is a city famed for its canals, his­toric houses and art gal­leries. But there is an­other, darker side to the city. A world of aban­doned fac­to­ries and dis­used pris­ons that are home to failed asy­lum seek­ers who eke out an ex­is­tence on the edge of Dutch so­ci­ety.

Most come from war-torn coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and Africa. Maartje Terp­stra, a lawyer who has rep­re­sented dozens of failed asy­lum seek­ers in Am­s­ter­dam, says: “If they get neg­a­tive re­sponse, they get 28 days to leave the coun­try on their own and if they can’t leave or won’t, all sup­port stops from the gov­ern­ment”. She adds: “If you can’t leave it’s your fault – this is the ba­sis of their [Dutch gov­ern­ment] en­tire pol­icy.”

Many can­not re­turn to their home coun­tries be­cause of con­flict, per­se­cu­tion or poverty. Nor can they move to an­other Eu­ro­pean Union state be­cause of the Dublin Con­ven­tion, which says that the state through which the asy­lum seeker first en­tered the EU is held re­spon­si­ble. The Dutch have a pol­icy to evict failed asy­lum seek­ers from refugee cen­tres if they do not co­op­er­ate in their own de­por­ta­tions. How­ever, the is­sue for most failed asy­lum seek­ers is that their coun­tries of ori­gin sim­ply refuse to co­op­er­ate with the Dutch au­thor­i­ties or those coun­tries are too dan­ger­ous for peo­ple to re­turn to. For some, like Te­feri, 45, a failed asy­lum seeker from Ethiopia, his county re­fuses to even ac­knowl­edge him as a cit­i­zen.

Ac­cord­ing to the Dutch im­mi­gra­tion service, of the 31,600 asy­lum seek­ers who came to the Nether­lands last year, 54 per cent were ap­proved. Of those de­nied asy­lum – 53 per cent were de­ported im­me­di­ately and 47 per cent were al­lowed to leave on their own within 28 days. It is this 47 per cent that rep­re­sents those who have fallen be­tween the cracks. There are no ex­act fig­ures for the num­ber of failed asy­lum seek­ers who have re­mained but it is in the thou­sands, ac­cord­ing to lawyers I have spo­ken to.

Te­feri (who did not wish to give his full name) ar­rived in the Nether­lands in 2001 and has spent the past 16 years liv­ing in no-man’s land. “It’s very hard liv­ing your life with­out in­come, no in­sur­ance, no bank ac­count and no ID card,” he says. When he ar­rived, he had as­pi­ra­tions to start a new life and find work. He had made an ar­du­ous jour­ney, flee­ing po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in Ethiopia, and crossed, by foot, into Kenya be­fore ar­riv­ing in the Nether­lands. But Te­feri’s dreams were dashed when his asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion was re­fused and he re­sorted to work­ing il­le­gally.

“I used to work in the black econ­omy be­fore 2008, I worked wash­ing dishes in ho­tels and restau­rants.” But af­ter 2008 things be­came dif­fi­cult, “it be­came harder to find black-mar­ket jobs be­cause em­ploy­ers could face fines and you could be taken to prison”.

Te­feri now lives on the out­skirts of Am­s­ter­dam in a clus­ter of old fac­to­ries along with other failed asy­lum seek­ers. They are mostly from the Horn of Africa. The cen­tre is run by the “We are Here” (WAH) col­lec­tive. WAH was founded by a group of failed asy­lum seek­ers who were left home­less and des­ti­tute in 2012. Yoo­nis Os­man, an asy­lum seeker from So­ma­lia, is one of the lead­ers of the move­ment. He spent 12 years in limbo but in March fi­nally got his refugee sta­tus. Os­man says WAH came to­gether ini­tially be­cause of ne­ces­sity but has grown into a move­ment. “We came to­gether to make our plight vis­i­ble. We oc­cu­pied pub­lic build­ings in Am­s­ter­dam, putting pres­sure on politi­cians lo­cally and na­tion­ally,” he says. “When a refugee is in limbo, his or her life means they’re liv­ing il­le­gally, they can be de­tained any­time.”

Te­feri ex­plains his sit­u­a­tion: “Now af­ter 16 years I have lost all hope, I’m not fit to learn, I’m 45 now, it’s hard to learn. When I ar­rived, I wanted ev­ery­thing, I wanted to be tax­payer.” He adds, “the only thing you can think about is your sta­tus and your doc­u­ments”. How­ever, he has a lawyer who does pro bono work on his be­half and still has hope about se­cur­ing asy­lum.

Rahima, 42, ar­rived in 2009 try­ing to es­cape the vi­o­lence of Mo­gadishu and a forced mar­riage. But the Dutch au­thor­i­ties do not be­lieve she is from Mo­gadishu and have de­nied her refugee sta­tus. Dur­ing the asy­lum process, lan­guage tests are car­ried out to de­ter­mine what par­tic­u­lar city or re­gion some­one may be from.

But ac­cord­ing to Terp­stra, giv­ing some­one a lan­guage test is not a fair way to test some­one’s right to asy­lum. Plus, she says that for asy­lum seek­ers from places such as Su­dan, Ethiopia and So­ma­lia “it’s dif­fi­cult to prove that you from that area or this area”.

In 2012, the Dutch be­came the first in Europe to an­nounce they would be re­turn­ing failed asy­lum seek­ers to south-cen­tral So­ma­lia. Au­thor­i­ties claimed the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion had im­proved. In Novem­ber 2013, Ahmed Said, 26, who ar­rived in the Nether­lands as a child was forcibly put on a plane and re­turned to Mo­gadishu. Just two days af­ter his re­turn, he was among 25 peo­ple in­jured in an at­tack on a ho­tel in the cap­i­tal by Al Shabab, a group af­fil­i­ated with Al Qaeda. Sub­se­quently, the high­est court in the Nether­lands ruled that the Dutch gov­ern­ment could not send back what it deemed “western­ised” asy­lum seek­ers to coun­tries such as So­ma­lia. For now at least, Rahima is safe; she lives with her fel­low WAH col­lec­tive mem­bers.

There is a thread that ties th­ese cur­rent poli­cies to re­cent Dutch his­tory. Dur­ing the 1990s, the Dutch po­lit­i­cal sys­tem came un­der strain. The is­sues of in­te­grat­ing sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Moroc­cans and Turks, whose par­ents had come as guest work­ers in the 1960s and 70s, be­gan to play out in Dutch politics. Even left wing Dutch in­tel­lec­tual opin­ion be­gan to turn against im­mi­gra­tion and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Many said that it was a mis­take to have al­lowed largely Mus­lim mi­grants to set­tle in The Nether­lands, and the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror­ists at­tacks in the United States added yet more in­ten­sity to this fraught topic. Paul Sch­ef­fer’s book Im­mi­grant Na­tions, based on an es­say pub­lished in 1999 called The Mul­ti­cul­tural Tragedy, was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in Dutch politics.

This came to a head in the early 2000s in the fig­ure of Pim For­tuyn, who rose to na­tional promi­nence on an anti-Is­lam and anti-mi­grant ticket. For­tuyn’s me­te­oric rise was cut short by an as­sas­si­na­tion in 2002 in Hil­ver­sum, a town near Am­s­ter­dam. In some ways, For­tuyn laid the ground­work for the cur­rent dar­ling of the Dutch ex­treme right Geert Wilders and per­haps even the rise of US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. An­other fig­ure to emerge in Dutch politics post 9/11 was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a So­mali-born Dutch for­mer politi­cian and anti-Is­lam critic. She made a con­tro­ver­sial film, Sub­mis­sion, about the treat­ment of women in Is­lam, with film­maker Theo Van Gogh. He was shot dead in an Am­s­ter­dam park in 2004 by a young Dutch-Moroc­can while cy­cling to work. The mur­der of Van Gogh, a dis­tant re­la­tion of the fa­mous painter, was a shock­ing mo­ment for Dutch so­ci­ety. It turned Dutch politics to­wards a right-wing tra­jec­tory. Since then, Dutch gov­ern­ments have sought to cur­tail the move­ment of peo­ple into the Nether­lands. Fol­low­ing the Dutch elec­tions in March the fo­cus was on the pop­ulist anti-Is­lam politi­cian Wilders, but he is merely a mod­ern face of a much longer jour­ney the Nether­lands has been on. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime min­is­ter stoked fears about mi­grants to win votes dur­ing the elec­tion. Most Eu­ro­pean lead­ers have wel­comed his vic­tory over Wilders. But for asy­lum seek­ers, the anti-mi­grant rhetoric and harsh poli­cies will con­tinue to fea­ture in Dutch pol­icy. For them there is no hope for amnesties and peo­ple such as Te­feri will con­tinue to live in limbo. Terp­stra says: “It will only get worse be­cause of the politi­cians, they don’t want to give any amnesties any­more be­cause they don’t want to give peo­ple any hope”.

Is­mail Ei­nashe is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don.

Jaap Ar­riens / NurPhoto / Getty Im­ages. Robin van Lonkhui­jsen / AFP

Asy­lum seek­ers who have been re­fused per­mits to stay in the Nether­lands protest in 2015. Be­low, far-right politi­cian Geert Wilders.

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