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