“Stress, insomnia and anger” he had last experienced, says Saleh*. He is sitting on a worn mattress in the middle of a muddy path in front of the asylum center in the Dutch village of Ter Apel. He fled the terrible conditions in Yemen in July, hoping for a better life in Europe, he says. At the beginning of August he came to the Netherlands. “Since then I’ve been sleeping outside with the mosquitoes because the asylum center is overcrowded. They won’t even let me apply,” Saleh laments. The inhuman conditions and the uncertainty would make things so difficult for him that he lost his will to face life in the meantime.
The asylum center in the village of 10,000 in the province of Groningen is the central reception center in the Netherlands, where asylum seekers have to submit their initial applications. It officially seats 2000 people. But according to Milo Schoenmaker, the head of the competent authority (COA), there are currently 16,000 people there, all of whom already have valid asylum status.
In contrast to the 700 people who are now camping in front of the facility. A three-month-old baby died last week – the cause is now being investigated. Nicole van Batenburg, spokeswoman for the Dutch Red Cross, told DW that the hygiene conditions in the center had been precarious for weeks: “We see many health risks. Many people get blisters, have feeding difficulties, or have skin problems because they cannot shower and have to sleep outside. Others have heart or respiratory conditions.”
Several aid organizations are now active in Ter Apel. In addition to the Red Cross and the Netherlands Refugee Agency, the aid organization Doctors Without Borders also works there, for which it is the first assignment ever in the Netherlands. In the middle of the week, King Willem-Alexander got an idea of the situation.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was “ashamed” of the situation in Ter Apel. At the weekend he announced measures to bring the situation under control. Since then, several hundred people have been taken by bus to other asylum centers in the country so that nobody has to sleep outside anymore.
But some are opposed to the transfer, fearing they will lose their place in the asylum application line. One of them is Saleh: “I need my asylum papers and will wait until I have them.”
Now, above all, the people whose asylum application has already been approved are to be taken somewhere else. This opens up new perspectives for them and creates space for new asylum seekers, said COA boss Schoenmaker.
Yahia Mane, a refugee from Sierra Leone, doesn’t believe it. The truth is not being told about the square in the center: “There are still empty rooms. I saw that when I was inside with my family. They just don’t want to take on more people and that makes them criminals.”
He lived with his family in the center for three weeks, Mane reports: “But it was terrible. We didn’t even get real food. Now they want to move me to another prison type asylum center and separate me from my family to make room for others. I would not have expected that from the Netherlands. I thought my family would have a safe roof over their heads here.”
Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld from the left-liberal party D66 sees a political problem in particular: “For one of the richest countries in the world, I find it absolutely shameful that the political system allows people to live in such conditions,” she told DW . The government has been managing migration incorrectly for years because some of the coalition parties didn’t want to admit new asylum seekers: “But that’s an illusion!”
In’t Veld is particularly critical of the government’s plan to limit family reunification and migration from the EU-Turkey agreement in order to tackle the crisis in Ter Apel: “The government is clearly violating human rights and EU laws. Above all, I find the suspension of family reunification disturbing, because that separates parents and children for a long time.”
The Dutch government intends to transfer all refugees to decent accommodation by September 10th. The armed forces are to build a second reception center.
Bram Frouws is director of the Mixed Migration Center, which collects global migration data. He thinks the problem also goes back to a real estate crisis in the Netherlands: “There are simply not enough apartments in the country, and that also has an impact on asylum seekers.” That’s why they were stranded in the reception centers for months, which in turn had no capacity for newcomers .
According to a study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, rising real estate prices and market manipulation by investors are among the main reasons for the housing shortage. Frouws cites other reasons: there is a lack of workers in the construction sector, and strict emission regulations would curb house construction.
The EU’s European Asylum Support Office has already announced that it will support the Dutch authorities. According to a spokesman for the EU Commission, a corresponding implementation plan valid for one year has been signed since the beginning of May: “The plan aims to expand reception and accommodation options for asylum seekers and displaced persons.” The EU will have 160 residential containers and seven employees available for this place. One of them went into service in Ter Apel at the end of August.
In Frouw’s view, the EU should also take a close look at Dutch asylum policy. The restrictions on family reunification should be avoided, he says: “These family members arrive in the Netherlands with a valid visa.” Therefore, there is no need for them to report to Ter Apel. More creative solutions are needed here, such as using vacant office buildings as temporary accommodation.
Some cities are leading the way: Amsterdam and Velsen-Noord have agreed with the government to accommodate at least 1,000 refugees on cruise ships anchored in their ports.
News like this gives Saleh hope: “I know the Dutch are great and will find a solution. It’s the bureaucracy that bothers us. I hope to get my papers soon so I can live, work and give back to the country here.”
* Name changed by editors
Translated from the English by Jan D. Walter
Author: Priyanka Shankar
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The original of this post “Chaos in the asylum center in the Netherlands: 700 people sleep outdoors” comes from Deutsche Welle.