We Are Here is Four, September 4th 2016
Background and perspective of the Initiative We Are Here is Four, By Jo van der Spek M2M. Amsterdam. July 21st 2016
As an immigrant to the Netherlands you seem to enter a very well organized country with all sorts of freedom and respect. If you are not lucky you will soon find out that behind the secure dykes and underneath the smooth surface and fine tulips lays a layer of fat mud, a swamp.
A swamp can look like a wonderful garden at first sight, but when you walk in, your feet start sinking, you lose your grip and if nobody comes to your rescue, you drown slowly, eating mud.
Asylum seekers who have passed many centers, procedures, offices and paper mills call it limbo. Supporters that try to make the Dutch politicians understand what is wrong with the asylum procedure call it the Asielgat: The hole in the procedure, or the trap, that exists because IND is instructed to NOT let people in, to NOT believe their story, to NOT seek truth but lies. The IND does not see a human being, but a package that must be returned. The IND and DT&V (Service for Return and Departure) execute a policy that is decided by the Parliament (Tweede Kamer and Eerste Kamer and as long as the parties in power refuse to change the law, thousands of people continue to be forced to live on the street, in parks and half destroyed buildings.
These people, refugees on the street, have formed a movement to protest this policy and demand a normal life, like anybody else. This movement “We Are Here”, is a community of refused refugees and their supporters and has shown that not refused refugees are the problem, but the Dutch migration policy.
We Are Here can be proud of its successes, but it has NOT succeeded to change the system.
We Are Here as a movement can help Dutch society to get out of the swamp, to finally design a normal way to treat migrants.
In a Working Conference we will determine the themes and the actions for the next four years…
As an activist of M2M I liketo look first at the successes, the challenges and the perspectives of We Are Here.
- Migrant to Migrant, in short M2M, is here to support the self organization of refugees on the street and to assist in organizing their means of communication in the broadest sense.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The history of “We Are Here” in the last four years has been widely publicized. You can find a good overview (also in Dutch) on the website at
The name of the group, We Are Here, was introduced by a victim and survivor of the Schiphol Fire (2005), the Senegalese artist Papa Sakho. At the commemoration in 2006 he stated:
“We are here
To make a life again
Together as one.”
Today we can say “We are here, to make a normal life, all together.”
In 2011 two times a groups of Somali’s
that were thrown on the street from Ter Apel spontaneously made their camp in front of the gate and were promptly arrested. In April 2012 a group of some 150 Iraqi refugees made a well prepared action camp and were soon joined by another 100 Somali’s and a growing number of other nationalities.
M2M went to the camp with equipment to provide internet and start up an online Radio Station in one of the tents. Doter Co and some Occupy activists were among the many Dutch supporters.
The birth of WE ARE HERE: resisting the eviction of the protest camp in ter Apel, May 23rd 2012.
On the 1st of September 2012 M2M organized a Working Conference in Arnhem to reflect on and share the experience of the camp in Ter Apel, and to make plans for the future.
The main conclusion was that the power of the camp was: being together as Africans, Arabs and Europeans, creates safety for refugees and makes the problems of undocumented migrants and migration politics visible to society. The idea to create a parliament of refugees was born here.
Three days later dokter Co triggered “We Are Here” in Amsterdam when he created a symbolic shelter for Tulu and Reeda in the garden of the Protestantse Diaconie.
The demand was bed, bread and bath from the government. With his action Co also wanted to urge the Diaconie to sustain its efforts for undocumented migrants.
On September 23rd 2012 “We Are Here” organized an Open Day in the nearby Wertheim Park. At the end of the day the general assembly of refugees and supporters decided to move to a bigger and more public space: a former schoolyard on the Notweg in Osdorp.
This was to become the last open air action camp. After its eviction on the 30th of November buildings were squatted to house We Are Here.
The vluchtkerk was the first of a series squatted squatted buildings to offer shelter and a community place for the about 160 refugees-on-the-street that had joined “We Are Here” in Osdorp.
The Vluchthaven was the exception: it wasn’t squatted, but offered in December 2013 by Mayor Van der Laan to a selected number of refused refugees, to work on their future perspective, including the option to return to their country. Here many people prepared a second request for asylum, and by now 70 out of these original 159 have obtained their permit. This clearly proves that the IND very often misses the point in the first procedure.
The members of “We Are Here” who were excluded from this project of the mayor created its own community and found shelter in the Vluchtgarage, again a rotten place to live, but open to new refuseniks and volunteers, as opposed to the Vluchthaven.
Today most people of “We Are Here”, some 120, are reunited in the Vluchtgemeente. A smaller group of 42 have succeeded to broker a contract for one year to make a life in the Vluchtmaat. A small number of refugees who need medical or psychological care were allowed to stay until the 1st of July in a shelter at Daalborgh. This arrangement was terminated by the mayor on the 1st of July, but the people resisted his decision and remained in the building. They have no place to go; even in Ter Apel they are not welcome.
On July 14 the Vluchtgemeente received a letter from the Public Prosecutor that the refugees have to evict the building.
WE CAN’T GO
Very few members of we Are Here have returned to their country of origin. Many have obtained a status, even if it took ten years or more. The success of we Are Here is that local and national government have discovered that they have to provide basic needs for the circa 50.000 refused refugees that are in this country. If only the ruling parties in den Haag and the City of Amsterdam could work out a deal. So far the Mayor is playing tough, evicting We Are Here time and again and declaring the continuous debate in the Town Council a bad theatre act.
Another ongoing theatre is acted out in the courts. Mr. Pim Fischer, human rights lawyer hired by the council of churches, is building a case for the right of every person on Dutch territory to receive basic needs (bed, bath, bread) without conditions. It may well take another year before this right will be implemented in practice, if not longer.
Politicians and lawyers would not do anything if not propelled by this community of self-organized and determined refused refugees and their supporters.
The clear and repeated answer by all refugees that were present in the meetings on June 27 and July 15 is “We don’t go. We prefer to be arrested and go to prison. We refuse to be moved from one building to the next, chased like dogs.”
Many times the refugees and their supporters have discussed the possibilities to resist eviction. They have weighed the risks of arrest, detention and even deportation. They have thought about the consequences for the more vulnerable among them. They have stated that they want to abide the laws, but cannot return to their own lands. “We Are Here” is a peaceful movement and has thereby gained credit and respect in all sectors of society. The refugees have always relied on legal procedures and lobbying to gain time. At times some have considered going into hunger strike and even commit suicide to protest against their fate. This never happened and the fact that We Are Here is still here makes it unnecessary, because there is still a lot we can do.
The Vluchtgemeente is the best building so far occupied by “We Are Here” not only in terms of comfort, although there is only one shower. The building was left in a good state when it was abandoned by the Stadsdeel West, which itself also disappeared as an institution of local democracy. Also politically the building is interesting, because the owner is the City of Amsterdam (Gemeente). Amsterdam actually made no problem about “We Are Here” using it, as long as the occupants didn’t cause damage or disturb the neighbors.
But now suddenly the Mayor wants to rent it to the Department of Justice, for IND and DT&V and child protection. And he has chosen to use criminal law (anti-squat) to get “We Are Here” out. This move cannot make the members of the town council happy, if only because they have no voice in this procedure. In the media and maybe even in court, this is not necessarily a lost battle.
In order to keep the building, WAH must use all means and forces together. Lawyers and lobby are not enough. More action and more organization are needed to show that eviction will only make things worse. For everybody.
Resisting eviction of the Vluchtgemeente is an act of despair: we have no other place to go. Squatting seems no longer an option. But resistance is also a way to demonstrate and mobilize against the system of exclusion of human beings. Despair and fatigue can lead individual members to seek individual solutions, but the power or We Are Here lies in the WE: in active collectivity and public visibility.
When on the 5th of July Hashim, one of the smart and active members of “We Are Here”, died after what may have been an act of desperation, there was a strong reaction of fear and anger. Fear that this can happen to the other members of the “We are here” community next. Anger at the authorities that keep playing with our lives. The demonstration that followed only two days later was powerful and impressive.
A group of former leaders, elders, of We Are Here has taken the initiative to use the 4th anniversary to give moral support to the brothers and sisters that are still in limbo, caught in the asylum trap. With a big event they will thank all supporters and thereby to solidify the connections with volunteers, supporting organizations and the City of Amsterdam as a whole.
A collaboration between the elders, the acting leadership, the refugees in the Vluchtgemeente, supported by M2M and potentially a long list of supporters and helpers that have played a role in the past years is the beginning of the answer to the question where we go in the next four years.
Like before, we, as refugees and supporters working together, we can use the threat of eviction to our advantage. It creates a sense of urgency, it underlines that no permanent solution is forthcoming and there is a very concrete and well known object to show and share. The Vluchtgemeente stands for basic human values: hospitality, equality, human rights, togetherness, solidarity. The graffiti on the doorsteps made on the day that the eviction letter was delivered reads: “Gemeente left, we are here!” and “Wij zijn hier, wij zijn gemeente!”
Who is this we? The magic word that is the key to every understanding of this community for change, this movement for a better life. Let’s say WE is everyone who subscribes to the values mentioned above? Imagine that you are WE? Suppose WE is normal society?
Being together in a building is not the goal of “We Are Here”. The goal is to get a chance for a normal life, like everybody else. To live means to be able to get education, to work, to be protected against diseases and, maybe most important, to have a family.
To achieve this goal many things have to change: the law, migration politics and the mentality of many people in Dutch society. That is a long and winding road.
The so-called refugee crisis as a result of the war in Syria, which is actually rather a crisis of European migration politics and human compassion, has affected the struggle of “We Are Here”, negatively by drawing away public attention but also positively. We can see an avalanche of initiatives to welcome the new refugees, including a wish among progressive politicians to be flexible about the right to go to school or do volunteer work, rather than keep them for many months isolated with nothing to do but wait. In Amsterdam civil initiatives are matched by resources and the political will to create facilities not only for shelter, but also for what we may call normal life.
Very close to the Vluchtgemeente a “broedplaats” (breeding place) will open for refugees, status-holders, asylum seekers and other talented migrants to find their way into Dutch society. Well, We Are Here has shown its talents on many occasions over the years: on Dam Square, Football Fields, Paradiso, Vondelpark Loop, Holland Festival, City Council, Court, Tweede Kamer, etc.
These developments open opportunities for We Are Here and may convince others that there really is a smarter and more human way to treat migrants from countries like Sudan, Somalia, Guinee, Eritrea, etc.
In the last four years WE ARE HERE has become an integral part of the social and political landscape. Our presence is a fact that can no longer be denied, it is only the law that denies this reality. Nobody can be happy in the present situation of political stagnation and endless insecurity, especially in Amsterdam. Sooner or later a change is gonna come. Mayor van der Laan is quite alone in refusing to give 24-hours shelter with basic care to refugees on the street. Other cities do this (or never stopped doing it) and in Amsterdam a big majority in the town council is in favor of 24/7 shelter.
For many unconditional shelter will mean a chance to rest and time to look to the future. But until the law is changed, these shelters will be filling up with second hand citizens. Shelter is not the solution.
So let’s go on.
Normal life is a good slogan, because it claims equality. It is also good because it is very general, or every vague. Are all your problems solved when you have a residence permit? Do you have a job? Can you look after your family? What is it like to be a normal Dutch citizen? To be honest, I really don’t know. But I am sure that those of WAH who have started a normal life can tell us a lot.
WE ARE HERE IS FOUR
After four years of struggling in the swamp, of dealing with everyday problems and trying to make sense of the Dutch approach, what is there to celebrate?
Almost half of the refused refugees in the original group have finally received their status, individually. But the law and the policies that create refugees-on-the-street with no rights (only lawyer and urgent medical care) has not changed. But less people are put in detention than before (if only for budget reasons), and being undocumented is still not a crime, as was planned by the governing coalition of liberals and social-democrats.
The legal and political roads may lead to shelter and basic needs for all, but that is far from equal rights and normal life. Refugees keep coming to the Netherlands, which is in itself quite an achievement, but still many are refused and end up in the dirty corners of Dutch society. Only a few of these refused refugees have become part of We Are Here.
In the general meetings leading members of We Are Here declare that there is no choice but to resist eviction. The militant slogan in every demonstration is “We are here and we will fight, for freedom of movement is everybody’s right.” Indeed, everybody is free to move out. And even if we have to move out together, it will not be the end of We Are Here.
It is not only for the members of WAH that the law of the land must change. The common ground of all refugees, old and new, can and must be found. Syrian refugees in the noodopvang have already gone on the street and on hunger strike to demand speedier procedures and family reunion. They may soon find out that Dutch migration politics has more dark sides in store for them. Iraqi refugees can tell them a lot about it: they lost their refugee status, when the Dutch government judged their country safe again in 2011 and started pushing them back. That is when they started the action camp in Ter Apel.
The occasional encounters between new refugees and members of We Are Here may well grow into stronger ties.
Finally, to change a system, a long walk is required. And you don’t do that walk alone. We Are Here has shown the way, we are in the right direction, but we may have to adjust the course a little bit, to keep going.
WHY ARE WE HERE?
Recollecting the experiences, the successes and positive forces by way of storytelling and speeches, coming together in a garden party or a march of freedom, a sports tournament or a cultural festival, anything that will help to build a coalition to mobilize solidarity will help We Are Here.
To support the refugees on the street.
To be part of society.
To make a better future.
Yes, we can celebrate, but not the end of the struggle.
Yes, we need to come together to think hard and loud how to move on. Therefore I propose a Conference, to be held in the Vluchtgemeente! Then we can party on the 4th, because we know
Who are WE?
Why are we HERE?
Four MORE years?
- Jo van der Spek