Refugees deserve better asylum procedure and shelter

26 November 2015

Last week, a group of homeless refugees evacuated the fourteenth building they had squatted. They belong to We Are Here and organize against the vacuum in which Dutch asylum policy has placed them. Their organization resembles similar movements of illegalized refugees in Hamburg, Vienna, the Calais ‘jungle’, Tel Aviv and many other cities. They are unable to return to their country of origin. Consequently, the authorities of countries such as the Netherlands are unable to deport them. But on the other hand they are not granted asylum, because the Dutch asylum procedure does not offer undocumented asylum seekers a fair chance. People from a country like Somalia, which has no functioning government capable of issuing documents, do not have a reasonable prospect of being granted asylum. The same is true for people who lost their documents on the way to Europe. If evidence is submitted in a subsequent asylum procedure that does not help them, because this is considered too late.

Even if the immigration authorities do believe that people originate from unsafe countries, asylum is often not granted. The Dutch authorities apply a so-called decision moratorium to refugees from Yemen, among others. This means that a decision about the asylum application can be suspended for up to 21 months, because in Yemen or Somalia paradise might break out in the meanwhile. It is indefensible that these people are denied asylum. Improvement of the situation in the country of origin would be a valid reason for withdrawing asylum. But the mere hope of that happening cannot be a reason to leave them in a situation of insecurity.

We Are Here has been protesting against this unjust limbo for over three years. The European Committee for Social Rights partly agreed with them last year. It held that everyone – including people without a residence permit – have the right to a roof over their head, clothes on their body and food on their plate. The city of Amsterdam has complied in a very limited manner. It has created 135 night shelter places. But two problems remain. First, refugees have to roam the streets during the day, and have no guarantee that they can enter the shelter again in the evening. This makes people vulnerable and insecure. Second, 135 places are not enough. A while ago, We Are Here reported to the night shelter but the refugees were turned away because there were not nearly enough places.

Today, different leading Dutch courts issue judgements on the manner in which the Netherlands has to comply with the decision of the Committee. But it is not the courts’ job to solve the political problems between the government coalition parties VVD and PvdA. What can the national and local authorities do themselves? In light of the increased number of asylum seekers, it would make sense if the government would instruct the Immigration Service to clean its desk. The asylum cases of many refugees got stuck because the assessment of asylum application is too rigid. The Immigration Service should become more realistic in assessing evidence, and this can happen without accepting anything at face value. This would end the Kafkaesque situation in which many refugees find themselves at present.

But even when the asylum procedure becomes less suspicious, there will always be refugees who are not accepted and who cannot, or not immediately, return to their country. Local authorities will always be confronted with that, even when the national government would once again promise that they will stop putting non deportable migrants on the streets. They didn’t keep those promises before, for the simple reason that it is an unrealistic promise. Therefore, local authorities should ensure that people do not have to live on the streets and providing shelter around the clock.

One may think: right now it is impossible to give shelter to the refugees of We Are Here as well. We need all resources for dealing with the Syrians. It is true that today, there are as many refugees as in the 1990s, during the war in former Yugoslavia. But that cannot be a reason to play refugees off against one another. Refugees and Dutch citizens will easily agree on one thing: it would have been much nicer if these people didn’t have to flee. But they had to. They are here now. And they will remain, because they cannot go back. We will simply have to face that.

Dutch version published in Trouw, 26 November 2015