by Mihaela Breabin
Amsterdam, one of the world’s best known cities for the quality of life, hides just a few kilometers away from the City centre a spot where corona measures don’t apply and human rights have been suspended. On the Kraaiennest Garage, in the South East side, an improvised shelter built by a group of asylum seekers with nowhere to go shows the dark side of the generous Dutch welfare system.
The garage is old, cold, without electricity or running water, but it gives a roof above the head of more than 40 undocumented refugees. They were 80 but recentely 40 of them have been moved to a safer, less crowded place in a complex of artists’ studios. When we spoke to Samba, an asylum-seeker from Gambia who likes politics and dreams one day to become prime minister, he shared with us his sadness: “Right now, we really have no future. Nothing, absolutely nothing”. He lives in a tent with 5 more people with no anticorona distance and no privacy. Is really an intelligent lockdown something for everyone?
According to Samba, the undocumented refugees have been in the Kraiennest garage for about 4 months. They came to Europe seeking international protection but were all denied asylum. They have been living in the streets for 8-9 years now. “This is what we do: moving from a building to another, from a building to another”, he repeats. They are member of “We are Here” a collective of asylum seekers who squats buildings in Amsterdam to provide undocumented with a roof above their head. Just before the lockdown, they squatted a building in Diemen, in the outskirt of Amsterdam, but they were put in the street by the police, despite government call to stay inside as much as possible.
According to Samba, Amsterdam City Council provided 15 portable toilets to the garage but the minimum standard of civilisation is still way too far; to take a shower, Samba says, they have to walk all the way to Mandela. Those asylum seekers are denied basic hygienic conditions, leaving them vulnerable while everywhere around them there is a fight to contain the pandemia.
Amid the Coronavirus crisis, the government turned a Sports Hall into a shelter. “We are only allowed to sleep in the sports hall. At 9:30 in the morning you have to leave the building until 4pm”, says Samba. They are only allowed to bring a transparent plastic bag with personal belongings. The government is playing carrot and stick with them: a proper shelter would be provided just for those who accept to be deported back to the country where they filed the first “Dublin claim”. As a security measure against the spread of the virus, GGD – the Medical and Health Service of Amsterdam -has advised not to give to homeless or undocumented refugees room on a 24h shelters.
According to Annette, a member from Amsterdam City Rights, the advice of GGD, “It’s not taking into account their fear: they feel unsafe during the day and they don’t feel protected in the sports hall”. The doctors are often surprised: “on one hand, they are fighting the lives of the people in the intensive care and on the other hand, they hear that people are out in the streets with a high risk of spreading the Corona virus”.
As Annette suggested, “we should think together and take Amsterdammers seriously”. So far, NGOs advocating for 24h shelter don’t have an argument, because it’s all in healthcare authorities hands.
The refugees are blocked in a country where they don’t feel welcome, with the rest of Europe’s borders closed. The lack of information, communication, combined with the isolation and the social distance, it makes refugees very lonely and depressed. “I’m afraid once the Corona crisis is over, the attention will go to the homeless people with a status, with a Dutch nationality and then the undocumented refugees will be forgotten”, told Annette. Unfortunately, they already seem to be forgotten.