di Mihaela Breabin
In 2015, Europe experienced the highest increase in refugee numbers since WWII. The wave has caused tension even in the Netherlands where the number of refugees arriving was low compared to other countries. Their arrival has sparked a strong anti-refugee feeling in part of the population. Since then the number of newcomers has reduced sharply, partly because some EU countries closed their borders.
What is life like for those who did make it to the Netherlands? How does a rich country like the Netherlands with a strong welfare and a long tradition of minorities manage integration?
Coming from Sudan, Khaled has lived in the Netherlands for almost two decades and witnessed the two most recent large waves of migrants. He is very critical of the Dutch asylum procedure. “The way they welcome you” says Khaled, “is also the way they keep you motivated and productive in the country”. He laments that the personal opinion of the individual from the “Dutch department in charge of asylum procedure who interviews you counts 80% on your case and [whether] they decide if you’re welcome or not in this country”.
Without doubt, he is changed by his experience, especially because he received his residence permit only after sixteen years. “For sixteen years I didn’t see any change in the system: I would, like, get a position in the Dutch parliament and from there I can raise this topic, because nobody talks about this so far”. Although he had no possibility to work during these years, he has been very politically active, working with 82 different organizations in the past six years, including the UN, Amnesty International and UNICEF.
Khaled does not pin all the responsibility for his ordeal on the Dutch government, but extends it to the whole European Union, which in his opinion should take a more humanitarian approach in its asylum and integration policies. To facilitate integration, everybody deserves equal treatment and opportunity. Above all he condemns an ambiguous state of affairs which lends itself to hypocrisy. “If this country doesn’t want to welcome refugees, it should let us know. They have no right to have our information, name, and fingerprint and let us live on the street”, he says. There are indeed asylum seekers who remain homeless —sometimes for years— while waiting for the results of their applications.
The approach to integration must be “creative and easy going” says Khaled, suggesting that people must “talk, cook together, work together, share what you know”. A sense of unity will not only assist integration, but also survival. Khaled himself found shelter through Squat for a few years. Unfortunately, Squat is no longer an option and could not help the 700 refugees who ended up on the street, because of insufficient space in their reception centre.
Integration: ideal or real?
Khaled says that discrimination and obstacles to integration mostly come from the political side and not from society as a whole. 31mag.nl asked Rob Godfriend, a photographer for Majalla and buddy for undocumented refugees at We Are about the overall relationship between the Dutch people and the refugees living there. While giving the caveat that there can be no fixed answer to this question because there is no such thing as the Dutch people, Rob confessed that people from the Dutch cultural environment are more prone to accepting refugees. “As a matter of fact, film, theatre, and art are some of the strongest means of mixing people. Stories are very important that show a reality less known and influence people’s minds”. Since art plays a big role in shaping people’s perceptions, Rob reasons, it is critically important that artists, musicians and performers tell stories that encourage integration.
At the same time, he continues “every initiative that is based on the humanitarian feeling of people coming here in need of a chance to integrate in society with their own culture, is okay”. The Pijp neighbourhood will soon open a shelter for undocumented people. The program was initiated by the city board and many locals are working for it to become a success. The center will promote events that involve social work and will mix locals with newcomers that are seeking asylum. This might take the form of activities as basic as cleaning the streets, since “the purpose is to mix, to make sure that is possible for the locals to know the asylum seekers in a different way than from newspapers” and their preconceived notions says Rob.
Many of the negative ideas people have about refugees are generated by such newspapers. Media, as Khaled describes it, is a knife that is sharp at both ends. It can do good, but often does bad. For things to change, the popular media would have to change their way of presenting stories. Regardless of how good one might be, if “the media frames you as a bad person, then you are a bad person” says Khaled, noting that makes integration difficult not only from the political side, but also at the societal level.
Integration entails more than just providing necessities like housing to refugees. It also refers to how comfortable the refugee feels in the country of residence. Coyo, is an asylum seeker from Togo, in West Africa who is currently undocumented after not receiving renewal of his residence permit for the past two years.
Besides housing and legal problems, Coyo mentions repeatedly that mental health is a real problem among asylum seekers who are at risk to die because of stress, depression and illnesses caused by the psychological burdens they bear. “I was born without anything and I have to live with nothing”, says Coyo who admits of not thinking too much about the permit, the work or the house because if he does, he will become “completely sick mentally”.
Throughout the interview, Coyo speaks about freedom and precisely how asylum seekers lack it. He is afraid of even being outside with his friends too much, because according to him people are at risk of getting into trouble simply by doing so. In his case, without a residence permit, he thinks he has an 80% greater risk of getting into trouble. He also blames his asylum status for robbing him of the chance to have a wife, children and a home since he needs a secure living situation for that. Despite everything, this made him more determined to fight, to continue to apply, to ask for help and tell his story. “I have to be very responsible before having a wife and children. Is not easy. This is my motivation. I am single at 29 and I regret it”.
Neither Khaled, nor Coyo see the situation improving much in the future. According to Khaled, the situation is going to be worse for the whole world, especially when “authorities make circles around the big problems and no one wants to solve anything”, as seems to be happening at the moment.
Leaving aside all material needs, the biggest necessities a person has are to work, be paid, feel safe and secure. They also need to feel at home, says Khaled. This is why things should be equal: “wasting young power like that is not fair”, says Khaled with a tone of sadness.