Ghosts Trapped In Between Borders

‘We have to leave in two weeks’, Bushra said, ‘the municipality of Amsterdam is demanding that we leave this building in two weeks’. ‘Were will you go?’ a question from someone in the group sitting in a half a circle on the carpet around her. ‘We don’t know…… We either have to find another building to squat or sleep on the street’.

We were sitting in one of the rooms in an abandoned building in southern Amsterdam. With a group of 15 people we were visiting Wij Zijn Hier, a collective of refugees that squats abandoned buildings in protest against the asylum policy. Bushra is one of the spokespersons of the group and gave us a guided tour through the building. There were more than 100 men and women living in the building, with ethnicities ranging from Somalia to Ivory Coast to Syria. The facilities, however (one shower, mobile heaters and a few toilets), were not made for 100 people.

What unites these people is that they came to Holland because of political turmoil, economic despair or fear of persecution. Now they are here, a wealthy liberal democratic country, living in inhumane living conditions. They are not recognized because they don’t have any papers and they can’t go back because of the aforementioned reasons. They are stateless persons, ghosts trapped in between borders.

How did it come this far? All throughout history humans have had the urge to move across the globe, looking for new places to settle. To know why people end up being stateless, one would have to look at concepts such as nation-state and borders while taking into consideration the cultural, historical, political and economic complexity. Thus, refugees have always been there while stateless persons or ‘illegals’ are the outcome of a complex web of factors. But I’m not an expert so I won’t delve into it.

There is, however, something to be said about the attitude towards and the reception of stateless persons, which has changed dramatically over time. A clear line can be drawn between the treatment of refugees and changes in the Dutch political landscape.  Ever since the economic crisis of 2008, the government has cut public spending under the auspices of decentralization. This meant that the local government, the gemeente, took over tasks from the national government, without getting the appropriate funds for it. One of these tasks, as you might have guessed, is the accommodation of refugees. But without the appropriate funds gemeentes are not capable of meeting the basic needs of refugees (see here, here and here for sources in Dutch. Sorry Anglophone folks, was hard to find English sources).

This was a recipe for disaster and soon a humanitarian crisis unfolded. In November last year, the European Committee for Social Rights (ECSR) ruled that every person is entitled to have their basic human needs met, every person including every stateless person. The Dutch policy was clearly in violation with the universal human rights as outlined in the UN charter or  the Social Rights and so forth the government was obliged to provide shelter, care-taking and nourishment: the now infamous bed-bad-en-brood agreement.

This ruling put a dent in the already fragile coalition between the liberal party (VVD) and the labour party (PvdA). The VVD argues that providing bed-bad-en-brood will only serve to attract more refugees while the PvdA argues that the government has to carry its responsibility ( opinions inside the party are divided too of course). After dangling the coalition on the brink of destruction, they finally came to an agreement at the end of April. This agreement outlines that the local governments should quit providing shelter. From now on there will be detention centers in five big cities, where refugees can shortly stay (two weeks) before returning to their homeland. Local governments that do provide shelter, risk a fine.

This new agreement has been heavily critiqued by NGOs and refugees alike. Philip Alston, human rights inspector for the United Nations, called the new agreement ‘inhumane’ and ‘treating refugees like criminals’. Refugee groups, such as Wij Zijn Hier, were not satisfied with the new agreement and announced that they will keep squatting until a humane alternative is offered. Even local governments have showcased a spirit of rebellion. The municipality of Utrecht, for example, deemed the agreement ‘uncivilized’ and continues to provide shelter until a better alternative is offered.

In the meantime refugees are still trying to survive in inhumane conditions and Bushra and the others squatting the abandoned building still have to look for a new place in a few weeks. With such bleak living conditions and anxiety-inducing uncertainty, one would expect a similarly bleak outlook on life. But the refugees we talked with seemed remarkably optimistic and happy to see that there are people who care.

Kovenou Cyriaque stuck with me in particular. Kovenou is a man in his mid-forties and fled from Ivory Coast. He likes to play guitar and used to perform back home. While we passed by his room, he immediately sent out the people that he was having a tea with and invited us over. So there we were: fifteen persons crammed inside a tiny room decorated with Rasta posters and colorful paintings. After offering us tea, he grabbed his guitar and started playing a song. Full of passion and with a bright smile, he sang about social injustice, universal love and the power of the people.

When he was done playing the song, he lay down his guitar and his face suddenly turned very serious. Je suis ici, aux Pays-Bas, dans un pays rich, he started speaking in French, mais il n’y a pas de justice pour moi et mes freres et soeurs (I’m here in Holland, a rich country. But there is no justice for me nor for my brothers and sisters). Mais ensemble… ensemble nous sommes fortes… parce-que nous sommes une famille. (But together we are strong, because we are one family).  Le gouvernement dure seulement quatre ans, mais la peuple vive pour toujours… La peuple est permanent et la peuple a le pouvoir. La changé est possible… tout est possible… Si on veut, on peut. (The government will only last for four years while the people will last forever. The people are there permanently and the people have the power. Change is possible, everything is possible, if we want, we can).


On the way back to my safe existence my mind was scattered because of the intensity of the last four hours. While staring out of the train-window, I start reflecting; ‘What can we do?’, ‘is there even something that we can do?’ Then my mind wanders to what I learn at school. Economic theories tell me that immigration is good for the economy. The economy is ageing and the elder generation is rapidly outnumbering the younger generation, which will create a demand for labor. It tells me that migrants create extra demand for the goods and services that they create.

But then I realize what I’m doing. I’m talking in the exact same language as those people who created the bed-bad-en-brood agreement. I’m talking about humans in economic terms such as labour and demand. Language is a powerful tool and talking about humans in these terms is part of the problem. Slowly I’m starting to realize that there is in fact something we can do. As Wij Zijn Hier has shown, as the local governments have shown and as international organizations have shown, there are many things we can do. But the first step in taking action is to recognize that we are not talking about ‘things’ or illegals or criminals but about humans, just like you and I, humans who are entitled to their basic human rights.

Si on veut, on peut


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