With chants of “refugees are welcome here,” hundreds of activists rallied in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on Friday, Aug. 26, to protest the country’s “inhumane” treatment of asylum seekers.
The demonstration was organized two days after an infant died at the country’s primary refugee intake center in the small, remote town of Ter Apel, prompting the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to announce they would provide services to the approximately two thousand people stranded at the site.
“People don’t have a place to shower, access to bathrooms, or medical care,” Sam, a Jordanian-Palestinian asylum seeker who declined to give his last name to protect his identity, told The Real News at the rally. He said the conditions he experienced in Ter Apel over the previous two weeks were worse than what he endured crisscrossing Europe on his way to the Netherlands. “It’s horrible. People are starving and don’t have enough clothes,” he said.
As the protests mounted, the Dutch government announced it would relocate asylum seekers, the majority of whom arrived to the country from the Middle East and Africa, into temporary shelters. But migrants rights advocates were not satisfied, and cited the far more favorable treatment received by Ukrainian refugees.
“After the crisis in Ukraine… the government and municipalities were offering money or housing, free travel,” said Martina Heijjd, a member of the feminist WONDA Collective. “We want to see that for these refugees as well.”
David, who declined to give his last name, fled his home in Ukraine earlier this year, but is originally from Nigeria. “The first question you get asked is, ‘What citizenship do you hold?’ So it doesn’t matter that I just came through hell, that I survived a bombing. That’s always gonna be the question,” he said. “If you are born in Ukraine you get special treatment.”
While hundreds of asylum seekers have been forced to live outdoors or in overcrowded makeshift shelters, the Netherlands has already resettled at least 74,000 Ukrainians who were driven from their homes by Russia’s invasion earlier in the year; a third of those Ukrainian refugees had found work by July.
“It’s racism. What more should I say about it?” said Heijjd. “There’s a very stark difference between how the two groups have been treated.”
Despite repeated warnings about the conditions there, the Ter Apel site continues to face overcrowding and acute shortages of food, medicine, and shelter, forcing 700 people to live and sleep outdoors despite temperatures reaching 90 degrees throughout the week.
The country’s capacity for taking in refugees was diminished at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and authorities have failed to restore its institutional ability to accommodate more refugees in response to growing demand, prompting some to argue that this is a deliberate failure and that the currently unfolding refugee crisis was designed to deter migration from the Global South.
“It’s very obvious that our government wants to give the people that want to come here the feeling that it’s also very bad in the Netherlands, [that] it’s the same as if you [were to] stay in Syria,” said Iman Abrontan, a member of the leftist GroenLinks party. “That’s the feeling that they want to create… ‘It’s better not to come over here, because if you come here, your treatment would also be very bad’. That’s the policy of our government,” he said.
Many attendees said they felt compelled to join the protest after news broke that a three-month-old died at the camp after authorities had failed to provide basic humanitarian services.
“[The news] made me so angry,” said Vicker Annellies Jans at the rally. “It’s such a shame that… we treat people like this in a country like [the Netherlands] when we are supposed to be so tolerant,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Narayan, another protest attendee who declined to provide her last name. “I’m here today because I’m ashamed that in a country like Holland, Doctors without Borders… felt it necessary to help at the camp,” she said.
As the deteriorating conditions at Ter Apel prompted international condemnation, MSF, which primarily works in international conflict zones, announced it would provide medical care at the camp, marking the first time the aid agency has deployed within the Netherlands.
“We cannot stand back and do nothing with this increasingly inhumane and unacceptable situation on our doorstep,” Judith Sargentini, director of MSF in the Netherlands, said in a statement. “The Dutch government and local municipalities must urgently improve living conditions and take on the responsibility of providing vulnerable people with medical care.”
Echoing calls from many who attended the rally, Sargentini called for immediate action to end the crisis. “[T]here must be a structural solution, such as creating multiple — and more — humane reception locations. This is something that the Dutch government has been called upon to do for years.”
Protesters also rejected a growing far-right campaign against the asylum seekers; the day before the protest, 500 far-right demonstrators descended on Ter Apel. Sam witnessed these marchers yelling slurs at residents and telling them to “go back to your country.”
David, the Nigerian refugee who had fled Ukraine, has also been told to ‘go back’ to his country. “[But] if [people like me] had a country to go to in the first place, why the fuck would [we] come to Ukraine?” he asked.
Counter-demonstrators called on officials to defy the anti-immigrant protests and treat asylum seekers with “humanity.”
“We have a government that’s kind of right-wing now, and they see them not as human beings but as people that are invading our country,” said Jans. “But they are people and they need shelter, they need love, they need our open arms.”