Helen Hintjens uses the way the Dutch authorities responded to a school fire in the Hague and one in a detention centre at Schipol airport to comment on the treatment meted out to asylum seekers in the Netherlands.
It was raining in the Hague, on Monday 16 January. Standing on the corner, a crowd of people craned to see the fireman pouring water from a hundred-foot platform hoisted on top of a fire engine crane into the building. The Wereldwijzer primary school was on fire, the roof burning with a flame that could be seen a mile away. The children’s schoolbags with their mobile phones in, school books, paintings, clay models, sports equipment, computers, adult education resources, special dyslexia equipment were all lost as the burning roof of the school taunted firemen for six hours. But no one was hurt; the children were ferried out in just four minutes right after the alarm was raised.
On 27 October last year, a fire broke out in the wing of a detention centre at Schipol airport, on the outskirts of Amsterdam. This time the people in the building were not so lucky. They were locked in. Of the forty-three people in the wing that caught fire, eleven died and fifteen were wounded. The dead lost more than their possessions, they lost their lives. Still, far from helping the others, the survivors are to be deported from the Netherlands. According to Ahmed Pouri, of PRIME (Participating Refugees in Multicultural Europe) the survivors have been promised psychological help, but have never received it. Already in early November, the hard-bitten former prison warden, Dutch Minister for Integration, Rita Verdonk, insisted that the survivors would be deported. This was the third fire at the centre since November 2002. There was still no automatic electronic opening mechanism for the cells, which had to be opened manually. Too late. The calls by safety inspectors to close the centre down have been ingnored.
Back in the Hague, as the fire is brought under control at the school, huge cranes, towering one hundred feet up, are identical to those used to put out the fire at Schipol the previous October. But at Schipol, the firemen had to negotiate an 80-foot barbed wire fence, making their job more difficult; because of an exclusion zone around the detention centre, access for emergency services remains a problem.
In the Hague, residents of the street where the school had burned were evacuated. Everyone had to leave. Holland feels a bit like that these days; everyone should either speak Dutch, be Dutch or just leave and go off somewhere else. The Minister for Integration who controls detention and deportation policies is a third generation prison warden. That night my children wander the streets, as firemen stride about; our street looks like a war zone.
In fact, a war has been underway in this country for years now; a war against asylum seekers and so-called ‘illegals’; people detained and deported because they are not wanted or believed. The policy now is to exclude almost everyone who claims asylum in the country. As Ahmed Pouri of PRIME explains, in the Netherlands, only a few hundred people are given refugee status every year, a tiny fraction of the few who dare apply for asylum in what is now an overtly anti-immigrant climate. People flee to Belgium to marry, to get papers processes, and even flee to the UK to try to avoid being sent back to war zones. Their options are closing down. Most never make it, wherever they go.
Holland now has a more efficient and ruthless system in place than any of her western EU partners; almost everyone seeking asylum is deported at source. They are ‘turned around’ at Schipol airport itself, and not even allowed to set foot in the country. Most cases are dealt with in 48 hours; some take two weeks.
At the burning school in the Hague, fireman are having trouble; every time they put out the flames, wind whips up the fire in some other part of the building. Politicians are a bit like the wind; fanning flames of intolerance in quite outrageous ways. As Pouri comments wryly, they make ever more misleading and exaggerated claims about the numbers coming into the Netherlands, grossly inflating statistics in speeches and in statements to the media, then reported verbatim. The scale of the claims are from 40,000 per year to 15,000. Ahmed estimates that the real figure is closer to 5,000 new claimants. Not all Dutch people support the ‘fortress Holland’ approach, but it is telling that Verdonk is now considered about the most popular political leader in the country.
As we wander around trying to find somewhere to sleep, I ask a policeman: ‘Where do I go?’ ‘To a shelter’, he replies. Eventually we end up in a local municipal ‘opvangcentrum’ – a reception centre. They do not arrest us. They do not stick us in a cell. They do not demand to see our passports and then stick us on a plane out of the country. Instead they smile, offer tea, juice, sandwiches. Do we want to phone friends or relatives? What a contrast to the survivors of the Schipol fire. Initially offered help, they have received nothing, no compensation, and not even any trauma counseling. Ahmed Pouri complains that the government has not delivered on its public promises to help the survivors. Instead they will be forcibly deported.
Anyone living illegally in Holland going to an opvangcentrum in a time of emergency would be in danger. As with the London bombings, fires and other emergencies reveal the underbelly of European societies where so many undocumented people exist in constant fear of being detected, detained and deported as ‘illegals’. In the opvangcentrum I meet my neighbour who is 102; her sister is 98 and looks after her. The older sister has lived in the house all her life, and still has her slippers on. She is tearful and disoriented and wants to go home. The front door came crashing in that morning, as fireman in full gear came in and carried her out. It can’t have been fun. Every day the same treatment is meted out to so-called overstayers and illegals, whether in the UK or in the Netherlands, the EU or elsewhere. Many asylum seekers awaiting early morning raids now keep their bags packed with documents and vital possessions, just in case there is a bang at 5 am. I feel sorry for my neighbour, but imagine how much worse it is when they are not breaking down the door to help you, but to take you away, detain you and remove you from the country.
The safety experts have decided, after the fire, that the school in the Hague is no longer safe; it needs to be demolished. Machinery moves in the very next day. The closure and demolition of Schipol immigration centre was recommended by safety reports some time ago, but even after eleven people died, the idea seems to have been indefinitely postponed. People are still being held in the building; there seem to be no plans to close it. There have also been several lethal fires in immigration detention centres in the UK, like this one started by distressed detainees, out of their minds and traumatised, and a danger to themselves and those who share their conditions. The deaths and injuries that result are entirely avoidable; the centres simply need to be closed down and done away with, as they serve no useful purpose.
Shortly after the school was made safe, some kind of normality returned to our street in the Hague. The old lady next door had her front door mended and she moved back in. Survivors of the Schipol blaze cannot return to any kind of normality after the fire there. They are described as criminals, and are further traumatised by what they see as Minister Verdonk’s callous attitude towards them. As their complaints fall on deaf ears, the huge, efficient Dutch machinery and the demolition men start the grinding job of breaking down the fabric of the building. Or should that be of Dutch society?