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African Refugees Are Having a Hard Time Living in a Dutch Prison

Now their situation is getting more desperate because the time period in which they're allowed to stay here is coming to an end.
May 31, 2014, 12:14pm
Photo by VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

A few weeks ago, I went to Amsterdam to visit a community of African refugees who live in a former prison called the Vluchthaven. The group calls themselves "We Are Here" and are considered illegal immigrants by the Dutch government. They've been very visible over the last two years for protesting the indifference that many politicians in Holland have shown towards immigrants and people seeking asylum from war-torn countries.

Those who don't live in the jail's cells are holed up in a disused garage known as the Vluchtgarage, a cold concrete structure on the outskirts of the city. Now their situation is getting more desperate because the time period in which they're allowed to stay here is coming to an end, and many of them will be on the street come Saturday.

The Vluchthaven, which was originally intended to house low-risk criminal offenders, is home to some 130 stateless refugees including Thomas, a We Are Here founder who's originally from Sudan. Thomas met me at the door as I was signed in by guards who are still employed by the state to monitor the prison.

Thomas gave me a quick tour of the jail and explained why he and the other refugees formed We Are Here. “We started We Are Here to bring attention to the fact that we are living on the streets and in these temporary shelters. We have to make visible the problems that we are confronted with on a daily basis. We had no options other than living on the streets, and for this we are treated like criminals and often taken into custody by authorities and imprisoned in one of the huge detention centers. Many of us here have been imprisoned or left in these detention centers for years on end. We have no dignity, and we are living in a political and juridical vacuum."

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Thomas told me that back in 2012 he and a group of fellow refugees pitched tents in protest in Amsterdam, in attempt to raise awareness. The authorities quickly moved in on them, and many of them were arrested.

They stayed together and kept up the momentum, setting up tent encampments and squatting in numerous locations. Eventually they had a minor breakthrough: the mayor of Amsterdam offered them shelter in the former prison. “So we accepted his six-month offer, which began on December 3, 2013,” said Thomas, “though many were excluded for bureaucratic reasons and went to squat in the Vluchtgarage a few days after we moved here. This means We Are Here are still together, but we are living in different places right now.”

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Thomas explained that most of the people in We Are Here have applied for asylum again and again. In Holland, refugees get access to lawyers free of charge. However, the lawyers often do not have the expertise or desire to be particularly helpful, and sometimes they don't even show up in court, Thomas said.

The vast majority of the refugees are in limbo. On the one hand, it's difficult to get granted asylum. On the other hand, it would be impossible for them to go back to their countries of origin, due to either war, persecution, or something else. It is also difficult and risky to go to other European countries, since the Dublin II law restricts the refugees to the country where they first applied for asylum. If they're spotted somewhere other than the country they first applied to, they'll be sent back to that country. This usually means they will end up in a detention center, which is basically the same as a prison.

Thomas told me that most of the refugees who have spent time in detention centers are traumatized by it, and the prison is a nasty reminder of that. Most of the people in the prison accepted the mayor’s offer to live there because they had no other option. It was winter, so they really needed somewhere to stay. I asked Thomas what would happen when they get kicked out. “After that date, who knows? We are used to being pushed around, so we expect no different.”

Those who weren't in the Vluchthaven were staying in a disused garage—the Vlughtgarage. I went there to take a look and found a wreck of a building. It had large, open rooms, and people lived with no privacy whatsoever and no heating. Women generally can’t live there because it’s unsafe. More than 100 or so men were living in crude dorms. They sat around. It seemed that there was little else for them to do.

I met Nagi, a 31-year-old man who fled Sudan three years ago. He told me that, after schooling, he went to the Sudanese capital and to the University of Khartoum, where he earned a degree in political science and eventually a master's in international relations. While at Khartoum, he became active in the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and worked for a number of international human rights groups, including Save the Children. For his media work with SLM, he was quickly targeted by Sudanese government intelligence. After death threats directed at him and his family, he fled to Holland. Since then, he has spent 13 months in detention centers, a prison, and on the streets. As a co-founder of We Are Here, Nagi works alongside the many refugees who find themselves in this stateless condition.

“A message that I would like to send to the those in the US and elsewhere is that in many ways we are all immigrants,” says Nagi. “We have all migrated at some point. Even the Dutch queen emigrated to Canada during World War II. So why can't we? If I return to Sudan, I face long-term imprisonment or possibly death for my political views.”

The contract at the prison runs out at the end of this week. When I visited, the refugees were afraid and didn't know where they would go. The city council had voted for a plan to create a shelter for refugees who are considered sick and vulnerable. Living in a former prison was far from ideal, but it provided a few months of relative stability.

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I asked one of the volunteers who helps the group for an update. She emphasized that the situation is fast-moving, but told me, "From Saturday on, around 100 of the refugees who currently reside in the Vluchthaven will be on the streets again. Only 50 of the refugees are considered too vulnerable to be put on the street. Some can stay because they are working on returning to their country of origin. All others who are not considered to be sick or vulnerable, or who do not work on their return, will be on the street, and no solution is provided. It is a very alarming situation, and nobody really knows what to do."