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Refugees Are Having a Depressing Time Living in a Dutch Prison

But they still don't want to get kicked out and made homeless tomorrow.
2.6.14

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

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

I went to meet them to ask what about their time living somewhere originally intended to house low-risk criminal offenders. The Vluchthaven is home to some 130 stateless refugees including Thomas, originally from Sudan and a We Are Here founder, who met me at the door as I was signed in by guards who are still employed by the state to monitor the prison.

Thomas from Sudan.

After quick tour of the jail's five-stories, I sat down with Thomas who explained why he and the others 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 live 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 centres. Many of us here have been imprisoned or left in these detention centres sometimes for years on end. We have no dignity and we are living in a political and juridical vacuum."

A Somali refugee.

Thomas told me that he and a group of fellow refugees pitched up tents in protest in Amsterdam in 2012, making their situation visible. They were quickly moved on, with many of them arrested.

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They stayed together and kept up the momentum, setting up tent encampments or squatting in numerous locations. Eventually they had a minor breakthrough; the Mayor of Amsterdam offered them shelter in the former prison. “So we accepted this six month offer which began on the 3rd of December 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.”

Thomas explained that most of the people in We Are Here has 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 – sometimes they don't even show up in court, Thomas said.

The vast majority of the refugees are in limbo, because 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 centre, which much the same as a prison.

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Hassan from Somalia.

Thomas told me that most of the refugees have spent time – months or years – in detention centres and are traumatised by it, so the building 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 choice. 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 expect no different.”

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

Nagi from Sudan.

There 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 gained a degree in political science and eventually a Masters Degree in International Relations. While at Khartoum, he became active in the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and worked for a number of international human rights programmes 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 centres, a prison, and on the streets. As a co-founder of We Are Here, Nagi works alongside the many refugees that find themselves in this stateless condition.

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“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 the World War II. So why we can't we? If I return to Sudan, I face long term imprisonment or possible 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 for a shelter for refugees who are considered sick and vulnerable. Living in a former prison was far from ideal, but provided a few months of relative stability.

I asked one of the volunteers who helps the group for an update. She emphasised 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 put on the street. Some can stay because they are working on their return 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."

@gcwingman