Migrants crowded and surrounded by filth at the gates of an asylum center in the Netherlands | International
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A county road separates the national refugee reception center in the town of Ter Apel, in the north of the Netherlands, from a meadow dotted with perfectly aligned farms. The contrast could not be greater: on one side, comfortable and well-equipped homes. On the other, under some awnings secured with wooden poles and that barely protect from the sun, or from the rain, some 700 asylum seekers have camped for several weeks. Coming, among others, from Eritrea, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan or Pakistan, the men are grouped under the canvas. Women and children stay in the inner rooms, with a capacity of about 2,000 people. The lack of reception places has delayed registrations on a national scale, and the length of stay in establishments designed for temporary stays. In Ter Apel, those who are out in the open take short walks, await the arrival of food, try to clean themselves in an improvised laundry room and wait. Above all, they wait, until they get the documentation that will allow them to get out of there, sleep under cover, shower, and leave behind the dirty portable toilets they now use.
On Friday night, about 400 were taken to other parts of the country, after the Health and Youth Inspection warned about the risk of an infectious outbreak. The provincial authorities were still looking for places where several hundred more could spend the night, although in both cases it was temporary accommodation. By early Sunday morning, all those who had been forced to remain outside had been located in different provinces. A small group has preferred to continue to the doors of the reception center, according to the Red Cross, and although it is not clear why they have decided to continue there, the fear of losing their place was one of the most repeated conversations in the queue. For them, the organization has installed folding beds and has changed the installed toilets.
Situation “degrading, inhumane”
Before the asylum seekers were located, Monique Nagelkerke, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders, assured that the situation was “degrading, inhumane”. “These people have covered a very long route and they are hungry, they are exhausted. They have been here for weeks, and although the women and children sleep inside, there is no medical support after six in the evening. If something serious happens, you have to call an ambulance”, she maintains in front of the mobile unit that has been highlighted since Thursday by her organization in Ter Apel. It is an unprecedented emergency service on Dutch soil, and has already served some 100 people. Three have been referred to hospital. Last Wednesday, a baby died in the indoor gym, and the case is being investigated. Outside, the blankets and sleeping bags with which people protect themselves are filthy, and the effects of overcrowding and lack of hygiene are already being felt. Skin diseases, ulcers and wounds have begun to appear, some visible, further marginalizing those affected. The Red Cross is also present and provides first aid.
“I have come from Eritrea and here I have been for a week: waiting”, says a young man, 20 years old. Sitting under one of the awnings, he eats lunch, consisting of rice with a bread roll with raisins. Food is served from the other side of the fence that separates the center, with its solid brick buildings, from the land outside, where the refugees are crowded. “Because of my personal problem, I chose the Netherlands because I thought they would understand,” says another young man, from Uganda, who covers his head and does not make his homosexuality explicit. He flew in on a visa and is waiting outside for immigration officials to collect his details. A compatriot, who claims to be “in the same situation”, nods next to him. A little further on, sitting next to her suitcases, is a Syrian mother with two boys and a girl. She has another son who came unaccompanied a year ago. “He’s waiting for us, but we have to get through here first,” she says. The authorities must authorize family reunification, and Monique Nagelkerke underlines “the enormous general patience, despite the situation in which they find themselves”.
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Not everything is calm, however, outside Ter Apel. There have been clashes between groups of campers and the police have had to intervene. There was also a problem with some tents, which ended up being dismantled due to the risk of fire and physical damage. The loss of the image of a tolerant and advanced country that all this implies for the Netherlands has led the Government to speed up the negotiation with the City Councils. Mark Rutte, the prime minister, has acknowledged feeling “ashamed”, and hopes that the mayors will provide housing to some 20,000 refugees with residence permits in the coming months. In the council of ministers this Friday, it was agreed in turn to limit family reunifications when the asylum seeker has not obtained a house. In any case, if after 15 months you still do not have a home, your family can apply for a visa to move to the Netherlands. The regrouping is mandatory, given the international agreements signed by the Dutch Executive.
According to figures from the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA, in its Dutch acronym), which manages Ter Apel, between those who crowd there and those who wait in other parts of the country, “there are at least 15,000 people with permission to reside who are waiting for accommodation and to start working”. There is a lack of houses for them, but also for Dutch families and young people, especially those with low incomes. On the other hand, the Executive has decided to temporarily suspend the obligation to receive a thousand refugees per year under the agreement signed in 2016 between the European Union and Turkey [Ankara aceptaba frenar las salidas de refugiados hacia Europa a cambio de que la UE acoja legamente a una parte]. At the same time, 15 million euros will be allocated to open new reception points, “with an austere infrastructure”. Eric van den Burg, Secretary of State for Justice, hopes they will be ready “by September 10.”
“Days without showering”
Although the refusal to give names is general, some want to talk about their situation. “We haven’t showered for several days, the bathrooms are very dirty and the food is very bad. We ask the Dutch government to solve it”, explains a Palestinian man who says he already has recognized refugee status. Next to him, a young Syrian fears “that everything possible is not being done to solve all this, as they say, because we do not see progress,” he exclaims. As he speaks, the lunch line has disappeared and there are comments that there will be nothing to eat until dinner, around six in the evening. Another young man, this time Yemeni, approaches and says that he has traveled “several countries in the Gulf and North Africa, passing through Spain, France and Belgium.” In the town of Ter Apel itself, with some 10,000 inhabitants, there are mixed feelings. Some residents have declared on public television that they believe that among the refugees, concentrated a few kilometers from the urban center, “there are fortune seekers who receive subsidies and support right away.”
Added to the current congestion is the slow pace of immigration services, with a lack of budget and staff to process asylum requests. In theory, the procedures prior to the in-depth study of the files should last between three and five days. In practice, they take about three months to be ready. During the process, which includes taking data, photos and fingerprints, along with police registration, newcomers are given various colored bracelets that show the progress of their case. Then they go through a medical check-up and there is an interview with the immigration experts. The latter serves to explain the reasons for the trip and forms the backbone of the subsequent investigation, which will result in the granting, or not, of asylum. The term to grant it was half a year and has been increased by the Government to 15 months. Very few of those waiting in the open air at Ter Apel wore all the necessary bracelets on their wrists.
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