As mayor of the municipality to which Ter Apel falls, Jaap Velema sees every day to which excesses the failing Dutch asylum policy leads. The future makes him bleak. ‘It is now officially a crisis, but I don’t have the impression that anything is changing.’
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Mayor Venema looks cheerfully into the camera from his office. His white sheepdog Stef is under the desk. The mayor of Westerwolde does not show during this video conversation that there is a crisis in his municipality. But listen to his words, and you realize the daily pressure on him and his inhabitants. “It will end for us too.”
Behind him hangs a framed black-and-white drawing, which matches well with his black-and-white checkered shirt. “That is the Wedde castle. It is also located in our municipality, and it once played an important role in the formation of the Republic of the Netherlands. Here one of the Oranges prepared for the battle of Heiligerlee, as you undoubtedly know. the first battle we won against the Spaniards in 1568.”
Asylum seekers in an improvised camp at the entrance of the asylum seekers’ center in Ter Apel.
Perhaps D66 member Velema (58) can take a look at it now and then, when they are on their own again in the north. Then he can assure himself that Ter Apel and Westerwolde really do belong to the Netherlands. He has been asking the rest of the country – the cabinet, provinces, fellow mayors – for help since this autumn, but there are still far too few places for refugees and there are still sleeping in the grass at ‘his’ application center for refugees.
Do you feel abandoned?
“I’d rather not assume the role of a victim, as if it happens to all of us.”
Isn’t that a bit like that too?
“Look, I have good days and bad days. On bad days I am convinced that if this happened in the Randstad, action would have been taken more quickly. On good days I think: I am happy that I live here, in a beautiful environment, with great inhabitants. Then I’m glad The Hague is far away. But on bad days…”
What are the problems with the support for the application center in your municipality?
“There is still a positive basic attitude. But because of everything that is happening, the region is looking surprised at the rest of the country. We are doing what we have to do, but an important part of the Netherlands is failing. It will not be easy for us made, so to speak, and I notice that among our residents. It is an attack on the quality of life and the reputation of the village and the region. That must end. If the government does not perform, it will also have a negative impact on society. turn up.”
For the unsuspecting Dutchman, the asylum crisis may have started with the images of asylum seekers lying in a makeshift tent on the hard ground in front of the asylum seekers’ center in Ter Apel, for Velema it has been all hands on deck for a year now.
Asylum seekers at the entrance of the asylum seekers’ center in Ter Apel.
“It started when the travel restrictions expired after corona, in August last year. There was a huge crowd at Ter Apel, and the application center was not prepared for that. Normally there are 1400 or 1500 people, that quickly became 2000. In October I received a message that 650 people slept in the pavilions that were there because of corona, while only 275 were allowed in. The electricity, sanitary and sewer were not designed for that at all. Families slept in storage pens. That was very distressing, but I found little response from the then State Secretary Ankie Broekers-Knol.”
Even then, says Velema, the government should have regarded the influx as a crisis, but the response was ‘very slow’. While the mayor in Ter Apel observed all kinds of acute security risks, he heard the state secretary in The Hague say that four thousand places would be added ‘sometime in November’. “I thought: I’m going crazy. We now have a problem, and the Secretary of State doesn’t even give a date.”
Former State Secretary Ankie Broekers-Knol.
Finally, there was some relief. Broekers-Knol forced reception in a number of municipalities towards Christmas – not entirely according to the rules, it turned out afterwards. “I am still grateful to her for this illegal action. Otherwise we would have ended up in a situation where Joseph and Mary could not enter the inn at Christmas. Now they had poor quality reception, but they did have shelter. Even Joseph and Mary were there. happy with it, I guess.”
That belch of decisiveness turned out to be an exception. “In January and February, the numbers rose again, but COA was unable to find new locations. The cabinet did agree with the municipalities what everyone should do to solve the problems, even three times, but nobody came to help. appointments, over and over again.”
Since he became mayor in 2018, Velema has seen how the Netherlands has slowly but surely been presented with the bill for years of neglect of the asylum reception. “The system is not prepared for a higher influx. The same way we deal with IC places, we also deal with asylum reception: everything as efficiently as possible, as in the industry. The cabinet does write in the coalition agreement that more application centers must be created, but that was also in it four years ago. There is no urgency at all. The provinces are also doing too little. They ensure that municipalities accommodate sufficient status holders. There are major backlogs, but the provinces are far too cramped to Act.”
Then it was March, and the Ukraine crisis came. Municipalities suddenly pulled out all the stops to receive refugees. Didn’t you think then: boys, I’ve been asking for help for so long?
“Well, let me first say that I am happy that the Netherlands can still show solidarity with people from a war zone. That we have not lost all humanity. But it is very difficult for me to digest that the Syrian family that is standing here at the gate Because of those same Russian bombs and missiles that flattened Aleppo, being treated differently from a refugee Ukrainian family. I don’t like that.”
Is that duplicity?
“Yes, if you have looked such a family in the eye, you realize that very strongly. Make no mistake: 60 to 70 percent of the people who come here are eventually allowed to stay, because they flee from danger. Those are people from Yemen, from Turkey, where many people are also not safe now, from Syria… The picture is now colored by single men sleeping outside, but that is also because the women and children do sleep inside.”
Do you also tell stories like this to fellow mayors who refuse to take responsibility?
“No, I find that uncomfortable. Ultimately, the application location is a government institution, we are only hosts. For me, the application center is one of the villages in my municipality. It is not my role to go on a mission.”
Employees assist asylum seekers at Ter Apel.
You can see the misery going on in that village.
“Yes, but I want to stay away from political discussions. My job is to keep the community together here. What I can say is that this is the failure of the government. Everyone is looking and pointing at each other, but nobody is doing anything .”
Since mid-June, the asylum reception has been declared a national crisis. Doesn’t that make a difference?
“It’s as if you end up on the monument list. I don’t have the impression that anything really changes in practice. We are still in a crisis, that second registration center is still not in sight.” I get that answer so often, and I really believe it is. But are you just busy, or are you also effective? That is the question. My idea was that the cabinet would have more perseverance in a crisis but I don’t see it yet.”
Is the government perhaps afraid that they are not legally strong enough to really enforce something?
“It could. It’s almost a philosophical question. If they really wanted to, could they enforce steps that directly help us with our problems? People say they don’t. But is that really the case? I don’t know. “
It is quite a crazy discussion when people are lying in front of the gate of Ter Apel at the same time.
“Yes. It’s like standing next to a fire to discuss whether you can use the water, and who actually issued the permit. You have to get to work! After extinguishing you can wonder why there was no smoke detector. But now you find that discussion takes place simultaneously. That cannot be completely prevented, because a structural solution must of course also be found.”