The Church of Refuge was cold, dark and dirty, and achieved more than expected

Around six o’clock in the evening, the squatters forced the entrance doors of the Sint-Josephkerk, a concrete building from the fifties in the Bos en Lommer district of Amsterdam. Not much later a coach pulled up. Asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies on board, from all corners of the world – Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. From that moment on, the Sint-Josephkerk was known as the Vluchtkerk.

It was a controversial initiative that was born on December 2, 2012, ten years ago last week. Eighty, one hundred, later one hundred and twenty homeless undocumented migrants who camped out in a squatted church, supported by a group of activists. They would stay there all winter, with the owner’s approval and tolerated by the Amsterdam city council.

The Flight Church opened up a lot. Local residents came in large numbers with food and clothing. Journalists knocked down the door. Politicians went to church to plead for a more humane asylum policy: MPs even spent the night in the church.

“We are here,” read a large banner on the front of the church. A few weeks after the squat, there was a big Christmas dinner, with 750 visitors and performances by Arie Boomsma, Akwasi and Anouk.

For the first time, asylum seekers who had exhausted all legal remedies – and the often appalling conditions in which they lived – were given a face. When the ‘residents’ left the church in April 2013, the problem of homeless undocumented migrants was firmly on the political and social agenda – and remained there. If only because the group would travel through Amsterdam for years to come, from one squat to the next. We Are Herethey called themselves.

I left there every night thinking: I hope no one freezes to death

Savannah Koolen activist

Tent camp

The story of the Vluchtkerk started a few kilometers away in Amsterdam Osdorp. There, in the autumn of 2012, a tent camp of illegal immigrants who had nowhere to go had arisen out of protest. One of the residents was Mohammed Idi, 28 at the time, from Kenya. A few years earlier, he had fled his country after taking part in political protests. Idi’s asylum application was rejected, he had been wandering through Amsterdam for a year and a half.

The tent camp in Osdorp had to be evacuated, according to then mayor Eberhard van der Laan. Conditions were bad and winter was coming. The campers were given temporary shelter in other places in the country. But they did not comply with Van der Laan’s demand – they preferred to be arrested collectively. “We thought: if we stay together, maybe there will be a solution for the whole group,” says Mohammed Idi.

This was when the activists sprang into action – and the Vluchtkerk saw the light. It was a rather diverse group that hid behind the project: squatters, radicals no borderactivists, a documentary maker, a feminist activist, two journalists and a theologian. Despite their different backgrounds, they had a common belief, says Savannah Koolen, a student at the time and active in the GroenLinks youth movement: “We found it unacceptable that people lived in such appalling conditions in the Netherlands.”

It was absolutely not comfortable or romantic in the Vluchtkerk. An improvised heating system was installed, stadium lamps provided some lighting. Cooking was done on the altar and wooden bedrooms were built in the aisles of the church for the residents. But despite everything, it remained cold, dirty and dark in the Vluchtkerk. Residents became ill, got drunk or got into mutual conflicts, which sometimes resulted in fights. “I left there every evening with the thought: I hope no one freezes to death tonight,” says Koolen.

We thought, let’s stick together. Then there may be a solution for the entire group

Muhammad Idi former resident of the Refugee Church

‘Exhausted and disappointed’

Yet there was also optimism. A film was made and a football team was set up. A We Are Here band performed in Paradiso. So much attention for the church, the activists and residents thought, would automatically lead to a solution. “Once politicians saw how hopeless the situation of these people was,” says Savannah Koolen, “there would be a general pardon for this group.”

That hope turned out to be vain. When the undocumented had to leave the church in April 2013, there was no collective solution. The end of the Vluchtkerk turned out to be the beginning of an odyssey through Amsterdam that lasted for years. The group of illegal immigrants split up and moved to other squats: the Flight Flat, the Flight Garage, the Flight Office, the Flight Shed, the Flight Mate. We Are Here squatted dozens of homes and office buildings in the city – in 2018 alone there were 39, according to calculations The parole.

Mohammed Idi also moved from squat to squat. During those years he stayed in more than ten different locations, he estimates. “I can’t put them in the right order anymore.”

Due to the hopelessness and increasingly negative media coverage, the energy and optimism disappeared from the movement. The group kept falling apart. Some undocumented migrants went to the night shelter that the municipality had opened. Others received a residence permit after a few years. Still others gave up and left for another country. Mohammed Idi also thought about leaving for a while. Maybe to Germany? “I was exhausted and very disappointed. But people said to me: if you go to Germany, you will be sent back to the Netherlands, and you can start from scratch again.”

A small group of activists, including Savannah Koolen, continued to support the undocumented. They found new squats, arranged food, distributed press releases, escorted sick residents to the doctor. But the squatting actions of We Are Here were increasingly accompanied by unrest. It even led to Mayor Femke Halsema deciding to tighten up the squatting policy because of “increasing coarsening”.

Also read how We Are Here stood for it in 2017

From safe to unsafe

And now? Ten years later, the legacy of the Vluchtkerk is greater than those involved had dared to hope in the intervening years. Two things stand out.

To begin with, a large part of the residents of the Vluchtkerk have received a residence permit. Savannah Koolen assumes “eighty to ninety percent”: on a group photo of sixty residents taken a week after the squat, she only sees a handful of people who still have no status. Others involved at the time estimate the number of former Refugee Church residents with papers to be lower, but more than half to two-thirds seems a safe estimate.

How is that possible? Over the years, the status of the country or region of origin of some failed asylum seekers changed from ‘safe’ to ‘unsafe’. Others managed to collect the necessary documentation that they did not have on arrival in the Netherlands.

“When we started with the Vluchtkerk,” says Savannah Koolen, “we were reproached by opponents for offering false hope to the undocumented. That argument therefore turns out not to be valid for a significant part of those people.”

Over time, many of the residents of the Vluchtkerk received residence status

New request

The second legacy of We Are Here is broader: there has been a more or less decent reception of undocumented migrants by the government. In 2018, five major cities negotiated a pilot with the government for 24-hour reception of asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies. The driving force behind this deal was Amsterdam alderman Rutger Groot Wassink (GroenLinks).

Since then, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen, Rotterdam and Utrecht have had a National Immigration Facility (LVV), where undocumented migrants are accommodated on a small scale for a maximum of one and a half years. They receive a living allowance and are accompanied with a repeated asylum application or voluntary return. The idea: with a roof over their heads and no more daily stress, many asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies are still successful in their asylum procedure.

This turned out to be true for Mohammed Idi. After years of wandering, he ended up in an LVV in the Amsterdam neighborhood of De Pijp, where he applied for new asylum. Five months ago, twelve years after arriving in the Netherlands, he was granted residence status. He is now waiting for a home in an asylum seekers’ center in Almere.

Of the Amsterdam LVV participants who apply for asylum again, 80 percent will still receive residence papers, according to figures from the municipality. A national one appeared last week evaluation of the LVV paints a less hopeful picture: for forty percent of the participants, “no sustainable solution” has been found in recent years – a euphemism for: left with an unknown destination.

But, the researchers emphasize, the ‘social effects’ of the LVV are positive. The well-being of the participants improves in the shelter and fewer migrants live on the streets – which benefits public order. According to the municipality of Amsterdam, there has only been one asylum squat in the city since the start of the LVV.

“My work has really changed since 2018,” says Savannah Koolen, who is still committed to undocumented migrants. “I was on the phone every day around five o’clock to help people get a bed. That is really not the case anymore.”

And what happened to St Joseph’s Church? It is now a children’s play paradise, with brightly colored climbing frames and a counter full of sweets.