For six weeks, the heavily pregnant asylum seeker slept on a camp bed in a sports hall. With great difficulty, Anne-Els Jansen recently got her from crisis emergency shelter to a bed in a regular asylum seekers’ center. ‘She was seven months pregnant and hadn’t seen a doctor here yet’, says the regional manager for asylum for the West and Central Netherlands of Vluchtelingenwerk, shaking her head. ‘In any case, in consultation with the COA, we try to get the most vulnerable people out of that traveling circus of the crisis emergency shelter.’
The Netherlands Council for Refugees (VWN), founded in 1979 to help the government with the reception and integration of refugees, has offices in almost all 130 reception locations of the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA). The VWN employees – six hundred paid employees and nine thousand volunteers – offer asylum seekers all kinds of help: from socio-legal and social counseling to information. The organization runs on contributions from donors, funds and grants, and strives to comply with UN rules for refugee reception.
Regional manager Jansen has been involved in asylum reception for 25 years, but she has never experienced it as chaotic as it is now. ‘The government has completely lost control’, she says at the simple VWN office in the asylum seekers’ center in Utrecht, located in a former military hospital. She cannot give many personal asylum stories because of the privacy protection of refugees. But together with colleague Sander Schaap, who is the national advocacy manager, she can explain how she saw the asylum chain come to a standstill from close by.
‘The chaos is greater than the crisis seven years ago, when the Netherlands received large numbers of Syrians in a short period of time’, says Jansen. ‘Emergency shelter and crisis emergency shelter were also needed then, and buses drove back and forth until there was space. But everyone had the feeling: this is necessary now, we are going somewhere, it will be solved quickly. But now we are completely off track. Also people with a residence permit are suddenly lying on a camp bed in a gym. The human dimension is gone. Nobody knows where this is going.’
That chaos must also affect your work. How have the last few months been for you?
Anne-Els Jansen: ‘It is very difficult to work. Everyone is under stress. Normally there are also happy events: someone receives a residence permit or recognition of family reunification. But now there is only uncertainty and unrest. We all get that. When people come to us with questions and protests, we can only answer: sorry, we completely agree with you, but we have no influence on that.
“That’s quite frustrating. It has to improve sometime. Our people can turn off too. We are already noticing that it is more difficult to get volunteers and employees, although it must be said that the general scarcity of personnel also plays a role.’
How do you think we got into this asylum crisis?
Sander Schaap: ‘The enormous influx of Syrians in 2015 and 2016 went relatively well, with a lot of art and flying work. We all know the protests, like those pig heads in trees. But the general impression was that there was a great deal of support, including among municipal authorities, to get the job done.
‘After that crisis, the IND and COA staff were quickly scaled down. Azc’s were closed. But it was mainly Syrian men who had been granted asylum. They now also wanted to take their families out of the war and applied for family reunification. Every expert saw that coming. But the government seemed overwhelmed by the number of applications for family reunification. The waiting times started to add up enormously.
‘The IND deployed extra staff, but also shifted staff members from the regular asylum procedure to family reunification. As a result, large backlogs arose for asylum seekers. A task force was set up to speedily assess and largely approve 15,000 asylum applications.
‘The backlogs had almost been made up just before the corona crisis. But history repeated itself: this new group of status holders also applied for family reunification. Because of corona, when the borders closed, this crisis was postponed for two years.’
Jansen: ‘The cabinet has learned nothing from the Syria crisis. It immediately started scaling down and cutting costs. Then you run out of capacity. The problem now is not even the influx of asylum seekers or relatives (for family reunification, red.), because it is not extremely high. The problem is the capacity shortage at both IND and COA.’
What is the biggest bottleneck at the moment in the process from applying to getting residency status and a home?
Schaap: ‘There are bottlenecks everywhere in the asylum chain. In Ter Apel, it is primarily the aliens police, who are struggling with an enormous backlog. The asylum seekers are given a gray band on their wrist, but they are not yet registered at all. They are now being pumped around the country, while no one knows who they actually are.
‘After that they have to be heard for the first time at the IND, but there is also a problem of disadvantage there. It is expected that 27,000 people will still need to be treated at the IND before the end of this year.
‘Then they come to COA, which has insufficient reception places in asylum seekers’ centres. This in turn is the result of both the lengthy asylum procedure, including for family reunification, and the slow outflow of status holders.
‘Now the 15,000 status holders who are waiting for a home are seen as the prop in the chain. In six months, these will be those waiting for the IND hearings. The whole system is just stuck.’
Jansen: ‘It’s not the fault of the employees at the IND and COA: they work around the clock. However, the procedures are sometimes unnecessarily complicated. Take Afghanistan, that is no longer a safe country. Nevertheless, IND officers have to classify Afghans into all kinds of risk groups and be interrogated accordingly. It’s all complicated and time consuming. I read IND reports that are dozens of pages thick. While it is actually very simple: only for the Taliban is Afghanistan safe, everyone else should just give you a residence permit.
‘The IND is running pilots in which the employees themselves visit reception locations to conduct the interviews. I welcome that, but sometimes miss the logic. Then suddenly asylum lawyers have to be called in again at the very last moment. It also leads to uncertainty and tension among other asylum seekers, who are not visited by anyone from the IND. They then come to us at the counter and ask: we have been waiting much longer, when will it be our turn, have we been forgotten?
‘That is a question that comes up constantly, also with newcomers: do they actually know that we are there? They are afraid that they will get out of the picture. That is why more and more asylum seekers refuse to leave Ter Apel at all. They would rather sleep outside, close to the application center, than far away in the crisis emergency shelter in Zeeland or Brabant.
‘And even if everything has been arranged and asylum seekers receive a residence permit, they will have to wait again for a home. The Netherlands is waiting, they say. And it is.’
Some parties believe that the influx of refugees should be curbed. Is that a solution?
Schaap: ‘People who flee war and violence should be able to find a place here. We are morally and legally obliged to do so. This is also more of an administrative crisis than an asylum crisis. Across the board you see society coming to a standstill because the government has let problems run their course for far too long. You can also see this in the housing crisis and the farmer crisis.
‘Of all migrants who come to the Netherlands, only a small proportion are asylum seekers. The lion’s share consists of migrant workers, international students, expats. I’m getting tired of always focusing on a vulnerable group that is requesting protection.’
Jansen: ‘It is a relatively small group, but a lot in the news. It is a politically charged subject, especially during elections.’
Schaap: ‘You hear much less about the influx of international students. They also have to be housed.’
What is your solution to the asylum crisis?
Schaap: ‘In the short term there are only ugly solutions. We have been arguing for more small-scale reception for years, spread fairly across all municipalities in the Netherlands. But now there is an urgent need for large-scale, decent shelters to put an end to the dragging of people. The State Secretary must draft an emergency law as soon as possible with which he can force municipalities to cooperate.
‘And then don’t choose one or a few municipalities because a suitable building happens to be vacant there, as is now happening in Tubbergen, but make all municipalities responsible for a fair share. Then it is possible for everyone to contribute on a small scale, and no one can point at each other.
‘If you don’t act now, the whole system will remain in crisis. You have to bring the crisis to a halt with a few punches, and then start building again.
‘Ultimately, there must be a structural basic capacity of high-quality locations that is maintained even if the influx of asylum seekers decreases somewhat. These are preferably small-scale reception locations that can also be used for other groups of home seekers, such as students or labor migrants. We need to get rid of that efficiency thinking, where asylum reception is constantly being scaled up and down. Because then you are constantly running behind the facts.
‘The question is whether the current model of asylum reception is still future-proof. The organization is now completely national, but the reception locations are located in municipalities. Perhaps you should move towards a model in which municipalities have control over the organization of reception, as is already happening with the Ukrainians. Simply make each municipality responsible, in proportion to the number of inhabitants, for the reception of ten to a few hundred asylum seekers in small locations. That is also better for creating support.’