We Are Here is Four, September 4th 2016
Background and perspective of the Initiative We Are Here is Four
By Jo van der Spek M2M. Amsterdam. July 21st 2016
As an immigrant to the Netherlands you seem to enter a very well
organized country with all sorts of freedom and respect. If you are
not lucky you will soon find out that behind the secure dykes and
underneath the smooth surface and fine tulips lays a layer of fat
mud, a swamp.
A swamp can look like a wonderful garden at first sight, but when
you walk in, your feet start sinking, you lose your grip and if nobody
comes to your rescue, you drown slowly, eating mud.
Asylum seekers who have passed many centers, procedures,
offices and paper mills call it limbo. Supporters that try to make the
Dutch politicians understand what is wrong with the asylum
procedure call it the Asielgat: The hole in the procedure, or the trap,
that exists because IND is instructed to NOT let people in, to NOT
believe their story, to NOT seek truth but lies. The IND does not see
a human being, but a package that must be returned. The IND and
DT&V (Service for Return and Departure) execute a policy that is
decided by the Parliament (Tweede Kamer and Eerste Kamer and
as long as the parties in power refuse to change the law, thousands
of people continue to be forced to live on the street, in parks and
half destroyed buildings.
These people, refugees on the street, have formed a movement to
protest this policy and demand a normal life, like anybody else. This
movement “We Are Here”, is a community of refused refugees and
their supporters and has shown that not refused refugees are the
problem, but the Dutch migration policy.
We Are Here can be proud of its successes, but it has NOT
succeeded to change the system.
We Are Here as a movement can help Dutch society to get out of
the swamp, to finally design a normal way to treat migrants.
In a Working Conference we will determine the themes and the
actions for the next four years…
As an activist of M2M I liketo look first at the successes, the
challenges and the perspectives of We Are Here.
• Migrant to Migrant, in short M2M, is here to support the self
organization of refugees on the street and to assist in
organizing their means of communication in the broadest sense.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The history of “We Are Here” in the last four years has been widely
publicized. You can find a good overview on this website.
The name of the group, We Are Here, was introduced by a victim
and survivor of the Schiphol Fire (2005), the Senegalese artist Papa
Sakho. At the commemoration in 2006 he stated:
“We are here
To make a life again
Together as one.”
Today we can say “We are here, to make a normal
life, all together.”
In 2011 two times a groups of Somali’s that were thrown on the street
from Ter Apel spontaneously made their camp in front of the gate and
were promptly arrested. In April 2012 a group of some 150 Iraqi
refugees made a well prepared action camp and were soon joined
by another 100 Somali’s and a growing number of other nationalities.
M2M went to the camp with equipment to provide internet and start
up an online Radio Station in one of the tents. Doter Co and some
Occupy activists were among the many Dutch supporters.
The birth of WE ARE HERE: resisting the eviction of the protest
camp in ter Apel, May 23rd 2012.
On the 1st of September 2012 M2M organized a Working
Conference in Arnhem to reflect on and share the experience of the
camp in Ter Apel, and to make plans for the future.
The main conclusion was that the power of the camp was: being
together as Africans, Arabs and Europeans, creates safety for
refugees and makes the problems of undocumented migrants and
migration politics visible to society. The idea to create a parliament
of refugees was born here.
Three days later dokter Co triggered “We Are Here” in Amsterdam
when he created a symbolic shelter for Tulu and Reeda in the
garden of the Protestantse Diaconie.
The demand was bed, bread and bath from the government. With
his action Co also wanted to urge the Diaconie to sustain its efforts
for undocumented migrants.
On September 23rd 2012 “We Are Here” organized an Open Day in
the nearby Wertheim Park. At the end of the day the general
assembly of refugees and supporters decided to move to a bigger
and more public space: a former schoolyard on the Notweg in
This was to become the last open air action camp. After its eviction
on the 30th of November buildings were squatted to house We Are
The vluchtkerk was the first of a series squatted squatted buildings
to offer shelter and a community place for the about 160 refugees-
on-the- street that had joined “We Are Here” in Osdorp.
The Vluchthaven was the exception: it wasn’t squatted, but offered
in December 2013 by Mayor Van der Laan to a selected number of
refused refugees, to work on their future perspective, including the
option to return to their country. Here many people prepared a
second request for asylum, and by now 70 out of these original 159
have obtained their permit. This clearly proves that the IND very
often misses the point in the first procedure.
The members of “We Are Here” who were excluded from this
project of the mayor created its own community and found shelter in
the Vluchtgarage, again a rotten place to live, but open to new
refuseniks and volunteers, as opposed to the Vluchthaven.
Today most people of “We Are Here”, some 120, are reunited in the
Vluchtgemeente. A smaller group of 42 have succeeded to broker
a contract for one year to make a life in the Vluchtmaat. A small
number of refugees who need medical or psychological care were
allowed to stay until the 1st of July in a shelter at Daalborgh. This
arrangement was terminated by the mayor on the 1st of July, but the
people resisted his decision and remained in the building. They
have no place to go; even in Ter Apel they are not welcome.
On July 14 the Vluchtgemeente received a letter from the Public
Prosecutor that the refugees have to evict the building.
WE CAN’T GO
Very few members of we Are Here have returned to their country of
origin. Many have obtained a status, even if it took ten years or
more. The success of we Are Here is that local and national
government have discovered that they have to provide basic needs
for the circa 50.000 refused refugees that are in this country. If only
the ruling parties in den Haag and the City of Amsterdam could
work out a deal. So far the Mayor is playing tough, evicting We Are
Here time and again and declaring the continuous debate in the
Town Council a bad theatre act.
Another ongoing theatre is acted out in the courts. Mr. Pim Fischer,
human rights lawyer hired by the council of churches, is building a
case for the right of every person on Dutch territory to receive basic
needs (bed, bath, bread) without conditions. It may well take
another year before this right will be implemented in practice, if not
Politicians and lawyers would not do anything if not propelled by
this community of self-organized and determined refused refugees
and their supporters.
The clear and repeated answer by all refugees that were present in
the meetings on June 27 and July 15 is “We don’t go. We prefer to
be arrested and go to prison. We refuse to be moved from one
building to the next, chased like dogs.”
Many times the refugees and their supporters have discussed the
possibilities to resist eviction. They have weighed the risks of arrest,
detention and even deportation. They have thought about the
consequences for the more vulnerable among them. They have
stated that they want to abide the laws, but cannot return to their
own lands. “We Are Here” is a peaceful movement and has thereby
gained credit and respect in all sectors of society. The refugees
have always relied on legal procedures and lobbying to gain time.
At times some have considered going into hunger strike and even
commit suicide to protest against their fate. This never happened
and the fact that We Are Here is still here makes it unnecessary,
because there is still a lot we can do.
The Vluchtgemeente is the best building so far occupied by “We Are
Here” not only in terms of comfort, although there is only one
shower. The building was left in a good state when it was
abandoned by the Stadsdeel West, which itself also disappeared as
an institution of local democracy. Also politically the building is
interesting, because the owner is the City of Amsterdam
(Gemeente). Amsterdam actually made no problem about “We Are
Here” using it, as long as the occupants didn’t cause damage or
disturb the neighbors.
But now suddenly the Mayor wants to rent it to the Department of
Justice, for IND and DT&V and child protection. And he has chosen
to use criminal law (anti-squat) to get “We Are Here” out. This
move cannot make the members of the town council happy, if only
because they have no voice in this procedure. In the media and
maybe even in court, this is not necessarily a lost battle.
In order to keep the building, WAH must use all means and forces
together. Lawyers and lobby are not enough. More action and more
organization are needed to show that eviction will only make things
worse. For everybody.
Resisting eviction of the Vluchtgemeente is an act of despair: we
have no other place to go. Squatting seems no longer an option.
But resistance is also a way to demonstrate and mobilize against
the system of exclusion of human beings. Despair and fatigue can
lead individual members to seek individual solutions, but the power
of We Are Here lies in the WE: in active collectivity and public
When on the 5th of July Hashim, one of the smart and active
members of “We Are Here”, died after what may have been an act
of desperation, there was a strong reaction of fear and anger. Fear
that this can happen to the other members of the “We are here”
community next. Anger at the authorities that keep playing with our
lives. The demonstration that followed only two days later was
powerful and impressive.
A group of former leaders, elders, of We Are Here has taken the
initiative to use the 4th anniversary to give moral support to the
brothers and sisters that are still in limbo, caught in the asylum trap.
With a big event they will thank all supporters and thereby to solidify
the connections with volunteers, supporting organizations and the
City of Amsterdam as a whole.
A collaboration between the elders, the acting leadership, the
refugees in the Vluchtgemeente, supported by M2M and potentially
a long list of supporters and helpers that have played a role in the
past years is the beginning of the answer to the question where we
go in the next four years.
Like before, we, as refugees and supporters working together, we
can use the threat of eviction to our advantage. It creates a sense
of urgency, it underlines that no permanent solution is forthcoming
and there is a very concrete and well known object to show and
share. The Vluchtgemeente stands for basic human values:
hospitality, equality, human rights, togetherness, solidarity. The
graffiti on the doorsteps made on the day that the eviction letter was
delivered reads: “Gemeente left, we are here!” and “Wij zijn hier, wij
Who is this we? The magic word that is the key to every
understanding of this community for change, this movement for a
better life. Let’s say WE is everyone who subscribes to the values
mentioned above? Imagine that you are WE? Suppose WE is
Being together in a building is not the goal of “We Are Here”. The
goal is to get a chance for a normal life, like everybody else. To live
means to be able to get education, to work, to be protected against
diseases and, maybe most important, to have a family.
To achieve this goal many things have to change: the law, migration
politics and the mentality of many people in Dutch society. That is a
long and winding road.
The so-called refugee crisis as a result of the war in Syria, which is
actually rather a crisis of European migration politics and human
compassion, has affected the struggle of “We Are Here”, negatively
by drawing away public attention but also positively. We can see an
avalanche of initiatives to welcome the new refugees, including a
wish among progressive politicians to be flexible about the right to
go to school or do volunteer work, rather than keep them for many
months isolated with nothing to do but wait. In Amsterdam civil
initiatives are matched by resources and the political will to create
facilities not only for shelter, but also for what we may call normal
Very close to the Vluchtgemeente a “broedplaats” (breeding place)
will open for refugees, status-holders, asylum seekers and other
talented migrants to find their way into Dutch society. Well, We Are
Here has shown its talents on many occasions over the years: on
Dam Square, Football Fields, Paradiso, Vondelpark Loop, Holland
Festival, City Council, Court, Tweede Kamer, etc.
These developments open opportunities for We Are Here and may
convince others that there really is a smarter and more human way
to treat migrants from countries like Sudan, Somalia, Guinee,
In the last four years WE ARE HERE has become an integral part
of the social and political landscape. Our presence is a fact that can
no longer be denied, it is only the law that denies this reality.
Nobody can be happy in the present situation of political stagnation
and endless insecurity, especially in Amsterdam. Sooner or later a
change is gonna come. Mayor van der Laan is quite alone in
refusing to give 24-hours shelter with basic care to refugees on the
street. Other cities do this (or never stopped doing it) and in
Amsterdam a big majority in the town council is in favor of 24/7
For many unconditional shelter will mean a chance to rest and time
to look to the future. But until the law is changed, these shelters will
be filling up with second hand citizens. Shelter is not the solution.
So let’s go on.
Normal life is a good slogan, because it claims equality. It is also
good because it is very general, or every vague. Are all your
problems solved when you have a residence permit? Do you have a
job? Can you look after your family? What is it like to be a normal
Dutch citizen? To be honest, I really don’t know. But I am sure that
those of WAH who have started a normal life can tell us a lot.
WE ARE HERE IS FOUR
After four years of struggling in the swamp, of dealing with everyday
problems and trying to make sense of the Dutch approach, what is
there to celebrate?
Almost half of the refused refugees in the original group have finally
received their status, individually. But the law and the policies that
create refugees-on- the-street with no rights (only lawyer and urgent
medical care) has not changed. But less people are put in detention
than before (if only for budget reasons), and being undocumented is
still not a crime, as was planned by the governing coalition of
liberals and social-democrats.
The legal and political roads may lead to shelter and basic needs
for all, but that is far from equal rights and normal life. Refugees
keep coming to the Netherlands, which is in itself quite an
achievement, but still many are refused and end up in the dirty
corners of Dutch society. Only a few of these refused refugees have
become part of We Are Here.
In the general meetings leading members of We Are Here declare
that there is no choice but to resist eviction. The militant slogan in
every demonstration is “We are here and we will fight, for freedom
of movement is everybody’s right.” Indeed, everybody is free to
move out. And even if we have to move out together, it will not be
the end of We Are Here.
It is not only for the members of WAH that the law of the land must
change. The common ground of all refugees, old and new, can and
must be found. Syrian refugees in the noodopvang have already
gone on the street and on hunger strike to demand speedier
procedures and family reunion. They may soon find out that Dutch
migration politics has more dark sides in store for them. Iraqi
refugees can tell them a lot about it: they lost their refugee status,
when the Dutch government judged their country safe again in 2011
and started pushing them back. That is when they started the action
camp in Ter Apel.
The occasional encounters between new refugees and members of
We Are Here may well grow into stronger ties.
Finally, to change a system, a long walk is required. And you don’t
do that walk alone. We Are Here has shown the way, we are in the
right direction, but we may have to adjust the course a little bit, to
WHY ARE WE HERE?
Recollecting the experiences, the successes and positive forces by
way of storytelling and speeches, coming together in a garden party
or a march of freedom, a sports tournament or a cultural festival,
anything that will help to build a coalition to mobilize solidarity will
help We Are Here.
To support the refugees on the street.
To be part of society.
To make a better future.
Yes, we can celebrate, but not the end of the struggle.
Yes, we need to come together to think hard and loud how to move
on. Therefore I propose a Conference, to be held in the
Vluchtgemeente! Then we can party on the 4th, because we know
WHERE are we
Who are WE?
Why are we HERE?
Four MORE years?
• Jo van der Spek