The city of Amsterdam has come up with a new way to help its refugee population

A busker performs by an Amsterdam canal. Image: Getty.

In December 2013 Amsterdam’s city council devised a novel social experiment to deal with its homeless refugees: it put them all in prison.

Okay, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. No one was arrested; everyone was free to leave. The really novel part was what the council did to the refugees inside this repurposed prison: it helped them, offering medical care, food, and legal advice. All this it did with a view to either assisting the refugees to submit successful asylum applications, or to return to their countries of origin.

The undocumented immigrants of Amsterdam are also pretty unusual: they are organised. Known as Wij Zijn Hier (WZH; it translates to “We Are Here”), they worked with the Municipality of Amsterdam and actively campaigned for a longer stay in not-really-prison.

The project only ran for 6 months, the WZH refugees have now left the prison and are living elsewhere. So: did it work?

Some background is in order here. In the Netherlands, undocumented immigrants haven’t been entitled to access social services since 1998; in 2010, the Dutch government ruled that it was actually illegal to provide them with emergency shelter. This fell foul of the European Committee of Social Rights, the international body charged with monitoring human rights compliance, which declared that the ruling flew in the face of the immigrants’ right to “bed, bath and bread”.

This was when the Amsterdam Municipality hit on their social experiment. They converted a former prison into a shelter for all refugees who registered with the Dutch Refugee Council (DRC). For six months undocumented immigrants lived in the Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven), while working on their asylum applications.

There were no specific targets set by either the Amsterdam municipalities or the DRC before moving the refugees into the Vluchthaven. If the project’s only goal had been to encourage the refugees to leave The Netherlands, then it appears to have been a failure: of the 165 refugees housed in Vluchthaven, only three returned to their country of origin and another three are preparing to return. Look at the number of refugees who gained legal residence in that time and the figures improve, but remain fairly damning: just 12 (7 per cent) of the refugees were successfully awarded residency.

Taking into account those refugees who are deceased, have been rehoused or imprisoned, 76 per cent of the refugees are presumably once again living on the streets of Amsterdam. (I say “presumably” as Amsterdam has a limited number of shelters available to undocumented immigrants: although the Dutch are as caring as any other nation it’s highly unlikely they’ve opened their homes to a group of homeless strangers.)

These figures are fairly bleak. But, once we take into account the geographical origin of the refugees, a different story starts to emerge. Some 91 per cent of the refugees housed in Vluchthaven originated from countries where reports from the Dutch government describe human rights issues as “critical”. If return was never really an option the logical way to measure the success of this project is by examining the refugees’ ability to build asylum cases.

Attempting to build a case for asylum while living on the streets sounds like a a particular unpleasant twist in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce – but this is the reality faced by undocumented immigrants in The Netherlands. By providing respite from the endless need to find shelter, the Municipality of Amsterdam made it possible for the refugees to focus on collecting evidence. Out of the 165 immigrants housed in Vluchthaven 45 per cent are engaged with the legal process to gain residence in The Netherlands, while another 12 per cent are currently deadlocked in collecting evidence.

Ali Juma, a WZH co-ordinator and refugee from Burundi, sayss that the end of the Vluchthaven was the end of the group’s ability to effectively gather evidence for their asylum applications. The benefits to having a regular address while attempting to put together a legal case in a foreign country are clear. For the six months that they were housed by Amsterdam Municipality, the refugees of WZH were able to make progress in cases which, since their eviction from Vluchthaven, have ground to a halt.

Negotiations are now underway to continue housing the undocumented asylum seekers of Amsterdam; predictably the entire thing comes down to who will foot the bill. Will the cost of housing WZH be placed entirely on the city of Amsterdam? Or will the Dutch government offer financial assistance?

It’s probably too early to just the success of this scheme: that would require clear, pre-agreed targets, and a timeframe longer than six months. (For various reasons many of the refugees were unable to access the full 6 months worth of legal advice.) But what is clear is that undocumented refugees have a better chance of becoming legal residents of The Netherlands if they aren’t forced to submit asylum applications from the streets.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.