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Francisco Cantú: Refuge, Part II

October 17, 2013

Part 2, Presence: Exploring life and death amongst asylum seekers whose applications were rejected by the Dutch government.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/MichaelHirshon_presence-part2.jpg
Original artwork courtesy of Michael Hirshon

By Francisco Cantú
“Presence” is the second part of a three-part series. Click here to read part 1, “Reception,” and part 3, “Withdrawal.”

Saturday 1 December 2012:

A protest camp established in September by rejected asylum seekers in the west Amsterdam neighborhood of Osdorp was cleared early Friday morning in accordance with an order issued by the Dutch courts, citing safety and hygiene concerns. Amsterdam police took more than 100 of the camp’s occupants into custody after they refused to vacate the premises, but arrests were reportedly peaceful. According to local media, the majority of the asylum seekers were released following a brief detention at an Amsterdam police station.

The asylum seekers, who come largely from African nations such as Somalia, claim that they cannot return to their home countries due to fear for their safety. A number of similar protest camps have been established in various Dutch cities this year.

Marike Spoor and Johan Bouman, aid workers at the Amsterdam Committee for Refugee Shelter and Relief, Tweede Helmersstraat 96, Oud West, Amsterdam, May 2013:

SPOOR: I remember in the beginning when I had to send someone back on the street, I went home and I just cried. Like, oh my god, I just sent someone on the street.

To be honest, I don’t feel very useful here. The things I do, I mean, you give them shelter but in the end they still end up with nothing, actually.

BOUMAN: I never really had that. When I go home, it’s done, it’s over. I mean, when I started I would see females and children and that was hard. But now it’s just a routine, you know?

SPOOR: It’s work. It sounds stupid, but you kind of get used to it. You have to accept it. In the beginning I really thought I was going to help all these people, but now if I have to send someone away it’s just like, it’s reality. I can’t do anything.

BOUMAN: To be honest, I don’t feel very useful here. The things I do, I mean, you give them shelter but in the end they still end up with nothing, actually.

SPOOR: And there are still so many people on the street, so many people who want shelter. We just can’t give it to everybody.

BOUMAN: We try to help our clients with other things too, by connecting them with doctors and different organizations that can help them. For example, with many of our clients who appeal their rejection by the IND, we can send them to get an independent medical evaluation. Often this helps make their case stronger. We also offer them legal assistance, we have lawyers that can help them during the appeal.

SPOOR: But, to be honest, I think since I began work here eight months ago, only one of our clients has got a permit. At least that I know of, only one. So it’s not very successful I guess.

BOUMAN: I think four percent of our clients get a verblijfsvergunning?

SPOOR: Permanent residency, yeah.

BOUMAN: It’s terrible. 4 percent is very low, I think.

SPOOR: But still, I think we get at least two new people every week who have been rejected, who are looking for shelter and want to become clients of ours.

BOUMAN: Sometimes they even ask us if they can stay in the office, just sleep on a chair or something. And when we say no, they get mad at us. Sometimes it gets to the point where I just want to tell them, look, I’ll call the police if you don’t leave. It sounds bad, but some people can be really annoying. They become so helpless and desperate, they just beg us for shelter we don’t have.

SPOOR: We had one guy who came to us and said, “I want shelter,” and we said, okay but you already have shelter, and he said, “Yeah, but the room is too small.”

I don’t think that’s very good, but sometimes everything at work gets so heavy and then you’re home and it’s just, you see how good your life is. If you’re around so much crying and stuff like that, it’s nice to come home to an environment where everything is good, you know?

BOUMAN: There was another guy, he was nineteen or twenty, and I arranged some shelter for him, he could work at a hostel and do some cleaning and in exchange he got shelter for free. And he came to me a few weeks later and said, yeah, the work is too hard.

SPOOR: But he only had to work like three hours a week or something. He said it was too tough.

BOUMAN: It was just some cleaning and I thought, you were homeless, okay? You have a home now. I don’t think it’s a good thing to expect people to be grateful, but—

SPOOR: It would help sometimes.

BOUMAN: It would make me feel good if someone was grateful.

SPOOR: I mean, we don’t see it very often, but there are some clients who appreciate it.

BOUMAN: Sometimes when we don’t have shelter and we actually find a place for someone somewhere else, it makes some people really happy. They become so grateful and thankful and, yeah, that feels nice.

SPOOR: It’s true. Last week I told a guy that I had shelter for him and he kissed my feet and I was like, oh my god.

BOUMAN: Yeah, some people are wild. But for me, some of the people that come to us are so depressing, and this is a bit hard to say, but it’s actually quite relieving, or, how do you say that? When you go home you feel almost—

SPOOR: Blessed.

BOUMAN: Yeah. I don’t think that’s very good, but sometimes everything at work gets so heavy and then you’re home and it’s just, you see how good your life is. If you’re around so much crying and stuff like that, it’s nice to come home to an environment where everything is good, you know?

This system, I don’t understand what they want. What they need. In Pakistan they try to kill me by weapon. Here they try to kill me by mind.

SPOOR: My parents used to say that I kind of live in a bubble, that I always think that everybody has good inside of them. But for me that’s kind of changed now. You see so much pain and so much, I don’t know, so much sadness. Now my parents are like, “Yeah, you’re more realistic.” But I don’t know. I don’t really like it.

Selected text from The Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) English-language webpage Reception Process, accessed April 2013:

The first part of the asylum procedure is the General Asylum Procedure. At the end of this procedure the Immigration and Naturalization Service informs asylum seekers whether their request has been granted or refused, or whether a further investigation is necessary. They move from the process reception location to an asylum seekers’ center, where the next phase of the asylum procedure begins:

  • The request for asylum has been granted
    The asylum seeker has been granted a residence permit. COA links the former asylum seeker to a municipality near the asylum seekers’ centre. The municipality provides a suitable home. The former asylum seekers stay at the asylum seekers’ center until they can move into their self-contained home (for a maximum of twelve weeks).
  • Extended Asylum Procedure
    The Immigration and Naturalization Service needs more time to decide on the request for asylum. The asylum seekers begin the Extended Asylum Procedure and stay at the asylum seekers’ center until the procedure is completed.
  • The request for asylum is denied
    The asylum seekers have been refused a residence permit. They may stay at the asylum seekers’ center for at most four weeks. They can use this time to prepare for their departure from the Netherlands. They are helped by the Repatriation and Departure Service. They must leave the country within four weeks.

Tariq Saiyed, rejected asylum seeker, Madurastraat 26, Indische Buurt West, Amsterdam, March 2013:

The other day my lawyer tells me maybe I have to go to prison again. Me I say why am I out! I like to stay there. You don’t have to make food. You can watch TV, smoke cigarettes. There are only three problems: You don’t smoke hash, you don’t drink, you don’t see women. Before, I was in prison ten months. For six months I was in detention for refugees. Then they say I have to go back to Pakistan, so for twenty-three days I make hunger strike. Then they transfer me to criminal prison. Me I want to ask why I’m there. They say for treatment.

Then, one day after four months, they say I am free to go. Me I say, I am not free! I don’t want to be invisible, I don’t want to disappear, to live in shadows. If I am illegal in prison and you throw me out on the street, am I legal now? Am I illegal? Then why do you let me go? They just tell me, Okay maneer, ga weg! Me I say I don’t want to go. To where? Why you release me if I’m illegal? Where do I go? They are just putting my things in a bag, telling me to please go quick.

Me I think: I explained you everything. You fucked me. Until now I’m trying to find a way. This system, I don’t understand what they want. What they need. In Pakistan they try to kill me by weapon. Here they try to kill me by mind. I’m tired to explain. Explain explain explain. Explain for what? This is a game. Will they deport me? Ha! I don’t know. Even I don’t care. You understand? So what I do? I’m crying? I’m crying for what? Me, I fight. I struggle. But I cannot succeed.

Friday 18 January 2013:

Russian opposition activist Alexander Dolmatov, who was seeking political asylum in the Netherlands, was found dead Thursday morning in a Dutch detention center. The apparent suicide has been confirmed by the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security and officials from the Russian embassy. Dolmatov’s application for asylum was under appeal proceedings after the Dutch government denied his initial request.

The positive things, that’s something in a way we don’t see. If someone is granted asylum I don’t see what they do with their lives. If they’re doing well and their kids are going to school and in the end maybe going to university, doing great things, I never know.

The immediate circumstances surrounding Dolmatov’s death have been the subject of conflicting reports. It has been reported that Dolmatov was being held in a detention wing reserved for asylum seekers with psychiatric problems. Many news outlets have reported that six to eight months remained before a final decision was to be reached on Dolmatov’s appeal. Other sources, however, claim that the Dutch government was preparing him for extradition back to Russia.

Jonathan de Vries, asylum case worker with the Netherlands Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), Schiedamse Vest 146, Stadsdriehoek, Rotterdam, May 2013:

During a debate about a Russian asylum seeker who committed suicide, Dolmatov, some members of parliament said, “Oh, IND workers, they don’t have any empathy.” Huh? So, then this week we got a personal email from the Minister of Justice and Security and he said, “We really need to prevent this grave mistake, this tragedy at all costs.” In the assessment of this case there was a sort of—it went from one mistake to another, all connected. And that, yeah, that’s horrible. But in the end, maybe if it all went well, maybe he would have still committed suicide, because in the end he was still rejected. Anyway, in this email I also read that members of parliament had said that we don’t have any empathy, that we just don’t care and that’s why we make mistakes. It was sort of implicit.

But this week one of my colleagues, she was assigned a mother and daughter from Syria. She interviewed the mother and the mother was sharing what is happening now in Syria, that millions of people are displaced and food supplies are running dry, that women are giving birth in the open air in horrible circumstances. Horrible. My colleague, she is herself a young mother, she has a young child, so she was really touched. After this story, she had no questions. It was just clear. It was clear, they are from Syria, they are from Damascus, their experience. And of course, the mother and daughter were granted asylum. But my coworker, afterwards she came to me, and yeah… she just needed to talk with colleagues about it.

So in that sense the work is really demanding. This week I had an interview with an asylum seeker who started to cry. I listened and I said, let’s just take a break, take it easy. In this case it didn’t really touch me. Often because of certain procedures there is some distance, but other times, yeah, some things you read or hear really strike you. If you interview a person, an asylum seeker, sometimes it lasts from nine until five o’clock or six o’clock, so really all day long, and you have the translating and you need to wait, and sometimes there are emotions, so it can be really intense, also for the interviewer. For example, you have a lot of stories about people telling about explosions. So I had one night a dream that I was walking and then suddenly all broken glass was just in my back and I had to tear it out, piece by piece. That was strange; I had never had such a dream before.

But the positive things, that’s something in a way we don’t see. If someone is granted asylum I don’t see what they do with their lives. If they’re doing well and their kids are going to school and in the end maybe going to university, doing great things, I never know. But in a sense I still value my work, I appreciate my work, because you can really help people. And I really admire the people who are doing this work because it is a difficult reality that we reject people. What I see in the media is that IND is always sort of, um, attacked is not the right word, but sort of pushed in the corner, like we are only rejecting people. But at the same time we also accept people, and that’s what we really need to focus on. I think that’s something we need to be really proud of.

The names of all individuals and non-governmental organizations have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Portions of “REFUGE” originally appeared in Dutch translation in the August 14, 2013 edition of the magazine De Groene Amsterdammer under the title “Op zoek naar beschutting.”

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Francisco Cantú is from Prescott, Arizona. From 2012 to 2013 he conducted research on Dutch asylum issues with the support of the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) as part of a Fulbright Fellowship. Prior to arriving in the Netherlands, Mr. Cantú worked for several years as a Border Patrol Agent for the United States Border Patrol. His writing is forthcoming in the Fall 2013 editions of J Journal: New Writing on Justice and The South Loop Review, and has previously appeared in Guernica Daily.

After a nomadic childhood spent doodling, eating, sleeping, and growing, Michael Hirshon ended up in St. Louis where he studied illustration and design. After years of freelancing he’s now in New York City, in the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts. Clients include The New York Times, American Express, The Washington Post, and AARP. His work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, 3×3, American Illustration, Creative Quarterly, CMYK, and the AIGA. You can see more of his work at www.hirshon.net

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