Part 3, Withdrawal: How a system of neglect endangered the lives of asylum seekers in the Netherlands.
Original artwork courtesy of Michael Hirshon
Tariq Saiyed, rejected asylum seeker, Madurastraat 26, Indische Buurt West, Amsterdam, March 2013:
Me I don’t want to remember. Every day I’m high. I do what I do because I know I don’t have time. I don’t have time in my life. I tell you by god, July, August, maybe you don’t see me. Now I’m near to die. I’m trying to relax in my mind but it doesn’t work. Me I have pain, right here in my chest. At the shelter when I tell them about the pain they send me to the house doctor. He tells me to see cardiologist. So I go to the cardiologist too much now. Too many tests, appointments. And they tell me, everything is fine. But my mother, before she died she had this problem too. In Pakistan I was the one taking care of her health, the doctor he always sends me home with all her tests, all her information. So I know what I have. Here at the cardiologist I see my tests, my pictures, my charts. Everything is the same as my mother.
I tell you, if I had the choice I never leave my country. I never leave my mother. She had to die without me. And me, I lost everything, but I miss only one thing. I miss my mother’s hug. Since three and a half years I never hugged. If I had that I don’t care, they can keep me in prison ten years, fifteen years. I need just one hug with my mother. Then I’m free. But I hope very soon we are together again. If me I’m with my mother, I’m enjoying too much. But next week I have appointment with friends. Lots of things for enjoyment. We friends we do everything. Just life, man. Enjoy.
Interview of Adam Al-Ibrahim, rejected asylum seeker, at the Organization for Human Rights and Refugee Health, Utrecht, The Netherlands, December 2012:
DR. MERTENS: Can you tell me what life was like in your village before before you left Sudan?
ADAM: For us life was good, we had enough as a family. We kids could play, we had no worries. But the family would sometimes have small problems.
DR. MERTENS: What kind of problems?
ADAM: People would steal from the farm. Cows, things like this. And there was a time when men came while my father was busy with his work. They came and hit him over the head with a tool.
DR. MERTENS: What kind of tool?
ADAM (consults with translator): I don’t know how you say it. A tool with a long handle. Used to move the dirt.
DR. MERTENS: A hoe?
ADAM: A hoe.
DR. MERTENS: Was your father badly hurt?
ADAM: In the hospital they said he could lose his seeing, his hearing, maybe his smelling.
DR. MERTENS: How did it affect the family?
ADAM: Things became more difficult. My mother was crying a lot in these days. We brothers had to help more on the farm.
DR. MERTENS: Can you tell me about when the war broke out?
ADAM: When the war began I was already gone from our village, I was in the town of Kutum. Together with my cousin I worked in a small shop. A place selling oil, sugar, salt. Like a small supermarket. But in Kutum we would hear about the war in the villages, people would tell us things.
DR. MERTENS: Like what?
ADAM: We heard that groups of men were being killed. In those days we heard that different villages were falling every day, being taken over.
DR. MERTENS: And the violence did not affect you in Kutum?
ADAM: Things became difficult for us. Around this time men in the neighborhood came to tell us that we must pay them to keep the shop open. For security. But we didn’t make enough, it was too much, so we had to close the store.
DR. MERTENS: What did you do for work after closing the shop?
ADAM: One day a man came to us and said I have work for you, transport work for the UN. So we went with him to the market. He said, just transport these sacks from one place to another, sacks with food. We only worked for him a few times and he gave us good money. We always met at the same place in the market and he would come in a car with UN markings. One day while we were waiting for him someone drove up in a Land Cruiser, but there were no markings. Men came out wearing black masks and shawls. They came fast. They grabbed us, they put my hand behind my back and forced us into the back of a vehicle.
DR. MERTENS: Do you remember when this was, what year, what month?
ADAM: This was in 2007. Maybe in May.
DR. MERTENS: Your file says June, is that right?
ADAM: I think it was May. But I’m not sure, this was five years ago.
DR. MERTENS: It’s important that you try to remember these dates, Adam. In your file there are conflicts about your abduction, about when it occurred, how long it lasted. For your appeal it’s important that the information you give me matches your file.
ADAM: I am not good with dates, with remembering. Five years ago I remembered much better. Now, with my problems, I don’t remember everything so well. About these times in Sudan I’ve already had so many interviews, many just after I arrived in the Netherlands. If you look at these interviews there is good information.
DR. MERTENS: Can you tell me where you were taken?
ADAM: They took us far from the city. In the car I tried to resist, I was questioning: What is happening? Where are we going? Why is this? And they were hitting me in the head, hitting my cousin too. There were four of them. You will find out when we get there, they told us.
DR. MERTENS: Where did they bring you?
ADAM: We arrived at a house, a mud hut with many rooms. Inside we saw and heard things, things you only see or hear in movies.
DR. MERTENS: How many men were there, how many prisoners?
ADAM: Many men.
DR. MERTENS: And the guards?
ADAM: There were many. Some men had on a uniform. Other men were in normal clothing but they carried weapons. One man was the commander, he sat behind a large desk and he wore two stars.
DR. MERTENS: How long did they keep you?
ADAM: A long time. I don’t know how long.
DR. MERTENS: Your file says two months. Is that right, Adam?
ADAM: Maybe. Yes.
DR. MERTENS: Where did they keep you?
ADAM: For some time they kept me in a room with my cousin. They would come and ask us, who are you, who do you work for, what group? Why do you stand every day in the same place? What are you bringing every day? They said, you work for foreigners, tell us who you know. But we didn’t know anyone. After that they came and took my cousin, they separated us. Then they began to move me, they would put me in different rooms, they would put me outside, during the whole day I was out in the sun. Different prisoners were always coming and going. I remember one old man, they brought him outside and I wondered, is he dead or not dead? If I was inside I would hear people yelling from the other rooms. I couldn’t sleep. Many times I thought I heard my cousin screaming.
DR. MERTENS: Did the men hurt you, Adam?
ADAM: I don’t like to talk about these things. I don’t like to tell details.
DR. MERTENS: This information is important, Adam. Details are important.
ADAM: (No response)
DR. MERTENS: Were you tortured?
ADAM: (No response)
DR. MERTENS: Adam?
DR. MERTENS: Were you abused sexually?
ADAM: (No response)
DR. MERTENS: Adam, I know that these are nasty questions. But we are going to have to talk about these details. I need to hear these things from you to fully understand your situation.
ADAM: I want to stop now. I am tired to answer so many questions. I do not want to tell these details. Do you know how many interviews I have done? I am fine if you want to talk about now, but I don’t understand why I must always talk about the past. I would like to stop now. I would like to use the toilet.
DR. MERTENS: We can take a break now. But afterwards I’ll ask that you come back so that we can try again. Is that okay with you?
ADAM: I would like to use the toilet.
Selected text from the Government of the Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice English-language issue page, Return process, accessed April 2013:
Failed asylum seekers must leave the reception location within 28 days after a court has upheld the rejection of their asylum application. If they have not left the Netherlands by this point, they may be transferred to restrictive accommodation. Aliens housed in restrictive accommodation are permitted to leave the center but are required to stay within the municipality and report to the center every day. They are also required to cooperate fully with the investigation into their nationality and identity.
Detention of aliens
If there is a risk that an alien whose removal is imminent may abscond he can be held at a detention center, which he cannot leave. If a case concerns a family with children under 18, the authorities may decide to place just one of the parents in detention. The other family members then remain in restrictive accommodation.
As soon as failed asylum seekers and illegal aliens have all the requisite travel documents, they are placed in a removal center where they await the next available flight. They may not leave the center.
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: In the police report it said that his back tire was missing, but I don’t know if that’s true. He was one of the people who was doing really bad, he was suicidal even before he got put into prison. It took me forever to get an appointment to go by. I called and I told them, you have to make sure he doesn’t kill himself, and then they were like, “Oh, okay, okay.” For a while I heard he was doing better, but today they told me he was just put in solitary confinement. He’s in a room with only a mattress and he’s naked all the time. It’s horrible.
BOUMAN: They don’t want him to have something to hang himself. He’s in vreemdelingen detentie, detention only for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. It’s difficult for them there.
You know, every time I’ve asked someone, what happens when you go back, it’s always that they’re going to die. And that’s actually the only answer. I’m going to die.
SPOOR: There’s not really much you can do. A lot of people get sick there.
BOUMAN: I think it’s mentally sick.
SPOOR: Yeah, mentally sick. I don’t know, I would go crazy. Like in normal prisons you can work and you can study but it’s not like that there. They don’t really have books you can read, there’s maybe one TV. My client, he has no one to talk to because no one there speaks his language. So then all you do there is sit the entire day, alone, and then if you’ve had a traumatic experience in the past, all you do is sleep and think about what happened to you, what might happen if you go back.
BOUMAN: You know, every time I’ve asked someone, what happens when you go back, it’s always that they’re going to die. And that’s actually the only answer. I’m going to die.
SPOOR: Sometimes I think about it and I wouldn’t last a week in there. I wouldn’t last a week on the street. But some of them live like that for five years or more. That kind of life, in the streets or in detention, I don’t believe that they would stay here if they felt they could really go back.
Jonathan de Vries, asylum case worker with the Netherlands Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), Schiedamse Vest 146, Stadsdriehoek, Rotterdam, May 2013:
The famous philosopher and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda, he wrote about the question, what is good health? Is it the absence of illness? And he said no. He said this in a much more poetic way, but he said no, good health is to fight against everything which threatens your health and well-being. So that can be war, but it can be also illness in your own body. So what is essential is a fighting spirit. Really.
But from a more personal point of view—and this is really how I view life itself, how I perceive life—I feel that it does not matter where you are, your environment. You can create value and meaning everywhere you are. Does not depend on where you are. Viktor Frankel, he showed it in a death camp, in Auschwitz. So even though I have never experienced those kinds of things, I still feel I can say this because he showed it. And many more people are showing it. The fighting spirit, that also underlies the migration and refugee debate. We need to create a strong fighting spirit worldwide, really based on compassion, to struggle against injustice.
What we need is to not run away from difficult circumstances. And from me it is so simple to say, because I have a good salary, I have really nice parents and if I don’t earn money they will support me. So it’s easy to say, but still, I am sharing this with people because, yeah, if shit hits the fan then you need to put this into practice. Because even though I have all those good circumstances, I can become seriously ill or my parents can die suddenly or conflict can break out in the Netherlands. It can happen anywhere, things can change in an instant. Life is quite unpredictable, you know.
Friday 12 April 2013:
An investigation by Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice has found evidence of negligence in the state’s treatment of Alexander Dolmatov, the Russian dissident who committed suicide in a Dutch detention center this January following the rejection of his application for political asylum in the Netherlands.
The report cites failures in existing government procedure as well as an insufficient support from organizations providing legal and medical assistance to asylum seekers. The report found no direct connection, however, between Dolmatov’s suicide and conditions or treatment at the Rotterdam removal center where he was erroneously placed during the final days of his life. The report maintains that it is impossible to determine if Dolmatov would have survived had he received different treatment.
Anthony Ringo Matumba, rejected asylum seeker, Madurastraat 26, Indische Buurt West, Amsterdam, January 2013:
I am a Christian. In the Bible it says to take care of refugees, foreigners. So you see, even during the time of the Bible there were refugees. Refugees will never stop. In Mexico they are building the highest walls, but it will never stop. People aren’t stupid, they don’t leave their country for no reason. When I left Kenya, I left my girlfriend. I was to marry her. I left my family. Here it is like my life is on pause. If I go back to my country someday, I will have no progress. I will have nothing to show.
The system they are using here, it’s killing people. They are not doing it purposely. It is a result of the mind system. When I fled in 2007, I first came to Greece. I was stranded at the airport by my smuggler. In Greece, reception is different. They take your fingers, give you a paper and they say go look for a friend, go look for other Africans. They give you a card, with this you can work, go to school, you just cannot leave the city. They want to use your body, you see? Your mind is not attacked. They are gaining your body. They use your energy, your sweat. You are physical. So you forget your problems, your worries. You focus on opportunities.
When you came here, they took you in, you see? But now if you stay, the police come to look for you. No Holland man can keep you in his house. No one can give you work. You can’t stay anywhere more than two weeks. They will know. They know every tree in Holland. They count them. It’s a system country.
But here when you arrive, the first thing they do is take your fingers. Then they take you into a room with TV. They make interviews, then you wait, doing nothing. If they give you a negative, they send you to another camp. You reapply, you go to court, and if the judge rejects you again then suddenly you are running in the streets. When you came here, they took you in, you see? But now if you stay, the police come to look for you. No Holland man can keep you in his house. No one can give you work. You can’t stay anywhere more than two weeks. They will know. They know every tree in Holland. They count them. It’s a system country.
So you see, here we cannot be working. But we are young guys. I want to work. I want to use my body. If you put a car in the garage, it is depreciating. Your body is like a machine, it needs to move. A car goes to get service every month. Your body needs this too. If you’re not active, you see, you die. You die. I feel I am losing my body because there is no work for me here. There is not even a car wash. Have you ever seen a car wash here? No, everyone washes themselves! This is a job for refugees. In America there is everywhere a car wash, full of refugees. But they don’t hand out jobs here. In Greece I could shine shoes. But here there are no leftovers for us, no handouts. If you eat everything, how does the dog survive?
When you stay without working you become sick. This is psychology. Sweating, working, this is exercise. But, okay, you can’t give me work? Give me school. Teach me a computer. I can exercise my mind. And when my country is safe, I will go back. But here they prefer to pay me to sleep. So people here are sleeping, only sleeping. It’s killing the mind. Maybe with these conditions they try to reduce the number of refugees, but they don’t earn anything from me sleeping. They could earn a lot from us. It’s very simple mathematics.
Holland is a difficult country without papers. Really. With paper you feel more human, more safe. Here people without papers are suffering. I’ve seen people who are mad.
Holland is a difficult country without papers. Really. With paper you feel more human, more safe. Here people without papers are suffering. I’ve seen people who are mad. My housemates for example. Sometimes at night I can’t sleep because Adam is in the next room talking. He talks in his sleep. One night I even had to go into his room and wake him up because he was screaming. I see Tariq too, every day he’s losing. Becoming sick. He’s draining. Me too, I’ve lost a lot. But I am trying to stay positive. I make friends, I go to church. There are nice people there. But really, I don’t know if I am sick. I am in Europe for five years now. I am 33 years old. I’m 33 and I’m stuck.
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