We Are Here & The eviction of the garage: Amsterdam’s failure to help refugees
On 15 March 2020, the safety and welfare of around 100 Amsterdam residents & community members will once again be left to chance. The Garage was supposed to be a temporary solution to the lack of infrastructure available to undocumented refugees who have come to the Netherlands in search of support and the possibility of a better future. Instead, The Garage has become a permanent reminder of the lack of empathy towards refugees that pervades contemporary society and international immigration policy. The reaction of the city government is truly tragic, particularly if one considers its past progressive attitude to squatting. Today, what remains is a romanticised notion of middle class squatting that inspires the docile practice of creative kwartiermakers while the desperate need for infrastructure to support refugees and the political squatting that goes along with it is conveniently ignored.
The Garage currently serves as home to over a hundred people, including a politically conscious group of undocumented refugees called We Are Here. We sat down with them to talk about the upcoming eviction, the reality of life as an undocumented migrant in the Netherlands and the future of We Are Here.
The Garage is cold, dark and wet. Left exposed to wind and rain for decades, its structure is crumbling and the graffiti covered wooden walls are beginning to peel and flake off onto the tents below. One of the key injustices in this story is that the residents of the garage are being evicted from a location they inhabit out of necessity, not choice. “To evict or not to evict”, should not even be the question. Rather officials should be asking themselves how and why it is that these human beings had nowhere else to go and nobody to turn to? Why was an empty parking garage at the outskirts of Amsterdam the only home that these people could find? And why is it now that they have found somewhere to take shelter from the storm, they are once again being told to move on and return to the streets?
As we walk up the stairs of the abandoned parking lot, the biting winter winds continue to whip at our necks and don’t stop once we are beyond the rotting plywood walls that have been erected by the refugees. As we close the cut-out door behind us and entered the cave-like living area, all light is sucked out of the room and smoke fills the air. In the fog and dust we can make out 20 ramshackle tents, tucked and squeezed onto every crevice of concrete floor available. Even with the support and assistance of a provincial council this space could never be deemed suitable for human habitation.
Upon entering the first tent, 10 sets of eyes turned in the darkness towards the door, looking up from the 3 bunk beds that skirted the walls. It takes but seconds for the group of young men to welcome us in with open arms, offering their seats to strangers without hesitation. It would be easy to think that for those in circumstances as unjust and challenging as the residents of The Garage, anger and sadness would be the default emotions. In reality, it is almost the complete opposite. Their laughter is infectious and heartfelt, whilst their stories of home remain open and honest, as if told between distant friends.
People too often look at refugees as broken spirits defined by the situations that they are trying to leave behind. However, what these guys embody is the idea that all the things that actually make us human – such as laughter, convocation, creativity, music and mutual respect – are all necessities for survival in the darkest of circumstances. Sitting with them reminds me of being back home with my friends in London, many of them being the same age as the residents of The Garage. These guys are wearing the same kinds of sneakers as we do, listen to the same music, watch the same football teams and laugh at the same jokes. Yet, whilst I have been welcomed by this country and been given an opportunity to grow, the residents of The Garage have not.
We are Here
Leaving the tent, we enter the ‘main area’ where two shaky tables and a few chairs are put together. The muffled reggae music playing inside the different tents, as well as the monotone sound of a generator accompanied us as we sat down and started our chat with three of We Are Here’s main coordinators.
Most Amsterdammers who are somewhat politically engaged have heard of We Are Here. This refugee-led group formed in 2012 after the eviction of the informal refugee camp in Osdorp. After some initial media interest, attention has now waned, whilst, unfortunately, We Are Here’s mission is still more relevant than ever.
Striving to find a place to stay for undocumented refugees in Amsterdam, the organization boldly confronts a recurring problem: where are we going next? Indeed, squatting in Amsterdam, and especially when carried out by undocumented people, has become a ticking-clock exercise constantly apprehending the next eviction and looking out for the next temporary refuge to somehow get some rest from this continual harassment. Ironically, the Groen Links (Green Left) city government that is now leading these evictions was once in support of the Movement. In fact, one of our interlocutors shows us an open letter he wrote to the mayor in which he reminds her and her party that there was a time when they came to visit them in the squats, thus supporting each other, campaigning and gaining public attention. What’s left of this now that the same people are in power?
Talking about potential solutions to the refugees’ unbearable situation, I come to mention the winter shelter, that opens during the harsh winter months when the municipality has a legal obligation to keep people off the streets. Still, as they explain to me, these places only accept people on a temporary basis, whilst screening them. In short, you can stay a few days until you are processed as ineligible to stay and put back on the streets again. A central issue here is the impossibility of finding any sustainable, long-term solution. As a consequence of the refusal of the municipality to enter any meaningful discussion, the organization is still obliged to pursue quick fixes, going from one ‘illegal’ temporary squat to another. Even more worrying is that their ‘options’ are getting worse as it is debatable whether squatting in an open parking lot for survival can qualify as ‘squatting,’ as most people would understand the meaning of the word.
It is clear that local politicians refuse to face reality and offer a sensible and sustainable solution for undocumented refugees in Amsterdam.
After concluding our discussion with We Are Here, we return to Kraaiennest station. At the exit to the station, police dressed in civilian clothes stood eagle eyed, watching the crowds disperse. Communicating to each other through their headphones, they worked in unison to corral and ID check anyone they deemed to look like an undocumented immigrant. Upon earlier consultation with We Are Here, we learnt that such action was an everyday occurrence. Such presence at Central Station would be unthinkable. However, at the end of the M3 line, discarded far beyond the easily distracted gaze of visiting tourists, reality is far harder and more unjust than the Tweede Kamer cares to mention.
As we are writing this article, the eviction date of mid-March is drawing closer every day for the people we met at the Garage. Still, in their struggle for recognition and with the help of the church, it looks like the Garage has, at the 11th hour, got the attention of the raadscommissie AZ (a citizens council that advises the commission of general affairs in making decisions regarding different topics including order, security and undocumented people in the city). The council is due to come visit the place in the coming week in the hope to find a sensible solution. Sadly, with no assurances being offered by the government, the lives of all residents of The Garage still depend on the whims of local enforcement agencies.
Photos: The 2&6 Collective