They call it the ”refugee garage” – an abandoned multi-story indoor parking lot and office building in a poor suburb of Amsterdam occupied by people with nowhere else to go. They are mostly from Africa—Somalia, the Sudans, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere.
Men have been living there since last December. There were 106 when we visited recently, according to the residents. The living conditions are terrible—all the more shocking because of the proximity to the center of such a global, wealthy city as Amsterdam, just a 15-minute drive away.
Asylum applications for many of the men, garage residents and those helping them said, have been rejected, but they cannot return to their home counties. In some cases there are difficulties verifying their nationalities, or cooperation is lacking between their home governments and Dutch authorities. Left with no support from the Dutch authorities, they have nowhere safe to live, so they turn to squatting in buildings, such as this garage.
Elsewhere in Amsterdam, many of the men and women living in the Vluchthaven, a former prison, are also failed asylum seekers who can’t go home. While the Amsterdam authorities initially helped make the facility available to the group on a temporary basis, a court is expected to rule in early July on whether they have to leave.
This problem of what’s sometimes called “forced destitution” is not unique to the Netherlands, and is reported to be growing in Europe. A 2012 report by the UK Refugee Council showed that a significant percentage of their most destitute clients were rejected asylum seekers from countries with persistent human rights problems. To make ends meet, some of the women were turning to sex work, where they face additional risks of violence and health problems. In Greece, many rejected asylum seekers are homeless or live in squalid conditions. Others remain in overcrowded detention centers pending deportation, even if they cannot go home for humanitarian or practical reasons.
The problem is not confined to asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, a human rights body of the Council of Europe, noted in 2012 the inadequate reception conditions for asylum seekers in Italy and a lack of assistance for those outside reception centers. The European Committee of Social Rights, an expert panel that looks at Council of Europe member state implementation of the European Social Charter, in 2013 raised concerns with Belgium for denying social assistance to asylum seekers and irregular migrants.
Most of the men in the “refugee garage” in Amsterdam are living in empty offices, some with borrowed beds and mattresses, several men to a room. Sometimes bedsheets have been hung from the ceilings to create corners of privacy. They cook on tiny gas stoves, heating up food from tins stacked in the corners. It’s overcrowded, messy, and unhygienic. In some corridors there is no light and the floors are flooded. One bed-ridden West African man was seriously ill, said friends who were caring for him. Some men are literally living in garages—behind the swing-up doors of individual concrete car lots.
The Dutch government’s neglect of this vulnerable group is not only a scandal. It also violates European standards. Last October, the European Committee of Social Rights found that the Netherlands is obliged under the European Social Charter to provide support to failed asylum seekers who can’t be sent home. The Conference of European Churches had asked the committee to press for the suspension provisions in Dutch law that exclude ”undocumented migrants” from assistance and support, saying that this exclusion is a threat to safety and human dignity.
The committee agreed that migrants were at risk and asked the Netherlands to “adopt all possible measures with a view to avoiding serious, irreparable injury to the integrity of persons at immediate risk of destitution, through the implementation of a coordinated approach at national and municipal levels with a view to ensuring that their basic needs (shelter, clothes, and food) are met.”
The Dutch authorities have yet to carry out the decision.
Forced destitution in the Netherlands is raising concerns elsewhere. A court in Darmstadt, Germany, ruled in May that a Somali man could not be returned to the Netherlands because there was a danger that he would end up homeless and without a source of food. The man went to Germany after the Netherlands rejected his asylum claim. To return him would be a breach of his basic human rights, the judge said, referring to the passage in the German constitution stating that “the dignity of man is inviolable.”
The issue of forced destitution is undoubtedly a challenge for the authorities in the Netherlands. As a group of leading Dutch organizations acknowledged last month (June) “these problems are not easy to resolve.”
Yet, common humanity and the European Social Rights Committee’s ruling means the Netherlands needs to act. It is not alone among EU states in facing this challenge. But the high public profile of the issue in the Netherlands, and the pressure from nongovernmental groups there, suggests this is an opportunity for the government and local authorities to set a positive example to others in the EU. No one in Europe should have to live in a refugee garage.
Hugh Williamson is director, Europe and Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch.