Tent villages: not helplessness but strength, courage and perseverance

Refugee in The Hague.
Refugee in The Hague.
In September 2012 a number of rejected refugees start setting up their camp of tents in The Hague and Amsterdam. There is a fierce struggle going on for a year now against the brutal rejection and exclusion policies. For days, and sometimes weeks, refugees have been camping in the cold, rain and wind on the doorsteps of organisations such as the registration and expulsion centre Ter Apel and the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Service) offices in Zwolle and Den Bosch. To physically challenge government policy is an extremely brave battle strategy rather than an act of despair.

The original text in Dutch
(december 10th, 2012)

Translated in English by Jet

Ce texte en Français

Through their tents the refugees make their daily fight for survival painfully visible. They turn their individual problems into a collective issue, and their individual struggle becomes a collective battle. The camps are not a sign of helplessness: they reflect strength, courage and perseverance. The weaponry does not only consist of demonstrations and organising meetings; no, the daily life of the refugees is the main instrument. The camps are not places where protest actions are organised, the camp itself is the protest. By physically placing their own bodies in the political arena, the refugees make it clear that they no longer want to be excluded from society, that they want to be able to rebuild their existence and to live a dignified life. That is why they demand legal residence and housing.

Two camps in two cities are confronted with two mayors with different methods. Neither of them, of course, will serve the interests of the refugees. Mayor Jozias van Aartsen of The Hague has made it clear from the start of the camp “Right of existence” that he will not concern himself with the refugees. He has forbidden aid organisations to offer the camp their help, and the municipality does not provide any facilities. The refugees have had to obtain court permission to spend the night in their camp, and even to have closed tent sides which was absolutely necessary in the freezing autumn wind. Van Aartsen refuses to even come near the camp and denigrates the refugees and their supporters in the council and the press. There are restrictions for the demonstrations that are announced. The police regularly conduct checks. Only the Haagse Stadspartij (= Party of The Hague) is asking questions in the council regarding the repressive action by the mayor of the VVD (= Liberal Conservative Party). The other parties in parliament keep almost completely quiet.


Local councillors of all political parties and supporters from various layers of society have advocated a “dignified asylum”, right after the start of the protest camp “We are here”. But soon after the political debate is all about demanding residence rights and the inhumane circumstances in which illegalised refugees and migrants have to live from day to day. Some supporters mainly see the camp itself as a humanitarian tragedy instead of a militant protest. It is convenient for Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan that the supporters of the camp themselves sound the alarm bell. Contrary to his colleague in The Hague, the PvdA (= Social Democrat Party) member does visit the camp himself, and he expresses his “concerns” in a letter to the council. In this letter he announces that the camp will have to be evicted because the “physical and mental health” of the refugees in the camp is supposedly endangered. An additional and cunning trump card played by the mayor is his offer of 30 days state aid and refuge for the refugees “to recover their breath”, which generates doubts among the supporters. Evidently, the refugees would have to break up their tented camp. They do not fall for this. The refugees refuse to be separated, and in their view temporary refuge is no solution because they will be thrown out onto the streets afterwards. By themselves on the street, that is how the authorities prefer it. Malicious Van der Laan then shows his real face: he evicts the camp and apprehends more than one hundred refugees, and the same evening the majority of these are dumped onto the streets again, without shelter, without tents, without blankets. Some engaged citizens of Amsterdam and other activists offer their help, and the refugees continue their protest action winterproof in a church squat.

The repressive VVD and the sneaky PvdA: a good image of national party politics. The PvdA is the party that has supplied most of the ministers for the migration policy portfolio in the past years, and can be rightly called the architect of this brutal rejection and exclusion policy. The categorical protection policy aiming to provide temporary residence right and protection to groups of refugees from countries torn apart by war, has been abolished by the last PvdA minister for migration management: state secretary Nebahat Albayrak. Among the victims of this abolition are the Somalis who are the majority of the inhabitants of the Amsterdam camp. The highest Dutch court has forbidden their deportation but they will not be granted residence rights.


Currently, warrior Fred Teeven is the responsible state secretary. In the Rutte II government migration is no longer a separate portfolio. Refugees and migrants now come under the Justice department, which means they are criminalised, even before penalisation of illegality is formally in place. Fighter Freddie does not yield up one millimetre to the refugees. Only if refugees agree to return to their countries full of poverty and violence he is willing to offer them a very austere and temporary shelter. He will not even discuss residence rights. No help is to be expected from the Left of the parliamentary politics either: In her very spineless motion member of parliament Sharon “inconvenience” Gasthuizen (of het former Maoïst Socialist Party) repeats the call for helping only those refugees who are willing to cooperate in repatriation. Former minister Gerd Leers also made such an offer in the past.

However depressing parlementarians may be, the strength of the refugees turns out to be most inspiring. After weeks of living in the cold and mud, without proper toilets or showers, they continue to fight this heavy battle without any loss of conviction. A letter from the Repatriation and Departure Service regarding “voluntary” departure is torn up immediately, the “helping hand” from Teeven for assistance after repatriation is resolutely rejected, they turn their backs en masse on Van der Laan’s “less than an asylum seekers’ residence centre” shelter, and in spite of having partly open tents they defy the repression of Van Aartsen. It is not up to us to decide what is best for the refugees. They must be central in their own battle. We must support them, show our solidarity and support their demands. Right of residence and housing, right now!

Mariët van Bommel