“The government is kicking refugee children around like a football”


Abeda, Akwazi and their little boys Baako and Kojo are living in one of the family accommodations for refugee families. Each day they personally experience what it is like to live in this kind of a semi-prison, under a strict regime and with only the bare minimum of facilities available. On May 21 – 22 and May 28 – 29 demonstrations were organised by the “Geen kind aan de kant” (“No child should be abandoned”) organisation against these harsh conditions. This is the story of Abeda.

The original text in Dutch
Translated by: Jet

Abeda has been living at the location for refugee families for over four years now. For security reasons she prefers not to identify which of the seven refugee locations features in her story. She does not want to disclose her country of origin for the same reason. After her flight she applied for asylum and spent time in various asylum seeker centres (called azc in Dutch). She met Akwasi there who also fled his country, which is a different country than hers. She started a relationship with him and they had a child together, Baako. They were allowed to live together in an azc. However, when her request for a residence permit was rejected the authorities decided to break up the family. They knew that, with Abeda having a different nationality from Akwasi, it would be very difficult to deport them to the same country together. If Abeda would be deported to Akwasi’s country she would have to live there illegally. And if Akwasi would be deported to Abeda’s country he would not have residence rights there. The authorities are not allowed officially to deport people to countries where they would become illegal residents. That is why it was in the interest of the authorities to separate the father from the mother, to be able to deport them separately to their individual country of origin.

Looking for daddy

Abeda was told to report to the azc in Ter Apel, to start procedures for her return. Akwasi was not allowed to accompany her and the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) remained vague about what would happen to him. Abeda did not trust the situation. On the day that she was supposed to leave for Ter Apel she decided to flee. She rushed to get her baby and her most important documents, and together with her husband she left the azc as quickly as she could. She left her belongings behind. They were just in time. She was told later by her neighbour that three police vans arrived at great speed only ten minutes after they left. With great demonstration of force the police searched their entire living quarters. They had come to deport Akwasi. In the meantime, Abeda and Akwasi jumped on the first bus they saw and then just took a train, without knowing where to go, where they would sleep or eat. Fortunately, there was no ticket inspection since they obviously did not have money to buy tickets. After wandering around they finally approached a church that is visited by many countrymen of Abeda. They were offered a small room in someone’s home and lived there for four months.

During that time Abeda started to suffer from serious psychological problems as a result of all of the fear and stress she had been through. Her lawyer requested a postponement of deportation and this meant she could not be deported. She reported herself to the authorities again and together with baby Baako she was sent to the family accommodation where they are currently living. Akwasi was not allowed to live with them, however. Abeda and Akwasi are not married and that is why Akwasi has not been registered automatically as the father of Baako. Abeda and Akwasi tried to get Akwasi acknowledged as the father of Baako when they were living together in the azc. The municipality refused because Akwasi does not have a residence permit. This means that according to the municipality there, men without residence permits cannot become fathers and children without official papers are left with just one parent: their mother. Since he was not registered as father Akwasi was forced to live ‘outside’, separated from his family and as a result suffering uncertainty and insecurity. For almost a year and a half he had to try and survive, without right to residence.

Finally, he succeeded in getting himself registered as father of Baako in the municipality where the refugee family accommodation is now located. Even after that the COA rejected the request of the family to be allowed to live together again. This continued as part of the disgusting game to keep them apart, in order to deport them separately. “My eldest son was two years old at the time”, Abeda tells us. “He kept calling me: ‘Mummy, mummy, come! Find daddy, find daddy.’ It was very difficult for him that his father was not living with us. Baako has become traumatised to the extent that he needed treatment by ‘Centrum 45’ (Dutch expert centre for specialised psychological and psychiatric treatment of victims of torture, persecution and other traumatic events). Baako still suffers from separation anxiety. Whenever Akwasi or I am not around he starts to ask in panic: ‘When is mummy coming?’ or ‘When is daddy coming?’ He grew up in a very insecure environment. This applies to all children in the family accommodations.” Only after an expert with sufficient authority had declared that separating the family members was quite disastrous for the development of the child, the COA gave in and the family was able to reunite.

Reporting obligation

The day-to-day atmosphere in the family accommodation is tense. “What is going to happen tomorrow?”, “When are they going to deport us?”, “If we have to flee the azc, then where can we go?”. These are the questions running through the minds of the refugees. “The people living in the azc are already awake at six every morning”, Abeda explains. “Because that is the time for the police to come and pick up a family to lock them up and deport them. Every day at that same time my heart is pounding in my chest with fear. Only recently my son saw how a nine-year old girl begged the police not to take her and her family to prison. Her father had cut his wrists and had been taken away by ambulance. The girl was crying and crying. My son witnessed all of this. I could not bring myself to telling him the truth, that the police had come to lock them up even though they had done nothing wrong. But the children at the family location talk about this among themselves. My son realises very well that it could happen to us. That is why he keeps asking. Whenever there is a knock on our door he is frightened, and he asks me: ‘Police?’. We know of another family, who were from the same country that I come from. In fear of deportation they fled from the family location. My son played with their kids and all of a sudden they had disappeared. He was very sad about this. ‘Why have they gone’, he asked me. ‘Where are they now? Do they live in another house? A nice, big house?’. It hurts me to have to answer those questions.”

From Mondays to Fridays there is the daily obligation for the residents of the camp to report. Between one and two o’clock in the afternoon the refugees have to show their pass to the COA personnel. “The computer breaks down regularly, and then there is a lot of hassle and you have to wait for a very long time. Sometimes a refugee is sick and then only the partner comes. Then you get an argument. The COA demands that everyone reports. ‘But you know us, don’t you?’, is what the partner will say. The COA staff will say: ‘These are the rules’.” The COA only gives exemption from the obligatory reporting in case of medical appointments, not for sickness and not for appointments with lawyers. If someone does not report the family will receive six euros less allowance in that week.


The refugees receive thirty-one euro living allowance per week per person. It used to be more but as of January 1 it was decreased by five euro. There is a rigid penalty system. If by accident someone triggers the fire alarm when cooking, for example, the fine is twenty-six euro. If children play football or use skateboards in the corridor the parents are fined fifteen euro. Those fines are deducted from the living allowance and because this is already such a small amount it immediately creates a big problem. Refugees do not get extra money for travel costs, for the costs of having a lawyer or submitting requests for residence permits. The COA discourages refugees from starting new residence procedures by not offering any support. Refugee family locations are harassment centres where everything is organised in order to deport people to their country of origin.

Also in the area of education Abeda and Akwasi were confronted with the COA’s mania for regulation aimed at breaking the refugees. Baako is five years old now and goes to school. All children starting primary school should visit the COA primary school, according to the rules. The psychologist had however advised in the case of Baako that he should go to a normal school in a safe environment. A sense of safety is vital for his development. Abeda had to fight to make this happen. First the COA agreed, but barely after one week of school Abeda and Akwasi received a phone call from the school principal. He had been told by the COA that Baako should go to the COA primary school after all. Fortunately, the principal understood how important it was for Baako not to be transferred, and with his help and the help from the child psychologist Abeda and Akwasi were able to stand their ground. The COA appears to tolerate the current situation. “Refugee children are like a football”, Abeda says with a sigh, “the authorities just continue kicking them around”.

The gloomy atmosphere surrounding the refugees also penetrates into the classroom of the school at the location. On the wall there are pictures of the children who have been deported. Above these is the text: “Do not forget us”, that is very confrontational for the remaining children and their parents. “Children should be free and happy, but that is not possible in the camp”, says Abeda. “They re-enact the life around them. One child will say: ‘I am the police’. The other will say: ‘I am the ambulance attendant’. And they say to the third child: ‘You should fall down on the ground and then I come to get you.’ The drawings that children make also show how much they suffer from the conditions. At the primary school in the camp the children get Dutch lessons but at a regular school the teaching is much better and more comprehensive. There the children go on excursions and do all sorts of interesting projects. The camp has no secondary school. Children in that age group have to go to a regular school in any case.”

Fairy tales

At least twice and sometimes even four times per month the refugees have a repatriation interview with officials of the Dienst Terugkeer en Vertrek (Repatriation and Departure Service, DTV). Even if the refugees cannot be deported they are still obliged to participate. This gives the DTV personnel the opportunity to convince them and make them believe they have no future in the Netherlands. But many refugees try to avoid deportation by starting a procedure for postponement of departure on medical grounds. Many of them have physical and mental problems. The continuous stress takes its toll. “Every week the ambulance comes to the camp at least two or three times. There are many suicide attempts. Also heart attacks. The children have to witness all of this first hand.” In addition, there is the intimidation by the personnel at the reception desk. “They behave like guards, as if they are in charge, and they walk around with bunches of keys. The residents themselves have a key to their room, but the COA employees also have a copy.” The residents of the family locations cannot leave the municipality where they live, also not during the weekend.

Abeda is convinced that the action plans of the government aimed at convincing refugees to be deported ‘voluntarily’ are doomed to fail. “According to the rules refugees should live in the camp three to six months, and be deported after that. But some families have lived there for five years already. Recently a delegation of civil servants from my country came to talk to us. These people are used by the Dutch government to put pressure on us. They are paid to do so. They promised us that things would be fine for us when we would return. But we know better. Other refugees who have been deported in the meantime tell us what it is really like when you return. We told these civil servants: ‘Don’t tell us fairy tales, why are you not telling us the truth?’. Because things are only organised well for the rich people in my country.” Baako was born in the Netherlands and is now five years old, so the family has put in a request for a residence permit within the framework of the so-called ‘Kinderpardon’ regulation (children’s amnesty scheme that aims at more lenient interpretation of the law to allow every child who has lived in the Netherlands for longer than five years to remain in the country). They are now waiting for the decision of the IND (Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service). “For this application we have to be able to prove that we have made sufficient attempts to return to our countries.” The government is bound by its own regulations not to deport the family individually, but in the meantime they require Abeda and Akwasi to say goodbye forever and be deported ‘voluntarily’ to their country of origin. These are the ways of a state that continuously violates human rights and children’s rights.

Abeda, Akwasi, Baako and Kojo are pseudonyms.

Harry Westerink
Mariët van Bommel