Written By: Gabrielle Fradin & Chris Kelly
Photos: The 2&6 Collective
On March 15th 2020, a little over 2 weeks from now, 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 a chance at 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 reactions of Dutch governing bodies has been tragic considering the city used to welcome the history and political need of squatting. However, now that the romanticised notion of middle class squatting has been replaced by a desperate need for infrastructure to support refugees, Amsterdam has turned its back on squatters and their needs.
The Garage currently serves as home to almost hundred people, including a politically conscious group of undocumented refugees called, We Are Here (Wij Zijn Hier). We sat down with them the to talk about the upcoming eviction, the reality of life as an undocumented migrant in the Netherlands and the future of the organisation.
Entering The Garage
The Garage is cold, dark and wet. Left exposed to the wind and rain for decades, its structures have begun to crumble and the graffiti soaked wooden walls have begun 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 that the police or Dutch officials are debating. Rather they 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 you ascend up the towering abandoned parking lot, the biting winter winds continue to whip at your neck, even once beyond the rotting plywood walls that have been erected by the refugees. When we closed the cut-out door behind us and entered the cave-like living area, all light was sucked out of the room and smoke filled the air. Amongst the fog and dust lies about 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 sanely 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 took 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 emotions that most commonly prevailed. In reality, it is almost the complete opposite. Their laughter was infectious and heartfelt, whilst their stories of home remained 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 embodied was the idea that all the things that actually makes us human; laughter, convocation, creativity, music and mutual respect, are all necessities for survival in the darkest of circumstances. Sitting with them reminded 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 wore the same kinds of sneakers as us, listened to the same music, watched the same football teams and laughed 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
As we got out of the tent, we went on to 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 the generator accompanied us as we sat down and started our chat with three of We Are Here’s main coordinators.
Most somewhat politically engaged Amsterdamers would have heard of We Are Here. This refugee-led group formed in 2012 after the eviction of the informal refugee camp of Osdorp. Despite some deserved media interest at its conception, the 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 spot to somehow get some rest from this continual harassment. Ironically, the Groen Links (Green Left), now leading such unnecessary evictions, were once supporters of the movement. In fact, one of our interlocutors shows us an open letter he wrote to the mayor in which he reminds him and his party that there was a time when they came to visit them in the squats and when they both mutually supported each other, campaigning and gaining public attention. What’s left of this now that the same people are in power?
Talking about solutions, 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 at stake here is the impossibility of finding any sustainable, long-term solution. As We Are Here deplores, and 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 it seems 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 build together a sensible and sustainable solution to decently welcome undocumented refugees in Amsterdam. Looking at the root causes of the problem, the collective is fully aware that such policy is utterly hypocritical when put in the face of Dutch and, more broadly, European neo-colonial exploitation of African countries, where the Garage inhabitants are from.
After concluding our discussion with We Are Here, we returned 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 Centraal 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 looming everyday closer onto 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 finally acquired much deserved, late-in-the-day attention from the raadscommissie AZ. The committee 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 remain balanced on the whims of local enforcement agencies.