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Letter from the Netherlands:
“We Refugees are Like Chemical Waste”

“We, asylum seekers, spat out by the war, we are like chemical waste. Nobody wants us, every country embarks on us or stops us. No, we do not look like it, we are chemical waste […] During the time I spent in Europe as a refugee, I never felt like I really am a human being.”

–Rodaan Al Galidi.1

In the camps on islands like Lesbos and Kos, on the Macedonian border, the stench of shit and dirty clothes grows stronger; the mud of the winter and spring months has changed into dusty fields. In the camps where the refugees are now locked up behind high fences topped with NATO barbed wire, people are starving. The European political elite, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Turkish political elite, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, can be satisfied and get some relief. They have signed an agreement to stop the refugees.

Refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station. Photo by Rebecca Harms. Used under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It’s not that they don’t care or that it does not touch them. They find it pathetic, but as always the bottom line is not what anyone says but what they do. The actions of the political élite are clearly aimed at deterring refugees from coming to Europe as much as possible. In the first four months of 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration, 155,399 refugees crossed to Greece, most of them in the first three months. 87% came from the well-known warzones: Syria (46%), Afghanistan (25%), and Iraq (16%). For politicians, refugees are not so much pitiful as a pain in the ass because of the logistical and financial problems they pose, particularly because of the political pressure from populist politicians. And these have become popular, due to the destruction of the welfare state. So there is an enormous social pressure behind the desperate and grotesque attempts by the ruling class to get the situation under control, to give the impression that they are united, to try to get rid of the refugees with some semblance of legality, and so forth.


Relocation of refugees in Europe

In September 2015, the governments of the E.U. countries agreed to “take over” a total of 160,000 refugees residing in Greece and Italy—the two countries where the overwhelming majority of the refugees come ashore— and to settle the asylum procedure in their respective countries. By March 2016, half a year later, 569 (0.36%) people had been moved to another E.U. country. There are two reasons for this very low number. In the first place, the European countries have provided insufficient places for refugees, due to a lack of political will. A more important reason is that the refugees wanted to determine themselves to which country they were going. “You are not allowed to leave the country which is selected for you, during the first five years. I want to be able to visit my family,” stated a twenty-year-old refugee from Damascus.2

Meanwhile, a new Iron Curtain has come down across the route across the Balkans and over 13,000 people have gotten stuck at Idomeni, on the border between Greece and Macedonia. Several attempts to cross the border ran into barbed wire and the batons and tear gas of riot police. On Greek islands like Lesbos, Chios, and Kos, there are over 7,000 refugees; they cannot move. On the Greek mainland there are more than 53,000 refugees (half of them coming from Syria and 15,000 from Afghanistan); they, too, cannot move. In late May the Greek government had the camps in Idomeni and Piraeus cleared and the refugees transferred to other camps, where they can be better monitored and are less visible to the outside world. The tents in muddy fields were a shameful symbol of Europe’s inability to cope with the refugees. Promises of E.U. countries to take over large numbers of refugees from Greece got stuck in unwillingness and bureaucracy. The European Commission had set a target  to resettle 20,000 people from Greece and Italy by mid-May. At the end of May the number actually resettled had reached 1,500, of whom 909 were from Greece.


The agreement with Turkey

As the refugee “problem” was becoming uncontrollable and resistance among the population was growing and posed an increasing threat to incumbent politicians, the latter took, as happens so often, a great leap forward.

Under the leadership of Merkel, the E.U. leaders signed an agreement with Turkey. This “Merkel Plan,” which entered into force on March 20, 2016, broadly holds that any refugee coming from Turkey to Greece after that date will be returned after a short legal procedure (by the end of April 340 people were returned). The trick that seemed to make this “legal” was that Greece—at the instigation of the European leaders—granted Turkey the qualification “safe country.” This permitted, under Greek law, something not allowed under European law, for which Turkey is not considered a safe country, and so opened the door for the so ardently desired deportation of refugees to that country. However, in mid-May, a Syrian refugee lodged a successful appeal against the rejection of his asylum application. He was to be sent back to Turkey, but for the time being this had now been put on hold.3

The agreement with Turkey stipulates that for every refugee that Turkey takes back from Greece, the E.U. will take over one Syrian who now resides in Turkey. These people will be divided according to a certain distribution code across E.U. member states (in early May, 350 were redistributed). Non-Syrians do not fall within the scope of this plan. They have to go back to Turkey anyway to seek asylum there, but this cannot be implemented until the Turkish government has adapted legislation on this point. Whether that will happen is unclear; in early May it was not yet settled. In return, Turkish nationals will be allowed to travel into the E.U. without a visa, something the Turkish government has long desired. Moreover, the E.U. will pay three billion euros to the Turkish government for its reception of refugees.4

Gerald Knaus, director of the think-tank European Stability Initiative, originally devised this plan. From the outset it was clear that the deportation of refugees to Turkey who would cross after the “Merkel Plan” had come into force, had to be executed by the Greek authorities, who were not equipped for this job, having neither the manpower nor the resources to do it. The E.U. has pledged to deploy 4,000 troops to support this effort. Knaus says: “It is a mistake to think that this can be executed while improvising. It would be better to handle this as a genuine, stand-alone E.U. operation; which would also be in the interest of the Greeks themselves, to avoid getting the blame again.”5

Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated in a declaration just before the agreement with Turkey that “E.U. leaders are in a panic to stop refugee flows before spring, and they seem willing to throw human rights overboard in the process

[ … ] It is naked self-interest and wishful thinking to say Turkey is a safe country of asylum—it is not, and this deal could cause much more harm than good.” According to HRW, Turkey “does not provide effective protection for refugees and has repeatedly pushed asylum seekers back to Syria.”6 A Syrian refugee residing in Turkey said the agreement is about “the self-interest of those countries, not about human rights. We feel like goods to be traded.”7

On April 1, Amnesty International (AI) published a press release on the “large-scale forced return of refugees from Turkey to war-ravaged Syria.” These facts “expose the fatal flaws in a refugee deal signed between Turkey and the European Union earlier this month.” According to AI: “In their desperation to seal their borders, E.U. leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.” On April 12, AI’s allegations were confirmed by the Dutch broadcasting company NOS. Hans van Baalen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, expressed his worries about the news, which he wanted to be verified. “But,” he added, “of course we will not cancel the agreement with Turkey, which is of vital importance to Europe.”8

On April 20, the European Commission declared that almost no refugees were crossing from Turkey to Greece anymore, and that this part of the agreement was thus working as intended. In early May there were once again boats shipping refugees back to Turkey, which seemed to indicate that the deportations were moving forward again. The airlift of Syrian refugees in Turkey also seems to have begun again, with the transport of a number of people to Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

It is not inconceivable that the E.U. agreement with the Turkish government will still fail. European leaders and the European Parliament strongly insist that Turkey’s anti-terrorism legislation, which is also used to put political opponents of President Erdoğan in jail, should be changed. The Turkish government has refused to do so—even the immunity of Turkish parliamentarians has recently been lifted, so Kurdish members of parliament are at risk of disappearing in jail. Europe has not yet complied with the desire of the Turkish government to abolish the requirement that Turks obtain a visa for the EU, because the E.U. first wants Turkey to change the anti-terrorism legislation. On May 24, Erdoğan threatened that Turkey will not execute the agreement with the E.U. if the visa requirement is not cancelled. Besides, he said, Europe has not yet paid a dime of the promised 3 billion euros.


Turkey is closed, Libya is next

Nonetheless, the EU’s agreement with the Turkish government has led to a sharp decline in the number of refugees venturing to cross from Turkey to Greece. The attention of the policy makers has now partly shifted to Libya, which, since the expulsion of the Gaddafi regime, has become completely chaotic, with a devastating civil war. Here, too, frantic efforts are being made to restore at least some “law and order.” Special forces from France, Italy, and the U.S. are operating in the country; the Government of National Unity formed after difficult negotiations among various warring factions in Libya. This body is in charge of a small piece of land in Tripoli, which is overloaded with weapons in the hope that some militias will support it in the fight against IS and other militias. One of the major objectives of all this is to prevent refugees from crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. By the end of April more than 25,000 people had survived this crossing. They came mostly from African countries like Nigeria, the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Somalia in the east.

Syrian refugees wait to cross the Greek-Macedonia border at Gevgelija, 24 August 2015. Used under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In response, the Austrian government began to build a high fence at the Brenner Pass, a busy thoroughfare to northern Europe, especially for trucks, through which refugees would have to pass in order to move from Italy to Austria. Italian Prime Minister Renzi made the usual impotent comment on the construction of this fence, calling it “shamelessly in violation of European rules, as well as of history, logic, and the future.” The cynical—or, from a policy perspective, “realistic”—approach was articulated by a high Austrian official responding to the uproar caused by the construction of the fence. He explained: “The more fuss, the better. Everything that happens on the road immediately shows up on mobile phones in Turkey and Libya. Result: the flow dries up. No gate is closed. Schengen just works. The only thing that happens is delay.” The reputation of being a “bad guy,” according to him, is a price that his country is willing to pay. The Austrian government’s bluff appears to have been successful, as the number of refugees crossing from Libya to Italy has declined sharply. The fence is “currently” not necessary according to the Austrian Interior Minister, Wolfgang Sobotka.9


The situation of refugees in The Netherlands

In 2015, about 57,000 refugees requested asylum in the Netherlands. Nearly half (47%) of the asylum applicants came from Syria, 17% from Eritrea, and 6% from Iraq. According to figures from the Dutch Central Agency for Asylum Seekers, by far the largest group (about 18,000) is 18 to 29 years old. Next are the groups aged 30 – 39 years (nearly 10,000 asylum seekers) and 12 – 17 (5,031). There are about 10,000 minors in the centers. Fifteen to twenty percent of the residents are children of school age.

About 15,000 refugees with a residence permit (who are therefore “recognized” refugees) are waiting in asylum centers for a home of their own. The municipal governments of thirty-two large and medium-sized cities criticized the Dutch government for not making enough money available; they called the attitude of the Dutch government “half-hearted.”10 Even before the current “refugee crisis” there were waiting lists for social housing (which are relatively cheap homes, that in principle can only be rented by people with low incomes). Housing associations, which used to own most of these houses, have in recent years sold much of their social housing stock. The increase in the number of asylum seekers has exacerbated the problem.

The Dutch government is trying to discourage refugees from coming to the Netherlands by offering scanty facilities in the centers where refugees stay, through long delays in the treatment of the asylum application, and by using a lengthy procedure for family reunification. The latter is important for families who have “sent” one family member to Europe in the hope that after his recognition and admission the rest of the family will be allowed to join him. When family reunification is stalled, the rest of the family is forced to stay in appalling conditions in the war zones. Often there is not enough money for other family members to make the costly and dangerous journey. Under the present agreement with Turkey this is now (almost) impossible.

One of the arguments put forward against the reception of so many refugees is the cost involved. All in all, these are in fact rather modest when compared with the total budget of the Dutch government. The cost of accommodating 59,000 refugees in the Netherlands in 2015 amounted to 800 million euros the previous year it was 500 million euros. On a budget of nearly 260 billion euros for 2015 this is peanuts: 0.3%.11

Another argument concerns the numbers of refugees. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the migration flow in 2015 (a total of over 1 million refugees), amounted to only 0.02% of the European population. This is not to say that people cannot experience problems with a group of new people in their neighborhood, from a virtually unknown culture, with different habits, etc. But the numbers do not correspond to people’s fears.

In any case, research done in December 2015 showed that a majority of the Dutch population accepts the arrival of an “asylum-seekers center” in their community. Four in ten Dutch (42%) find it generally acceptable to have such a center in their municipality. Another three in ten (29%) find it acceptable under certain conditions. These often involve careful (participatory) procedures and limiting the size of the center. One in five (21%) is completely opposed to any center. Whether this attitude is changing remains unclear. However, the discourse is hardening. Several mayors, aldermen, and councillors have received death threats. There were strong protests against plans for large asylum-seekers centers (more than 500 inhabitants) in medium or small municipalities.12

The views of a large part of the Dutch workers can be summarized under this heading:


“We want to keep our secure life as it is”

After fierce protests by local residents against the arrival of an asylum-seekers center in Enschede, a medium-sized industrial city in the eastern part of the Netherlands, a number of people joined together in an action group, with supporters in several cities. One of the members of the group summarized their positions with the slogan above. They kept in touch through Facebook, where around 1,900 people from all over the Netherlands followed the group. They emphasized that not all foreigners should be expelled from the Netherlands, but they do not want new refugees to be admitted: “The borders should be closed.” According to one of the initiators, there is a great risk that “our financial reserves” will partly go to refugees, while the last couple of years have seen the limiting of social security in the Netherlands. He also fears that the “national culture” and “our values” will disappear. This group fell apart a month later due to internal quarrels.13 But many share their views and fears.

Low-skilled citizens and newly settled migrants have to endure the most from the continuous flow of refugees; they must bear the heaviest burden. They are in direct competition with the newly arrived refugees in the areas of education, housing, and employment. Then there is the feeling of insecurity in and around an asylum seekers’ center. There are fears about the arrival of a new underclass that will make heavy demands on public housing and other public services. Finally, there are already many grievances in many quarters about the lack of investment in community facilities. The drastic cuts since 2010, for example, in spending for the elderly, youth, and home care mainly affect those with lower incomes. The arrival of an asylum seekers’ center, therefore, crystallizes preexisting dissatisfactions. At the same time, it is noteworthy that there have only been protests in the Netherlands against the arrival of refugee centers before they are built. When centers are operational, the local population reconciles with them and concludes that the initial fears have not been realized.

The labor market position of refugees is generally poor. (Poor command of the Dutch language plays an important role.) Only one in three refugees have work—mostly temporary jobs—and 44% are dependent on benefits. In the Netherlands there are over two million immigrants with a non-western background (of a total population of 17 million). They tend to live in urban areas, in neighbourhoods with an existing community. This leads to ethnically isolated communities, which rarely identify with the rest of society. 88% of Moroccan Dutch, including those born here, still consider themselves to be Moroccan. This also applies to most people with a Turkish background: first you are Muslim, then Turkish-Dutch, Turkish, Kurdish, and only then, occasionally Dutch. Many young people from these communities are struggling with their identity. They often have behavioral disorders and psychotic experiences.14

In Germany, one can hear similar views as in the Netherlands. There, too, many workers feel that they are being abandoned in favor of refugees. “Let them use the millions of euros spent on refugees to refurbish our schools. Since the early ’90s nothing has been done.” A young woman says: “In Germany there are millions of people who are poor, but supposedly there never is any money for them. I cannot afford child care, the refugees get it for free.”15

Right-wing extremist parties appear to benefit from the situation. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party has climbed to 13% in the polls and will become the third-largest party in the country. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, according to the polls, will win around thirty of the 150 parliamentary seats, thus becoming the largest party; this party is now represented in parliament by fifteen members. In France, the National Front of Marine Le Pen keeps growing. It is therefore very probable that in many countries in Europe, governments will emerge with highly nationalistic policies, such as is already the case in Poland and Hungary. This will undoubtedly mean bad news for the many refugees, Muslims, and those that appear to be of North African descent.

For other workers in Europe it will not make much difference. These past decades, they have increasingly been confronted with poorer working conditions and massive destruction of the welfare state that was built up after the Second World War. The aversion among workers towards everything associated with the political elite, intellectuals, and everything that represents the “democratic,” “social,” “prosperous” façade of current society is huge. The extreme right can fuel this anger (as Trump does in the U.S.) but can offer no perspective other than xenophobia and making scapegoats of refugees and Muslims.

It is therefore certainly very likely that social antagonisms will intensify even further and that violent clashes will occur. After all, the economic and social crisis of capitalism is getting bigger and will necessarily lead to a further assault on the living standards of workers in Europe (and elsewhere) and will result in increasingly larger groups of refugees and displaced persons. At the World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul in May the central thesis was that “We are witnessing the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.” When politicians use such big words, you know we ain’t not seen nothing yet.


  1. From the Preface of the book De race naar het noorden (The race to the North), reviewed in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. April 9, 2016.
  2. NRC Handelsblad. March 18, 2016.
  3. Wil Eikelboom, De Turkije-deal heeft een lelijk gezicht (The Agreement with Turkey has a nasty face), in: NRC Handelsblad March 31, 2016; NRC Handelsblad. May 21, 2016. Wil Eikelboom is a lawyer specialised in asylum law.
  4. NRC Handelsblad. March 22, 2016.
  5. NRC Handelsblad. March 22, 2016.
  6. EU/Turkey: Don’t Negotiate Away Refugee Rights, March 4, 2016, (
  7. NRC Handelsblad. March 12, 2016.
  8. Amnesty International Press Release, April 1, 2016;; Article on, March 31, 2016.
  9. NRC Handelsblad. April 28 and 29; May 14, 2016.
  10. NRC Handelsblad. April 13 and 21, 2016.
  11. De Telegraaf. April 13, 2016.
  12. NRC Handelsblad. February 3, 2016.
  13. NRC Handelsblad. February 13 and March 9, 2016.
  14. Leo Lucassen, 7 weetjes voor naïeve optimisten (seven petty facts for naive optimists), in: NRC Handelsblad. January 6, 2016. Lucassen is historian and professor at Leiden University.


Nick Vos

Nick Vos is a retired librarian who lives in the Netherlands.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2016

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