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From Catastrophic Societies to the Netherlands


“One of my sons was nine months old and the other was about two years old when I came to the Netherlands. After two years, I was denied refugee status and I stayed on the streets for one year before I reapplied again about five months ago. I have been in this country for about five years, but the hope of achieving refugee status still lies far from reality. I have to come to this Center to talk about my trauma…I just want to continue with my life, have possibilities and work…but no-they want me to come here and talk about my trauma and my potential possibilities; possibilities which I might not even get.” Anonymous Sierra-Leone refugee migrant told us while we were visiting a Mental Health Facility, Stichting Centrum’45, founded after Word War II to help traumatized Jews through therapy.

Moving to a new town is a big thing. Moving to a completely different country is often seen as an exciting adventure. But what is it like to be forced to flee your home-country and to move to a place that you know nothing about?  During the Second World War thousands of Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps. Many lost their lives but some returned. How did they become a part of Dutch society again? Every year many people flee their native countries because of the catastrophic situations they are confronted with. Some of those people seek asylum in the Netherlands. Where do they go after their arrival to Holland? How do they become a part of the Dutch society?

Returning from Auschwitz

“Netherlands is not a refugee friendly country and even though on comparison refugees are treated better today, they are still treated in a rather condescending manner.” Said Frieda Menco, a Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivor.

How was it to return from Auschwitz and to become part of the Dutch society again? After returning from the concentration camp, Frieda Menco with her mother did not receive any kind of help from the Dutch government and society, she and her mother had to struggle for survival in the Netherlands upon their return from Auschwitz. “Nobody was happy with us at that time, neither the government nor the society cared about us.’’ Menco remarked. Almost 30years after the Holocaust, Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports established a department for the war victims and the remembrance of the Second World War, which among other things is responsible for the redistribution of pensions to Holocaust victims. The law known as the “Wuv,” which was formed in 1972 marked the beginning of pension payments to Holocaust survivors and victims of WW-II. The recipients of pensions are mainly Jewish Holocaust survivors and views regarding the pensions vary from across the array of recipients. “It’s rather humiliating to admit that I receive pension from this fund.” Menco, also a recipient, remarked. Although she suffered a lot during the years in Auschwitz, she waited more then 10 years before she applied for this Wuv fund. While holocaust survivors returned to the Netherlands as their home country, contemporary refugees come to the Netherlands as foreigners, nonetheless, they were both treated in condescending manner. 

Seeking Refugee in the Netherlands:

After spending over seven years in the Asylum Seeking Center (AZC), one Armenian family asserted, “It should not be possible to get stuck for years in this phase of our lives, isn’t it?” Another Syrian girl who has spent over seven years in the AZC confirmed, “I am not making friends anymore, because every time I have to leave school again.” These are some of the voices that speak for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers stuck in AZCs in the Netherlands.

Depending on the country of origin, race, circumstance in the country of origin, and reasons for filing asylum, experiences vary from across the array of asylum seekers in the Netherlands. Some asylum seekers get approved within a year or two upon their arrival in the Netherlands whereas some applications may take more than ten years before being approved or rejected. However, for most of the asylum seekers in the Netherlands, the approval takes an extraordinarily long time and they are not allowed to do anything while in the Asylum Seeking Center (AZC). The long process of waiting in AZCs while not certain of the outcome often leads to depression and trepidation among asylum seekers. However, some cases are faster as a former refugee living in the Netherlands since 1994, together with her mother and one sibling asserted, “We were very lucky. My mom knew some people who already lived here before and that certainly helped to arrange accommodation in an asylum center which was not as packed as other centers we hear about are. My brother and I started to go to school immediately. We got our resident permit within a year and that made it possible to get a house.” The asylum seeking process in the Netherlands is not this usually fast and indeed this is just a rare success story. 

Elisa Van Ee-Blankers, a psychologist who works at the mental facility, Stichting Centrum’45, noted several pressing changes that are in need regarding asylum process in the Netherlands such as providing asylum seekers something to do while still in asylum, which would facilitate their integration upon approval. Among her other recommendations to the government is the provision of better lawyers and making their services accessible to Asylum Seekers. “Giving these people experienced lawyers particularly on migration issues, would not only speed up the process, but also increase the much needed efficiency in the asylum process,” Said Blankers. Nonetheless, regardless of how long it takes one to be approved as a refugee in the Netherlands, the conditions one has to go through are rather petrifying and dehumanizing in most cases. As the annual report of the Dutch Refugee Council noted, “The amount of money we pay without a second thought for an ice cream is the amount given to asylum seekers’ children up to the age of eleven to pay for food and drink for one day.” While it’s undeniable that asylum seeker’s lives are better in the Netherlands than in their countries of origin, treating these people in this kind of manner does nothing other than increase feelings of sorrow, solitude, and less human. Coming from countries thousands of miles away, these people are often physically persecuted, emotionally shattered and then have to be put in AZCs where they are isolated from the mainstream society and not allowed to work or study.

Refugee experience in the Netherlands:

“I wish my mother was white, she would have a nice job, I would be white, and we would have money. I would play video games like my schoolmates.” A Sierra-Leone child refugee told us.

After spending several years in the AZCs, those who are approved are then provided with legal documents that grant them permission to work and study. While it’s a relief to get approved and move on with life in society, several years in AZCs hinders progress in career field and school, which ultimately puts approved refugees at the bottom of the economical pyramid in the Dutch society. After waiting for 17 years for approval, one refugee commented, “We missed out on so much and now we want to go on with our lives…giving our son a loving healthy basis. This can only be achieved when parents have found their serenity.” This voice speaks for many thousands of other refugees in the Netherlands who after having lost part of their lives in AZCs, can only be happy upon approval, but also move on with a worry about the prospect of integration and economical survival in the mainstream society. In any regards, upon approval refugees still face tough challenges most of which are due to unreasonable government policies towards asylum seekers and refugees.

“One of our biggest challenges is how to guide refugees in their integration in Dutch society, identifying factors that would facilitate the progress of integration or those that thwart integration in the society.” Harry Van Den Bergh, President of the Dutch Refugee Council remarked. According their annual report, having spent several years in the Netherlands, 30% of all refugees is neither socially integrated nor economically integrated. This is a reflection of the gross level of bureaucracy and red tape that leads to long wait for status while still in AZCs with little or nor contact with Dutch natives. Their struggle to integrate and move up the economic pyramid by default becomes one of their main challenges. Even those with professional degrees are not allowed to work in their career fields. Thus, it becomes inevitable not to face economical challenges, among other difficulties. Similarly, upon the return of Jewish holocaust survivors, their homes and businesses had been looted or destroyed and others were confiscated. The government settled the Jews in repatriation homes and facilitated little to help them integrate back into the society. As Frieda Menco asserts in her story, “The authorities considered us a pain in the neck. A Jew who came back and wanted something.” While the two cases are different, returning holocaust survivors were often viewed as refugees by the Dutch government and society at large.

Upon approval, refugees have limited social networks and they are usually allocated to towns where they don’t know anyone. By default, this makes most of the refugees live isolated lives, which among other things makes integration even harder. The Dutch Refugee Council annual report noted that, “…more than 40% of the native Dutch people who (still) have no contact with refugees stated that they would like to.” It is a challenge for the government and the Dutch Refugee Council to encourage these contacts, which would facilitate refugee integration. Among other challenges refugees face today is unemployment, which can be attributed towards unreasonable government policies pertaining to refugees. The annual report for the Dutch Refugee Council asserted, “Unemployment among refugees is frighteningly high, caused mainly by insufficient command of the language and lack of the right qualification.” Unemployment among refugees can be derived from several factors, but it’s imperative to note that among the causes of the gross level of unemployment is their separation from the mainstream society. Upon approval, refugees are also often relocated collectively in communities outside main cities in areas that don’t posses a plethora of job opportunities. They compete for the few jobs available in their communities with the natives who have a better command of the language and most importantly who already have the proper connections to grant them the job without as much struggle as the refugees. 

Government’s responsibilities towards these future citizens of Netherlands:

“I think the Dutch government policy towards refugees is pretty lousy. It’s not human to put people with such problems in the same area without giving them the ability of doing anything. Regulations are too strict in the Netherlands and the way the Geneva Convention defined the term “refugee” has become rather stricter because Netherlands wants fewer refugees.” Psychologist Blankers remarked. 

To soothe the process of integration, the government should primarily give the youngsters a concrete education among other things while still in AZCs and also provide channels through which there can be a progressive discourse between the mainstream Dutch society and asylum seekers. This will significantly make it easier for them to integrate upon approval for refugee status. Most of the challenges faced by refugees in the Netherlands are not only due to their past experiences in the original countries, but also the many years wasted in the AZCs. Nonetheless, a change of government policy on the way it handles the asylum seekers and cares for refugees would help them overcome their challenges in society today. There is no doubt that contemporary policies towards asylum seekers aggravate their already existing problems by thinning the hope of attaining refugee. As Psychologist Blankers who works at the mental institute further confirmed, “We have tried sending several letters to the government to change its policy regarding asylum seekers and refugees, but nothing has changed until now.” Government policy towards refugees is indifference and fails to draw the distinction between refugees and native citizens when it comes to welfare. Special government policies need to be affirmed to help them find ideal jobs and services crucial to their integration in society.

Nonetheless, when it comes to helping some refugees in overcoming traumata that resulted from their experiences in their countries of origin, the Dutch government continues to support various mental institutions that provide psycho-therapy to asylum seekers and refugees from around the World. However, providing psycho-therapy is challenging since the patients are coming from different countries and all have different experiences.  As psychologist Blankers further pointed out, “…the challenge to relate to others (refugees) has become eminent and how powerless you get when you hear the chilling stories the refugees went through both in their home countries and AZCs has led to tremendous changes in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.” However, psycho-therapy is not sufficient enough to enable refugees move on independently in society and more efforts are in dire need to help them cope not only with their past, but also handle the challenges of the present. As one Bosnian refugee remarked during an interview, “Psychological therapy is something very Western. Where I come from it is considered as something totally absurd meant for really crazy people. I know many women who were raped, who lost their kids and still refused therapy. Actually, within my community I do not know anyone who went for therapy. If the Dutch government/society made efforts to familiarize itself with our culture, they could have found better ways to help us. For example, they can organize group sessions for us…or bring a psychologist from our region with whom we could talk without a presence of a translator.” Services meant to aid refugees in overcoming their traumatizing past and enable them handle present challenges are often viewed as dehumanizing by refugees. While such demands seem quite reasonable, they reflect examples of barriers between society and refugee interaction.

However, there have been success stories along the way such as the victory of the Dutch Refugee Council in lobbying the government to grant all asylum seekers who came before 2002 a general pardon. In fact, this year over 30000 people will be given asylum in the Netherlands. Also, the Netherlands has an agreement with UNHCR to invite 500 hundred refugees living in difficult conditions in refugee camps around the world. However, given the capability of the Netherlands, they can afford to increase the number and the Dutch refugee council is working to increase the quota of refugees admitted every year to the Netherlands through UNHCR. Nonetheless, private organizations and other institutions that are privately funded dominate the provision of support to refugees and facilitate their integration into the society. Therefore, while it becomes clear that the government is not inclined to helping refugees despite the challenges that they face in their everyday lives, the Dutch society has been more sympathetic towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Concluding Thoughts:

“We are all humans and even though we often have the idea that each one of us is right in his/her judgment, always judge yourself first, but if you are certain that your idea is right, you should stand up and fight for truth and justice.” Said Frieda Menco.

It’s not just the Netherlands that is facing refugee problem today. There is not a really refugee friendly country, but distinctions exist in the way refugees are treated in different countries. With the growing gap between rich nations and poor nations, migrations become inevitable. It’s up to the global society to find reconciliation between refugees and immigrants. It’s inevitable not to face challenges when migrating from one country to another. The Netherlands has refugees from allover the World; Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, but to mention a few. These refugees may often be segregated against or face various barriers towards their social, emotional, economical, and political integration, but soon they become a productive part of society. While the Dutch political framework may not reflect refugee needs to an acceptable level, union among societies enabled by several private organizations continue to push for their general welfare and are slowly changing the political atmosphere, making the refugee problem central in today’s political discussions and policy making. True refugee cannot be attained until families have been fully integrated and that cannot be achieved without progressive discourse between refugees, society, and government. 

























Ruud Stoffel and Jan Willem Notenboom, Eenheid Oorlogsgetroffenen en Herinnering WO II,

The Hugue, Wednesday, June 20th, 2007.

Frieda Menco, Dutch Holocaust Survivor, Amsterdam, Wednesday, June 21st, 2007.

Elisa Van Ee-Blankers, Stichting Centrum’45, Amsterdam, Thursday, June 21st, 2007.

Harry Van Der Bergh, President of the Dutch Refugee Council, Friday, June 22nd, 2007

Anonymous Sierra Leone refugee family, Stichting Centrum’45, Thursday, June 21st, 2007.

Anonymous Bosnian refugee, Amsterdam, Tuesday, June 26, 2007.


Annual Report, Dutch Council for Refugees, 2005.







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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2007


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