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The Osdorp Asylum Seekers Center: Neighborhood Conflict, Resistance, and Cooperation

 

On an unusually hot day in Amsterdam's Osdorp section, three flags in front of the area's refugee center rustle in a calm breeze. The flags of Amsterdam, the Osdorp borough, and the Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) all represent organizations or communities that have shaped the short history of Osdorp's refugee center and its 350 inhabitants. In contrast to the sedate appearance of the Osdorp refugee center today, conflict and resistance characterize the center's relationship with the community that surrounds it. Initially residents living near the planned location for the refugee center reacted by organizing community action groups to protest the building of the center. Some of the neighbors who resisted the center at first shifted their opinions and even became volunteers there, but others still hold anger and animosity towards the refugee center.

One of the center's buildings was set on fire and severely damaged on October 14,1999. The perpetrators of the arson were never found, and no one knows whether the real motivation behind the crime was an act of random violence or a politically motivated reaction to the asylum center. There were no casualties because refugees had not yet occupied the building, but the fire caused approximately $50,000 in damage. 

According to the United Nations figures, the number of asylum seekers fleeing to the Netherlands each year more than tripled from 13,900 in 1989 to over 45,000 in 1998. As people attempt to escape countries ravaged by war, persecution, and debilitating poverty, refugees have flooded into Holland's borders. The huge influx of refugees into the Netherlands caused the government to enact measures that would curb the flow of asylum seekers to the country. For example, the government increased border surveillance, hired more immigration officers, and established a special task force to reduce immigrant smuggling. During the late 1990’s, housing shortages for refugees caused the government to subsidize asylum seekers who found their own housing. The program was a bureaucratic nightmare and was soon officially abandoned.  

Receiving asylum in Holland is usually a long process. Refugees must register immediately with the Dutch authorities when they arrive in Holland, and then they stay in a registration center. During this period, which is usually less than 48 working hours, the Dutch government checks the validity of the individual's story. If refugees pass through the application center successfully, they normally stay at a reception and screening center for three months or more. Here asylum seekers can take Dutch lessons and receive medical screenings. Asylum seekers’ centers, such as the one in Osdorp, function as the last stop before refugees can receive asylum status. At any point during this long process, the Immigration and Naturalization Department (IND) can decide to revoke the refugee’s application for asylum.

As a result of the glut of refugees, asylum centers have spread throughout the Netherlands to both rural and urban areas.  COA employ s over four thousand people in Holland and have an even greater number of volunteers. Those who gain jobs from asylum centers in the country may support the existence of these institutions, but the neighborhoods where COA locates the asylum centers rarely receive them with open arms. COA serves as an independent governing body under the Dutch Ministry of Justice that provides asylum seekers with food and shelter. Representatives of COA claim that most communities show resistance to asylum centers in their neighborhood at first, but the neighborhood’s negative feelings towards the centers wane as the refugees become a fixture in the community. 

In the case of the Osdorp asylum seekers center, COA and the city of Amsterdam agreed to receive approximately 2000 asylum seekers. To date, eight locations have been selected, one of which was in the Osdorp borough. This center was the first center in Amsterdam. It opened at the end of August, 1999. 

Amsterdam is divided into fifteen different boroughs, thirteen of which, including Osdorp, have their own governing bodies. The original location COA and Amsterdam city alderman Duco Stadig chose for the refugee center was the Maarten Lutherhouse, a former home for the elderly. As a result of intense neighborhood resistance and problems with the building's infrastructure, Simon Willing, the chairman of the Osdorp borough council, and Mr. Stadig chose to search for another place in Osdorp to locate the center. They later agreed to relocate the center to the Troelstralaan area of Osdorp where the center now stands. The refugee center is virtually an island in a sea of sports complexes and greenery. The nearest residential area to the refugee center is not in Osdorp but the neighboring borough of Geuzenveld to the center’s north.

When news of the refugee center became publicized in the media, residents who live near the center organized themselves to protest against it. Hans Klaasen Bos, one of the most vocal opponents of the Osdorp refugee center, founded 'Groen Blijft Groen' (Green Stays Green) in October of 1998 to oppose the construction of the Osdorp refugee center after he saw a television broadcast about it on the evening news of AT5, the local Amsterdam television channel. Mr. Klaasen Bos’s organization focused on the environmental effects of building the center. When asked about involvement in other environmental groups, Mr. Klaasen Bos stated that he is too busy to participate in such organizations. Mr. Klaasen Bos insisted that his resistance to the center was not based on intolerance but stemmed from his desire to preserve the greenery that was once in the area the refugee center now occupies.

Though Mr. Klaasen Bos's organization never officially consisted of more than two people, he was able to mobilize enough support to receive 544 signatures from neighbors. The petitions were presented to officials of the Osdorp council. Citizens also sent 125 letters to the Amsterdam court concerning a pending case involving the center. All the letters were in opposition to the refugee center’s construction. Osdorp's and Geuzenveld's populations consist predominantly of ethnic minorities, but the signatures Mr. Klaasen Bos received were disproportionately white native born Dutch citizens. “You usually ask the people you know," Mr. Klaasen Bos remarked when questioned about the lack of ethnic minorities among his supporters. 

Carel Boer, active in Geuzenveld's borough politics, was once Mr. Klaasen Bos's ally against the Osdorp refugee center. Boer helped Klaasen Bos found Green Stays Green, but he later quit the organization and decided to devote his time to New Representatives of the People (NIVO), a local political party which focused on the government's failure to consult the citizens of the Geuzenveld borough about the Osdorp refugee center, the difficulties of integrating refugees into the neighborhood, and the clearing of trees to make room for the refugee center. Mr. Boer is still active in politics and takes part in the information meetings the asylum center holds every six weeks to keep residents up to date on the activities there. The meetings function as a chance for citizens to voice their opinions about the center. 

After the center was built, Mr. Boer became a volunteer there. Many in Geuzenveld still feel betrayed by Mr. Boer because, though he had once spearheaded opposition to the center, he became one of its most avid proponents. Mr. Boer felt that many residents used the fight to preserve trees in the space that the refugee center now occupies as a way to hide their prejudice against refugees. Similarly, for Frank Ratelband, the Osdorp government liaison responsible for neighborhood relations with the refugee center before it opened, arguments about the refugee center's disruption of the environment only shrouded the xenophobia that functioned as the real motivation for neighbors' objections to the center. More than sixty trees were cut down to clear space for the center, which is situated in an area designated for natural life under the law. Holland’s dense population makes the country’s land scarce, resulting in the highly regulated use of space. The center can remain on the land it now occupies for five years because of a loophole in the law that allows some exceptions to the rule.

The simmering conflict between the government and residents living near the proposed refugee center in Osdorp’s Troelstralaan area reached a boiling point during an information meeting held on December 3, 1998. In addition to Mr. Stadig, Mr. Willing, and other COA representatives, approximately 250 neighbors came to the meeting that had been organized by Frank Ratelband, who felt a great need existed for a public forum where citizens could express their feeling about the refugee center and discuss concerns with government officials. In Holland, the government usually consults a neighborhood’s citizens when making significant changes to an area such as constructing new buildings. 

However, the aim of this meeting was only to inform the public of the subsequent construction of the center. Under Dutch law, when vulnerable groups such as refugees are involved, consulting the neighborhood is not necessary to carry out government actions that can impact a community. The reason for having the information meeting was not for residents to give input into the process of choosing the refugee center's location, but it was meant to ease the neighborhood’s fear of the center. Instead, the meeting turned into a chaotic and emotionally charged shouting match with residents expressing hostility and frustration towards the government officials and the asylum seekers’ center. An overwhelming majority of the residents at the December 3 meeting were not from Osdorp but the neighboring borough Geuzenveld. "The crowd just started yelling," said Mr. Ratelband concerning the public’s behavior during the information meeting. 

According to Shirley Brandeis, a free-lance journalist who writes for Weekblad Westerpost and who has written a number of articles about the Osdorp refugee center, the arguments at the meeting were mostly based on ignorance and fear. "There were a lot of dumb people saying dumb things," said Ms. Brandeis. One newspaper characterized the meeting as complete pandemonium. Some neighbors felt that the meeting was only a puppet show and that politicians had no intention of listening to their objections. Mr. Ratelband advocated taking a proactive role in creating relationships between refugee centers and the neighborhoods that surround them. "COA didn’t give very much support in this process," said Mr. Ratelband in reference to his attempts to acclimate the neighborhood to the refugee center. "It was rather difficult to start with because I had no idea what to do. I just followed common sense," Mr. Ratelband continued. He tried to make the citizens come to terms with the building of the refugee center despite their objections, but the meeting was not as constructive as he hoped it would have been. For an hour and a half, angry residents berated government representatives. The meeting was covered by the national newspapers and was a featured story on the local television channel, AT5. 

The Osdorp refugee center was the first center built in the Amsterdam in response to the influx of new refugees to Holland, and it received a significant amount of media coverage. However, the interest in the Osdorp refugee center as a controversial topic soon waned. "The media is quite interested, but the subject is not as new as when the center started," said Ruthy Cortooms, the public relations representative for the Osdorp refugee center. As the media spotlight went elsewhere, the refugees and residents in the community surrounding the center were forced to face each other without the presence of television cameras or probing journalists.  

COA maintains a laissez faire attitude to the relationship between asylum seekers' centers and the neighborhoods surrounding them. COA representatives, such as Ms. Cortooms, feel that neighborhoods slowly adjust to the existence of refugee centers. The center organized open days where people from the neighborhood could come into the center. "I think after the party and the open day, people changed their prejudices," said  Alouette van Veen, the director of the center's primary school. Making the refugee center accessible to others functions as a way to lessen the fears that neighbors have of the center.  While the Osdorp center has made attempts to bridge the gap between the refugee center and its surrounding neighborhood, signs of separation still exist. A metal fence divides the refugee center from the community around it. The fence both keeps people out and confines others within its boundaries. Unlike some other refugee centers in the Netherlands, the residents of the Osdorp refugee center enjoy a great degree of personal freedom. They can leave and return to the asylum center as they please. However, the fence’s existence suggests a division between the refugee community inside the center and the neighborhood that surrounds it. The Osdorp refugee center functions as a small, closely knit and self contained community. On most days, children living in the refugee center play together within its boundaries. In contrast, there are virtually no children playing on the quiet streets in the neighborhoods that are near the center. 

The Osdorp center has its own primary school. It was built because the Amsterdam primary school system has been inundated with students, causing the size of many classes to swell to full capacity. The center’s primary school is solely for the children of refugees, and no children from the outside can attend. COA, the governmental organization that runs the asylum center, does not finance the school, but it is funded like any other Dutch public school. The primary school’s classes are much smaller than other public schools in Amsterdam, and the children who attend the school receive personal attention and additional help with learning Dutch. Ms. Cortooms would advocate putting the refugee children in schools with Dutch students if the space was available. However, teachers at the school suggest that immigrant children would drown in a regular Dutch school without the personal attention and the firm grounding in the fundamentals of education provided by the primary school on the center.  After children living in the refugee center leave primary school, they attend upper level schools outside the center with Dutch students. 

For both children trying to gain education in a language that they do not understand and adults faced with adjusting to a new culture, attempting to become part of Dutch society is a difficult task. Mehmet Esek, a Kurdish man from eastern Turkey, and Alpha Sow, a Sierra Leonean, share a cramped but well kept apartment with six other men in the Osdorp refugee center. The main hallway of the men's apartment is bare except for several pairs of shoes placed neatly side-by-side and coats hanging from hooks. All the men share one bathroom, a kitchen, and a small living room with two sofas and a television. Like other refugees in the Osdorp center, the experiences of Mr. Esek and Mr. Sow reflect lives that have been devastated by war and turmoil in their home countries. Mr. Esek has been in Holland since August 1999 and has lost all contact with his family. He spends his time occupied by going through the asylum procedure and keeping abreast of news concerning Kurds in Turkey.  He has little concern for integrating into his current surroundings. "The rooms are too small and everybody's heads are full of problems," Mr. Esek said when asked about his relationship to the neighborhood around him. His interaction with the Osdorp neighborhood is limited to short walks outside the refugee center and visits to the nearby Osdorp shopping strip. 

Alpha Sow's warm smile and friendly attitude hide the disturbing memories he has of war torn Sierra Leone where he studied agricultural science. He is attempting to learn Dutch and makes a 35 minute bike ride to language lessons when he has the chance. Like Mr. Esek, Mr. Sow has lost all contact with his family in Sierra Leone, not knowing whether they are alive or dead. He has been in the Osdorp center for eight months but wishes that he could return to the Sierra he once knew before it became ravaged by war and turmoil. Now he can only sit thousands of miles away from home and watch CNN and other news broadcasts concerning his home country’s strife. Facing an uncertain future as an asylum seeker, Mr. Sow knows none of the neighbors outside the center. The experiences of Mr. Sow and other refugees at the center show the difficulty of forming bonds between refugees who will stay in the center for only several years and neighbors who still show resentment at having the center forced onto them by the government. 

Refugees like Mr. Sow and Mr. Esek can only wait patiently to learn if they will gain asylum status or if they will face deportation. Both men focus their attention and time on looking back to their home countries instead of becoming part of a society foreign to them.  The future for refugees like Mr. Sow and Mr. Esek is unclear. Integration serves as a driving force behind policies relating to refugees, but true incorporation into Dutch society while in a refugee center is a myth. Even Osdorp with its multi-ethnic and religiously diverse population cannot successfully absorb refugees while they live in the center. COA seems too idealistic in the way that it views neighborhood relations because it assumes that opponents of the asylum centers will shift their points of view once the center is in place. Though opponents of the refugee center are no longer in the limelight, people like Mr. Klaasen Bos still exist in the neighborhood around the Osdorp refugee center. Both refugees and neighbors are uninformed about one another. The best way to combat ignorance and fear is through opening the paths of communication between refugees and the neighborhoods that surround.

The circumstances surrounding the neighborhood’s relationship with the Osdorp refugee center is not an unusual case of neighborhood conflict concerning refugee centers. People rarely accept a new “community,” especially when they feel it has been imposed upon them. In Osdorp, over time resistance to the refugee center lessened. As the journalist Ms. Brandeis said, “I think by now the asylum seekers’ center is accepted, and the fear has lessened. But you can't speak of integration. The people in asylum centers do not have money, and they do not speak the language. Integration is only of importance once they are sure they can stay." 

While IND, COA, and local governments function as the actors that place refugees and Dutch citizens living near the centers in close contact with one another, these institutions are plagued with the inefficiency typical of bureaucratic institutions, which makes them insufficient avenues by which to solve problems between refugee centers and surrounding communities that need immediate attention. Though the Osdorp refugee center sponsors information meeting every six weeks, the people who take part in these meetings do not represent the complete spectrum of neighborhood attitudes toward the center. People who have negative feelings toward the center are not part of the discussion, and no real change happens in their way of thinking. The fear of some in the neighborhood has waned, but negative feelings towards the refugees still persist. Neighborhoods surrounding refugee centers often become trapped in the quagmire of xenophobic fear, and refugees themselves retreat into their own familiar ethnic or national communities when faced with adaptation to a new language and culture. Both these groups should escape their stifling predicaments, but neither can transcend their limitations without cooperating with each other.  

 

References

 

Newspaper articles:

'Opstand' van bejaarden in Meer en Vaart. In: Het Parool, 09/16/98. 

Egeltje net zo bang voor asielzoekers als bejaarde. In: Het Parool, 11/17/98. 

Wedstrijd in hysterie rond asielzoekers. In: Het Parool, 12/04/98. 

'Zo krik je je wijk niet op'. In: Trouw, 12/04/98.

'Nederland is vol!'. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 12/09/98.

Ruimte nodig voor 1500 asielzoekers. In: Het Parool, 01/12/99.

'Aan overlopers had ik in de oorlog al een hekel. In: Het Parool, 01/21/99. 

Nicole Haas over de komst van het asielzoekerscentrum aan de Troelstralaan. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 05/25/99. 

Acht locaties voor 1.500 asielzoekers. In: NRC Handelsblad, 05/26/99.

Amsterdam vangt nu ook asielzoekers op. In: Trouw, 05/27/99. 

Vijf vierkante meter per asielzoeker. In: Het Parool, 06/22/99. 

Asielzoekerscentrum Troelstralaan opent deuren. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 10/13/99.

Brand gesticht bij asielzoekerscentrum. In: Trouw, 10/15/99. 

Brandbom gegooid naar asielcentrum Amsterdam. In: de Volkskrant, 10/15/99. 

Brand in nieuw asielzoekerscentrum. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 10/22/99.

Asielzoekers in Osdorp. In: Het Parool, 10/25/99. 

'Verzet van de buurt neemt straks vanzelf wel af'. In: Het Parool, 10/26/99.

Na 'Kollum' lijkt ook in de rest van Nederland de geest uit de fles. In: Trouw, 10/29/99. Vestiging asielzoekerscentrum. In: de Volkskrant 11/11/99. 

Sinterklaas bezoekt asielzoekerscentrum Osdorp. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 12/06/99.

Feestje in asielzoekerscentrum. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 01/14/99.

Een bezoekje aan het asielzoekerscentrum: de fietsenwerkplaats. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 02/24/00.

Een bezoekje aan het asielzoekerscentrum: de basisschool. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 04/13/00.

Een dag van uitersten, feestelijk en leerzaam. In: Het Parool, 05/22/00 

Open Dag asielzoekerscentrum. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 05/31/00.

Een bezoekje aan het asielzoekerscentrum: het atelier. In: Weekblad Westerpost, 06/02/00.

Interviews:

Frank Ratelband, employee of the Osdorp council charged with advising and handling internal and external communication, face to face interview, dd. 06/23/00.

Alouette van Veen, director of primary school at the Osdorp refugee center, informal interview, dd. 06/23/00.

Ruth Cortooms, public relations, face to face interview, dd. 06/27/00.

Hans Klaasen Bos, founder of Green Stays Green, face to face interview, dd. 06/24/00.

Memet Esek, resident of the Osdorp ASC, informal face to face interview, dd. 06/20/00.

Alpha Sow, resident of the Osdorp ASC, informal face to face interview, dd. 06/20/00.

Shirley Brandeis, freelance journalist for Westerpost, telephone interview, dd. 06/26/00.

Carel Boer, founder of NIVO and current volunteer at the Osdorp ASC, telephone interview, dd. 06/28/00.

Website:

United States Committee for Refugees: http://www.uscr.org

Other Sources:

Het Amsterdamse Bureau voor Onderzoek en Statistiek. Kerncijfers Amsterdam, Stadsdrukkerij Amsterdam: Amsterdam, 2000.

Minutes of meeting at the ALO, Willinklaan 5 Amsterdam, dd. 12/03/98.

 

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