Ter Apel: Refugee Crisis or Xenophobia?

The asylum disaster in Ter Apel, Netherlands, appeared to be at an all-time low this August, with hundreds of asylum seekers forced to sleep outside in mud for several nights in a row, with no sanitation facilities or even enough food and water. The night of August 23rd marked a scary milestone, as a crushing 700 people slept outside the application center in Ter Apel, among them were pregnant women, children, and the sick. Dozens contracted skin diseases as a result of poor hygiene. On the same dreadful night, a three-month-old baby died in a sports center near the application center. The place served as an emergency shelter to relieve the original application center from overcrowding. The situation became so urgent that Doctors Without Borders intervened to provide medical aid for the first time ever in the country. Experts repeatedly made comparisons to the Greek Camp Moria which was notorious for its severe human rights violations in 2015.

The circumstances provoked nationwide reactions. The “asylum crisis” has been one of the most controversial topics in Dutch politics for decades. Though, in light of the recent events, more people are advocating to re-name the issue and get rid of the word “crisis”, as it leads people to believe that this is a mere problem of high refugee influx. Many think that it is more than that. It is a consequence of years of political unwillingness and a clear display of xenophobia by the authorities.

This harsh reality has become more obvious since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Dutch authorities seem to be more than willing and able to provide shelter and integrate as many Ukrainian refugees as possible. While admirable in itself, it lays bare the painful reality of the treatment of the“usual” non-European refugees. They are treated so that even their basic human rights aren’t met. The asylum question is affected by xenophobia, and the answer is clear.

Decades of poor political choices have led up to this moment. How could this have happened? The Netherlands is in fact, not dealing with a sudden and “extreme” refugee influx. The influx is higher than in the past two years simply due to COVID-19 measures. In fact, the Syrian civil war onset in 2011 induced far more applications than being received today. In reality, the government has cut back tremendously on asylum and registration facilities. On top of that, the housing market has become so crooked that even people that have earned their residence permits cannot move out of the asylum centers.

Besides, this chaos was foreseen by the authorities who received the first warnings back in April, when Mayor Koen Schuiling called the center in Ter Apel “inhumane” as “children were playing in the trash”. Multiple experts and organisations have addressed creative solutions to relieve pressure off Ter Apel, for example, putting an abandoned airport in Lelystand to use.

Needless to say, nothing has been done. In the meantime, feelings of grudge and frustration towards refugees are increasing in the Dutch population. Images of Ter Apel cause other municipalities to be hesitant to host refugees, and protest upon protest takes place in the streets of the country. It is a vicious cycle: xenophobia fuels the asylum scandal, and the asylum scandal feeds xenophobia. Some, like Amnesty International activist Emile Affolter, say that this frame was consciously created to discourage further refugees. The poignant circumstances in Ter Apel delineate a crystal clear image of polarised Netherlands. It is not an asylum crisis, a housing crisis, or a refugee crisis, it is a humanitarian crisis above all.