Life inside Dutch and German resorts-turned-refugee camps

Illegal migration to Europe is shaking the continent’s politics and threatening the cohesion of the European Union. In Part 3 of this special investigation, Al Majalla spoke to those in the camps who made it to Western Europe.

Eduardo Ramon

Life inside Dutch and German resorts-turned-refugee camps

In Parts 1 and 2, Al Majalla detailed the harrowing experiences of refugees escaping their war-torn homelands by land or sea and shed light on the secretive smuggling networks that helped them do so.

Now, in Part 3, we conclude by describing a typical refugee’s daily life in safety following a three-day visit to resorts in The Netherlands and Germany that have been turned into makeshift camps.

In Germany, we visit two refugee camps housing mainly Syrians, with some Iraqis, near the small city of Düren and the town of Kreuzau, close to Cologne. There, we hear stories of winding journeys that eventually brought the refugees to the Rhineland.

But first, we travel to Rotterdam, where the Dutch authorities devised a novel alternative in the summer when the sites registered for refugees finally filled up.

No room at the inn

Sunny weather in the Mediterranean typically means a bigger influx of asylum seekers to Europe in the summer months. This summer, camps in the Netherlands reached maximum capacity and had to close their doors to new arrivals.

The Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) solved the problem by transforming houseboats on the shores of Rotterdam into camps, while countryside resorts in other regions were turned into alternative homes for refugees.

As part of our in-depth investigation into refugees’ journeys, Al Majalla visited those seeking shelter in Dutch houseboats and rural resort camps in the suburbs of The Hague, 10km from the city.

The COA rented half the resort’s chalets to accommodate refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and various sub-Saharan African countries. The majority are Syrian.

This summer, camps in the Netherlands reached maximum capacity and had to close their doors to new arrivals. 

The refugees arrived in the Netherlands in batches in July and August. They are currently awaiting the Dutch administration's review of their asylum files and illegal border crossings into multiple European countries.

There are lengthy interviews and investigations before legal residency in the Netherlands can be granted. Yet, there are many reasons for the Netherlands to do so.

For one, it has a declining birth rate. To address the demographic gap and the need for cheap labour, Europe has a history of opening its doors to migrant workers, welcoming and assimilating them into its society and culture — albeit reluctantly

Stillness of a borrowed life 

In the Dutch resort, we found ourselves wandering between chalets that, until recently, had welcomed holiday-makers. Strolling through the wooded spiral paths lined with flowers and shrubs, it was hard to fathom that we were in a refugee camp.

A Syrian refugee we met there said around 1,500 asylum seekers were housed at the resort. We couldn't believe it, but to our shock, the camp confirmed that figure.

During our visits to some of the chalets, the refugees told us that each of the 300 or so chalets being rented housed 5-6 refugees. The living arrangements all indicate that they are there temporarily, leading a borrowed life.

Migrants in front of a small church after crossing from Croatia, in Rijence, near a border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia.

Perhaps the peaceful, serene atmosphere at the resort — accentuated by European architecture and Dutch country art — fools you into thinking that there are only a handful of refugees there.

Indeed, it would be puzzling to see signs of overcrowding and chaos in the Dutch countryside. Maybe the source of this tranquillity is the refugees themselves. They gradually appear to have become accustomed to this suspended life.

Living in two timelines 

The peace of the camps is not without its hint of melancholy. Many experience pain and loss, but this can be replaced in part by the sense of security they get once their asylum application begins.

The stillness can leave refugees feeling desolate, as they learn to navigate their new life, caught between two timelines: the journey of misery and terror that brought them here, and the promising prospective journey that lies ahead.

The pain and loss that many feel when arriving at the camps can be partially replaced by a sense of security.

In this Ulyssean journey, refugees can survive violence, chaos, fear, oppression, and hunger in their home countries, only to suffer the same on their way to Europe.

While Ulysses journeyed back to his homeland, his family, and his wife, many refugees left all these behind to reach another type of safety. 

Their life in the camp is foreshadowed by an unknown future, with nothing to reassure them but a vague understanding of what awaits.

And waiting is what they do. A hostage to time and language, their days are filled with a sense of alienation and exile. They bite their tongue and hide the pain.

The hope and dream is that they pass the asylum test, get residency and housing, get a job to provide for themselves and their families, then educate their children, free from the misery, anxiety, and cruelty of home.

One day, their children or grandchildren may contemplate their family identity and their parents' or grandparents' journey to safety. They may even write about it!

A cure for tedium 

Every now and then, loneliness and boredom is alleviated by the distant echo of joyful chatter or children's play, quietly piercing the camp's calm serenity. Another welcome distraction is the refugees' shared lunch and tea breaks.

One afternoon while we were there, as three shared hookah pipes in a small garden, others prepared a meal of fava beans for the group. It was a taste of home. 

Every refugee in the camp seems tethered to their mobile phone. This is not surprising, since it is their only link to their family back home or in other camps, perhaps in Turkey or Lebanon.

Every refugee in the camp seems tethered to their mobile phone. It is their only link to their family back home or in other camps.

One afternoon, our conversation was suddenly cut short by a call to prayer. We thought it came from a mosque or prayer hall in the camp, but our host explained that his mobile phone was programmed to sound the call to prayer on time.

This sparked heated discussions among the refugees about the injustice they faced in Arab countries and Turkey, in contrast to the warm welcome and kind treatment they had received in the Netherlands and Germany. 

Staying closely guarded

Those in the camps are of various nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds. In one sense, there is no communal life or a strong network of relationships. This is true even for Syrians, who comprise the majority.

There is a sense of reservation, secrecy, and caution in refugees' interactions and communications. The kind of familiarity and acquaintance needed for them to break out of their isolation is not in evidence. Time is needed to forge connections.

A photo distributed by the Lebanese Army shows a military ship rescuing a boat carrying more than 100 illegal immigrants off the coast of the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

We visited some Syrian chalets and met young refugees to understand more about their day-to-day lives. Outside the chalets was lush greenery and a refreshing summer breeze, whereas inside were dimly lit rooms and much less warmth.

It was just past noon when we met two young Syrian men. Their faces were faint, as if they had just awoken from a deep sleep. Bored and suppressing their despair, they were difficult to engage in conversation.

Each of them was absorbed in his laptop screen, as if willingly subjecting himself to some kind of hard labour. Asking them questions felt like an intrusion or an attack. 

One told Al Majalla that six individuals were staying in their chalet. The other added that two had left for temporary work in the nearby city of The Hague. He didn't know where the other two were.

Next to the small living room, there were beds designed for teenage boys, a reminder that this was, until very recently, a functioning resort for families.

We didn't linger, since the men's silence was heavy. If felt like we were intruding, so we let them get back to their laptops. Whatever it was that had them so gripped was obviously much more enticing than we were.

Dancing for refugees 

In Rotterdam, we followed a campaign by Dutch civil society groups working with immigrants from Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon who had lived in the Netherlands for years.

The goal is to help break the isolation of Syrian, Iraqi, and African refugees who arrived in August and had been placed (by the COA) in houseboats on the city's shores.

Organisers adapted a previous dance programme used to combat isolation during the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020-21. The aim is to encourage refugees in Rotterdam to emerge from their moorings and engage in moving dance circles.

We didn't linger, since the men's silence was heavy. If felt like we were intruding, so we let them get back to their laptops.

It was low-tech. The organisers brought a small stereo to play music and songs, along with sandwiches and croissants. They began dancing to the rhythm of Arabic and European songs on the pavement next to the refugees' houseboats.

Some male house-boaters joined in. Others stepped aside, happy to watch from the small bridges between the dock and the floating boats. The women watched from behind the glass windows of their houseboats.

A young Syrian woman with the organisers said the refugee women were interacting from behind the windows and suggested they take the dance inside the floating homes.

Eduardo Ramon

But her Dutch counterpart explained that the municipality of Rotterdam had stipulated that they remain on the street and not enter the refugees' homes unless invited. 

Soon, more men joined the dance circles. The clear summer weather seemed to help. This continued for about an hour, until the heavens opened, when the refugees returned to their boats.

In the pouring rain, the organisers continued dancing. It was left to the young Syrian woman to suggest that they leave, lest the refugees think them totally insane.

Checks and classes

On Tuesday, all the refugees gather at their resort-camp near The Hague. Attendance is mandatory for everyone, even those who leave for work or other reasons. Refugees call it the 'bassma' - Arabic for 'fingerprint'.

To facilitate the attendance verification process, camp administrators distributed the refugees into three chalet clusters, each comprising 100 chalets, roughly 500 people. Each cluster is assigned a specific time to go to the office. 

For those with nothing to do outside the camp, Tuesday is no different to any other day of the week. Sometimes people get their days mixed up because there is nothing to distinguish them from one another.

Once a week, two Syrian men are collected by relatives in The Hague for visits. One says he buys things in The Hague at lower prices than those in the small town near the resort, which is home to some of the wealthiest people in the Netherlands. 

Every Tuesday, all camp residents must register their attendance at the office. Refugees call this the bassma – or fingerprint.

Aware of the lengthy application process, the camp administrators let Dutch volunteers teach Dutch and English to refugees. Most want to learn Dutch, but a lack of instructors means that many learn English instead.

During one such English lesson, an instructor shows a clip from American TV. The segment discusses the recent coup in Gabon. At this, an Iraqi refugee shares his thoughts about global colonial conspiracies, even in broken English.

After the lesson, he backtracks, reassuring a fellow learner that he was merely trying to improve his English language skills.

Set up to help

Some health organisations volunteer medical services to refugees, including a physiotherapy centre located near the camp.

A Syrian refugee says his physiotherapist asked him about the situation in Syria, but his lack of English proficiency hindered communication.

Getty Images
Camp Grande-Synthe near Calais on 29 November 2021 in Calais, France.

This being the Netherlands, many refugees have started using bicycles for the first time in their lives for their daily commute. It helps that most camp residents are young, including lots of women from African countries. 

Employees and volunteers are available for information and advice. There is also a complaints process for refugees and a hotline for emergencies.

Translators are also available to help with communication, including from Russian, Ukrainian, and sub-Saharan African languages, as well as Turkish and Arabic.

One Syrian refugee was surprised to learn that Somali refugees did not speak Arabic. He had assumed that it was their mother tongue.

The availability of translators demonstrates the significant effort and resources that camp administrators and volunteer organisations dedicate to ensuring the considerate treatment of all residents, with their diverse cultures and languages. 

Employees and volunteers are available for information and advice. There is also a complaints process for refugees and a hotline for emergencies.

When refugees of the same nationality do come together, usually in front of their shared dwellings, they often reminisce vividly about the intense old days, rather than focusing on their monotonous present or their uncertain future.

There is entertainment available, including a pool, table tennis, tennis, and football. Some spend hours calling family and friends.

Some scroll social media or watch TV (each chalet has a smart TV). Some smoke, talk, and listen to music. Some just pass the time by watching the birds and the squirrels.

Parties pass the time

The COA worked with volunteers from the camp to host a dance party that almost all the residents attended. A stage with sound equipment and DJ booth was set up in the main square, with food and drink kiosks also erected.

The invitation cards featured images of what would be served: a Kabsa meal with peas and rice, fish, French fries, assorted fruits, pastries, bread, soft drinks, and sweets. 

It began at 3pm. Songs from around the world played over the speakers, with dancing soon after. Some Syrians wore traditional local costume such as hats, headbands, and dishdashas. Laughter filled the square.

One of the onlookers reminded his friend of the hardships everyone faced on their long journey here, lamenting the recent tragic news of Syrians being killed due to racism in Turkey, and those being harassed in Lebanon. 

Migrants gather at the Belarusian-Polish border in Grodno region, Belarus, 8 November 2021.

For most, however, the party lifted the mood. Refugees danced to the music of Britney Spears and Michael Jackson, to Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi dabke songs, and to Turkish music. The Kurdish dabke was an all-round favourite. 

When the Syrians asked the DJ to play more dabke songs, he refused. The party was for everyone, he said, and residents were from diverse nationalities and cultures. 

The celebration continued for several hours, despite the rain. Some danced in the rain. Others sought shelter in the kiosks, waiting for a break in the weather. Others brought their food inside to eat with their tea and hookah. 

Protests in Dusseldorf 

In the first part of this investigation, Al Majalla met Younes at a refugee camp near the small German city of Düren. He had just arrived after a long and painful journey from Syria, from where he set off several years ago.

When we met him, he said he would take the train to Dusseldorf to participate in a solidarity rally with the Syrian community there. He had seen calls on social media to stand in support of the Suwayda protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime. 

Indeed, on 25 August, around 200 protesters gathered in a square near the city's main station, holding the flags of the Syrian revolution and chanting its slogans.

After calls on social media, 200 protesters gathered in Dusseldorf's main square holding the flags and singing the songs of the Syrian revolution.

Most were young men who had arrived as refugees and who now had German residency. Many were today studying at university in Dusseldorf or Cologne. 

The weather was sunny as protesters gathered in circles, just as they had done across Syria more than a decade ago, holding hands and swaying to the songs and anthems of the revolution.

Yet there was one major difference between these young men at the Dusseldorf protests and the young men who did the same in Syria a decade ago.

Those gathered here had fresh, bright faces, free from the worry and fear of their predecessors.

Those gathered here, in Dusseldorf, knew that they were not about to be attacked and killed by al-Assad's 'shabbiha' paramilitaries or his security services.

Crowds of Germans surrounded the square, cheering them on. The scene could have been lifted straight out of the archives of the Syrian revolution.

As we watched, we saw Younes standing there confused, unsure of where to stand or what to do. It was as if the ghosts of humiliation and fear he experienced in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey still haunted him. Maybe they always will.

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