Iraqi illegal immigrants in Dutch limbo
- 1 November 2012
- From the section Europe
In The Hague dozens of Iraqi refugees have set up camp together, jointly resisting the government that wants to send them home.
A medley of tents are pitched across the neatly manicured Dutch grass, their khaki shades mixing with the fallen leaves from an overhanging lime tree to create an impromptu seasonal collage.
It is still early when we arrive at the camp, near the central station in The Hague, the administrative centre of the Netherlands.
"We try to stay inside until it's warmer," an early riser explains, gesturing to one of the tarpaulin sanctuaries. "In there it's cold, out here it's worse."
Aziz, the self-appointed barista, starts preparing the morning coffee. He pours a bucket full of water, donated by a nearby church, into a freshly scrubbed pot on a stove in the ground.
Aziz passes me a steaming plastic cup full of thick black coffee.
"You're welcome, you're welcome," he says. And we are, my microphone and cameraman Suraj especially so, because these Iraqi refugees want the world to know they are here.
The campers - about 60 of them - are living on borrowed time. Their visas have expired. They are now illegal residents, littering the landscape in an act of defiance, refusing to disappear quietly back to Baghdad.
"If I go back I will be dead," says Ajid.
He has just woken up, but already his arms are outstretched, hands grasping at the air, imploring us to understand. "I know 100% if I go back to Baghdad I will be killed, they will shoot me."
Who will shoot you? "The terrorists, I phone home and no-one knows where my family are, they say my street is kaput, broken. If you are Christian or [Sunni] Muslim you cannot live in Baghdad."
It is a fear that stalks Iraqi refugees in Syria too, as my colleague Caroline Hawley has discovered.
But the Dutch government does not see it that way.
"We do individual assessments for each case," immigration ministry spokesperson Frank Wassenaar explains.
"The judgement we reach is based on evidence from our embassy in Iraq and from groups like Amnesty International and other local agencies on the ground, plus the stories that these people tell us themselves."
According to the latest figures, 40-45% of Iraqi asylum claims in the Netherlands were approved.
In the past, those rejected would be put on a fight back to the Gulf. But, the ministry says, "Iraq no longer co-operates". It does not accept forced returnees.
Some warn that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the Netherlands will provoke a social crisis.
"You see what happened in Greece, with Golden Dawn? That will happen here," says right-wing commentator Geert Tomlow.
He is referring to the Greek neo-Nazi party that is seeing a surge of support and which has been accused of violence against immigrants.
The threat of far-right street violence seems at odds with the Netherlands' reputation as a liberal nation.
"You don't believe it? Look at what happened with the Nazis - we collaborated," says Mr Tomlow. "If the government doesn't do something about this 'Catch 22' position, then people will take things into their own hands.
"We see the economy getting worse and we can't afford to pay for these illegal people anymore, otherwise we suffer."
Bicycles whizz by on the arterial route that runs past the camp on the way to the city's central station. Few of the cyclists could imagine the journeys their immigrant neighbours embarked upon to reach this promised land.
Bowan, a confident 21-year-old who speaks fluent Dutch and English, was eight years old when he was smuggled out of Iraq on the back of a truck.
"My mum and dad took me, on a truck and on a boat, through Iraq and Turkey, then here in Europe," he says. "It was very dangerous I know, many people die."
But it was a path most of these Iraqi refugees say they had no choice but to take. One man, who did not want to give his name, told me he had paid his smugglers $5,000 (£3,000); a thousand each for him, his wife and three children. His family is now receiving food and shelter at an official refugee camp nearby.
But those who have had their asylum applications rejected are not entitled to any benefits or accommodation from the state.
"They throw us on the street like dogs," Aziz cries.
"But," he adds "we would rather die here in The Hague than return to Iraq."
Those that need it are entitled to emergency medical care. For everything else they rely on sympathy from a few volunteers, like Edwin Ijsman, who frequent the camp.
"We bring food, sometimes people bring clothes, it is not right that we don't take care of these people. It is coming into winter now and I don't even want to think about what will happen to them then," he says.
Inside, huddled around the glow emanating from an electric fire, there is a game of tawla (backgammon) going on. Arabic music and cigarette smoke swirl inside the cosy communal tent.
Aziz and his friends are playing a waiting game, in this city that has dedicated itself to promoting peace and justice. They hope their camp will draw attention and support, and pray that the Netherlands will have a change of heart.