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Story/the Netherlands

"Sometimes I wish I just had my own chair and table." How refugees from Russia live in the Netherlands

30.06.2022

Thousands of refugees from Russia flee to Europe every year in search of safety. Many have left their homes and families because of persecution by the regime: pro-Putin activists, security forces, or homophobia in Russian society.

Quite often in everyday conversations one hears the opinion that refugees go to Europe "for everything" or are looking for a "better life”. Representatives of the organization Free Russia NL have shared with us the conditions of refugees in the Netherlands, as well as to tell the stories of some asylum seekers in the Netherlands. It may help to dispel some myths that exist in society.

    Contacts Free Russia NL

According to the data of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), in the first four months of 2022, 186 Russians applied for asylum in the Netherlands (by comparison, in the entire year 2021 there were only 205 applications). This puts Russia in seventh place in the list of countries whose citizens apply for asylum in the Netherlands.

Additionally, this puts asylum seekers in a vulnerable position, in which their fate is not under their control, and the wait for a decision can drag on for years.

This has already happened to other countries, such as Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power. Decisions on refugees from that country are still not being made.

Each refugee goes through several grueling stages on their way to legalization, often lasting several years. During these years, they are not allowed to work, rent a place to live, and have virtually no money of their own.

Stages of the procedure
  • Step 1 - Registration and Enrollment (1 day)

The applicant arrives in the Netherlands, tells the officer of the Royal Gendarmerie or police how they arrived in the Netherlands, whether they have a visa to any of the EU countries, whether they have relatives and acquaintances in Europe, and what resources they have. After that, the data is registered in the database, fingerprints and photographs are attached, and the applicant waits for the next stage at the temporary accommodation center (in one of the sections of the existing Dutch prison) near the airport.

  • Stage 2 - meeting with the VWN and a lawyer (if handing in at Schiphol, on the 2nd and 3rd day respectively)

The VWN or Vluchtelingenwerk is an organization which helps refugees with the explanation of the procedure. It is also an intermediary in some matters between the IND and the refugee. However, the VWN is independent of the IND and does not give them any data.

In the interview, the VWN staff member will ask questions to understand what the case is based on and pass this information on to the lawyer. The next day, the attorney will clarify some of the questions and advise you on what to say and what not to say.

  • Stage 3 - Road interview (during the week, usually on the 4th-5th day)

The IND officer will ask you in detail about your family, education, workplace, how you got here and why you came here, but they will only ask you for brief reasons for applying for asylum. The answer should be 2-3 sentences.

  • Step 4 - Discussion with your lawyer (within two weeks)

Together with a lawyer, you read the transcript of your road interview and make revisions. The lawyer then sends them to the IND. However in practice, the "correction" of the registration interview can happen later: there have been cases where the discussion took place just a couple of days before the second interview.

  • Stage 5 - Second interview (10 days to 6 months)

It is on the basis of the information received at the second interview that the IND will decide whether to grant asylum to the applicant. This is, in fact, a very extended version of the last question from the road interview. This interview can last up to 6 hours.

If the IND still has questions, this "second interview" can be repeated and become the third or even the fourth interview.

This, of course, depends on how long the applicant has a history of persecution.

  • Stage 6 - Discussion with a lawyer (within two weeks of the second interview)

Together with the lawyer, revisions are made to the final interview protocol, and it is submitted to the IND for recording.

  • Stage 7 - Waiting for decision (two weeks to several years)

Next, the applicant is sent to await a decision in camp. The right to work depends not on the stage, but on the time the person stays in the Netherlands.

Six months after arrival in the Netherlands, the refugee has the right to obtain a BSN and work for 24 weeks per year.

Without the language and understanding of society, many cannot find a skilled job, and unskilled jobs are low-paying.  

  • Step 8 - Decision Making

In case of refusal, the refugee will be given the opportunity to appeal the Migration Service's decision in court. If the application is approved, then the applicant is waiting for the program of orientation (inclusion into the society) for three years.

Our research

IND does not publish any data other than the total number of applicants per country, so sources of information are limited to the media and snippet reports from Russian refugee communities in the Netherlands.

Among them are those who criticized the current government; conscientious objectors; human rights activists, journalists, LGBTQ+ and Jehovah's Witnesses.

In order to paint a portrait of an asylum seeker and to get more stories, we conducted a small study, interviewing 30 people among current or former Russian refugees in the Netherlands. We used the data we collected to write this article.

Finances and work

Once an asylum seeker enters the refugee program, the state subsidizes a lawyer. You can choose one yourself, but most often they are simply provided by the authorities. Refugees are given an allowance once a week, however it is woefully inadequate even for basic items such as clothes and shoes.

"The allowance varies from 12 to 60 euros per person per week. The amount depends on the camp and living conditions and whether refugees get hot food," says Nikita, a former military officer who arrived in the Netherlands after the full-scale war with Ukraine began.

At the same time, asylum seekers are not allowed to work and have to sign a document stating that the allowance is their only source of income and that their own savings do not exceed 6,000 euros. Under such conditions, personal savings could be a good support, but due to the departure of Mastercard and Visa, if it is not possible to bring currency in cash the problem arises that it is impossible to withdraw money from Russian cards.

Refugees can refuse benefits, health insurance and other state support, and living in the camp is optional. They can stay with friends and check in once a week.

"That's what a lot of people do," says Nikita. - You just have to find a neighbor who will keep track of your mail.

However, the vast majority of refugees don't know anyone in Europe, don't have a lot of savings, and find themselves hostage (albeit very grateful) to the system.

For adults who lived independently in their home country, worked, built their lives and families, this dependence and restrictions are a very difficult ordeal. In addition, applicants are sometimes cut off from family and children for many years.

None of the refugees know when their ordeal will end and they will be able to become a full member of society. Many wait years in the camps for a decision. According to Nikolai, an applicant who recently arrived in the Netherlands, during a month and a half he only witnessed only one positive decision for the entire camp. Additionally, some fall under the special Dublin procedure, which takes 6 to 11 months to process, and the Dutch authorities can send the applicant to another country to process the asylum application.

Camps and living conditions

Most refugee camps are located far away from major cities, in remote provinces. From some of them it takes up to 3 hours and 50 euros to get to major cities in the Netherlands - which is more than the average weekly allowance of a refugee. Consequently, they have no opportunity to attend events, to socialize, to prepare for finding a job. Many refugees find themselves disconnected from Dutch life, so their chances of integration become lower.

For example, the largest IND office complex is located in the village of Ter Apel in the northern province of Groningen. The central distribution camp for refugees is also located there.

The Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum-Seekers (COA) is responsible for the accommodation of refugees and is the person to whom asylum-seekers turn to for any questions they may have about accommodation. It is up to the asylum seekers to find accommodation, hygiene products and hot meals.

The heroes of our material were in different places of settlement, and their living conditions are strikingly different. Someone ended up in hangars, where two-story bunks are separated by thin walls according to the open space principle:

"My camp is on the outskirts of Goes in an industrial hangar. More than 300 people on bunk beds are crammed in here. I really miss having at least some space of my own, I sometimes wish I had just my own chair and table," says Nikolai, who was a videographer for Maxim Katz's Urban Projects before the war and is very bored out of work.

The situation is different in the camps where families are placed.

"The camp is located in the small town of Heerhugowaard, the train station is about a 30-minute walk away. The complex consists of blocks, each block has up to 3 floors. Up to three families live on a floor with a common kitchen, shower and toilet equipped with facilities for people with disabilities," Coon shares.

But at Camp Leersum in the province of Utrecht, both families and those who came alone live.

"For families, rooms are provided with a toilet, shower and their own kitchen. Singles live two or three in rooms of 16 m. A few rooms have their own kitchen and their own toilets and showers, which are locked."

Our interlocutors noted that the camps have gyms to help keep themselves in shape, and some even have playgrounds and greenhouses for gardening. Sometimes speaking clubs and language practice are organized.

At the same time, in some other camps refugees remain unconnected and, as Nikita, who came to the Netherlands with his brother, put it, "are forced to play Jay and Silent Bob, walking for hours between Jumbo racks. Buying a SIM card with Internet is too expensive for them.

The atmosphere in the camps

Living together with refugees also works out differently. Usually it is the camp residents themselves who keep order, and how clean the common areas will be depends on whether they manage to negotiate. Some manage to organize floor duty, while others have to live in constant disorder.

"There is draft in the shower, there are food scraps in all the sinks, sticky stains on the tables despite the fact that the tables are cleaned several times a day, there is filth and bottles on the floor in the toilet," says Nikolai. - There are microwave ovens in the dining area, where camp residents cook food for several hours a day."

The camps are home to people of many different ethnicities, views and religions, so adapting to the customs of other refugees does not always go smoothly.

"You can stand washing your face at the sink and then a person comes up to wash your feet before praying, and you get a silent scene - you wash your face in one sink, and a person next to you puts his foot in the sink and starts washing it," Nikita describes a typical situation.

There are constant conflicts in his camp: "The police are a frequent guest here, something happens all the time - fights, knifing, thefts”

Sometimes even one's own room (or a block of cardboard) does not guarantee safety.

"In my camp they manage to get drugs and sell alcohol, for those with delivery. You can't leave anything behind, they'll put your feet up. You leave your room and immediately lock it, and if you stay there for a long time, you also lock the windows. You have to keep your bike in the room," says Alex.

However, for some, this is very different. With regards to the camp in the city Goes, where Nikolai was, he says:

"In my camp there is no crime or conflict. Phone or clothes you can leave safely, no one will touch. The loudest conflict was when an Azerbaijani didn't like the fact that a Tatar and a Kazakh were praying loudly at 4:30 in the morning. It never came to fights, stabbings, or the police. In general, the vast majority of the camp's inhabitants are helpful people, ready to share their food with you, even if they themselves don't have enough."

It turns out that a lot depends on the camp. Some asylum seekers point out that the staff "don't care what your pain is or how you die," while others say that there are no problems with medicine, and in general SOA staff are "people who are ready to help, to listen, to find a way out of any situation, to play table soccer or tennis with you.”

The truth is very hard to find, but it is obvious that asylees face a tremendous amount of difficulty on the road to integration and are constantly in a position of waiting and accepting any conditions and limitations.

How to help?

It is important for us to reach out to those people who, through the fault of the Putin regime, find themselves in a difficult life situation: often alone, in a foreign country, with no knowledge of languages and with dim prospects in the Netherlands. Returning to Russia, in turn, is crystal clear: either prison or loss of health or life.

We really want to make life easier for asylum seekers and help them to integrate into Dutch society as soon as possible.

At the moment, we are preparing the following activities:
- Legal and legal aid
- Language teaching and cultural integration into Dutch society
- Payment of travel expenses, clothes and shoes
- Help with translation of documents
- Help in finding a job and part-time work
- Joint cultural events
- Involvement of refugees in social activities.

If you would like to help Russian refugees in the Netherlands and/or have ideas and suggestions - please email us at ruprotestnl@gmail.com or contact us on Telegram. We will be glad to see you!


Materials provided by Free Russia NL
Photo materials: Free Russia NL

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