The other side of the coin: a visit to a Dutch refugee center


The refugee situation continues to unfold in Europe, leaving governments and municipalities struggling. After the Greek crisis, the refugee situation is widely seen as a new major test for the EU. Member states have been struggling to even agree to house even the smallest number of refugees and there are wide divisions between countries and policies.

There is a consensus

What strikes me is that there seems to be a consensus between member states and media that we have a ‘refugee crisis’. Some governments react to this by panicking and building a fence around their country. Others seem overwhelmed and caught off guard. Their solution is merely to build mass refugee centers or house refugees in mass accommodations and even former prisons. Neither a fence nor mass accommodations are appropriate responses. The latter, in The Netherlands, has reinforced concerns with the Dutch public and has partly lead to the surge in popularity of right wing politicians such as Geert Wilders. How can you expect a village of Orange (‘Oranje’ in Dutch) with 140 inhabitants that already houses 700 refugees to absorb another 700? Even hardcore ‘lefties’ will start to ask questions.

It’s time to look at the other side of the coin

Both Al Gore and John J. Kennedy have referred to the Chinese word  危机 (wēijī) for crisis which is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity.

I believe it is time to also look at the ‘opportunity side’ of the coin and shift the debate.

I don’t say that we should ignore the problems in the countries of origin of refugees. Yes, the international community should focus on achieving peace and stability in countries such as Syria. Of course should there be more opportunities for African youth at home, so that they don’t have to undertake the perilous journey to Europe.

What I’d like to argue is that in the meantime we can change the nature of the debate and deal with the refugees that are here (or will soon come) in a better way. We should look at the potential that they have and the value that they can deliver to Dutch society. However first the basics need to be right and that is (amongst others) proper accommodation.

A visit to an asylum center in The Netherlands

A few weeks ago, I visited an AZC (asylum center) in the North of The Netherlands (Hoogeveen). Prior to the visit, I had no idea what to expect. I expected security to check my bags upon arrival and to ask questions about my purpose of visiting. Also I expected to see plenty of aid workers and other Dutch people visiting refugees, doing all sorts of activities together. I also expected that the refugees I would meet would have just arrived and soon would have somewhere else to live.

None of these expectations came out.

A big waiting room

The asylum center I visited is a former prison (half of the prison wall still remains). It also feels like a prison despite best efforts to build some facilities for kids. If I’d have to stay there myself I’d feel depressed at day 1, but the people I met there spent sometimes up to 1 year in this place, with no news on when they could relocate. While staying in the AZC their life is on hold. They described it as being in a ‘big waiting room’. You might argue that it takes some time to process permits, but I am now talking about ‘status holders’, people that already have the right to stay in The Netherlands for the coming 5 years. They are expected to restart their lives in The Netherlands, but we don’t allow them to move on, because they’re living under these crappy situations. The longer they stay in an AZC, the lower their chances for a successful integration in Dutch society and the higher the chance for problems (fights, drug and alcohol abuse etc).

What can be done?

Fortunately there have been people (social entrepreneurs) that feel we need to change something. They don’t want to wait for the system to change, because this will take forever.

Reinout de Kraker from is such a social entrepreneur. I will now start supporting his initiative. The idea is to house refugees (status holders) for 3 months with Dutch families. During this time, they can get in touch with Dutch families, learn about the culture and about the Dutch language. This will make it easier for the refugees to adjust and it will improve their chances for a successful integration in Dutch society. For the Dutch families, it’s a rare chance to directly make a difference on somebody’s life and is an enriching experience. will place a lot of emphasis on proper guidance of both the families and refugees, so that they know what to expect and to maximize the positive experience for both.

About is a social enterprise with the primary mission to create mutual understanding and social cohesion between Dutch families and refugees. It does so by connecting Dutch families with available accommodation and refugees seeking accommodation.

The social enterprise will be registered as a foundation and is seeking volunteers and board members. You’re welcome to attend the first meeting at Impact Hub Amsterdam tonight at 19.30pm, send a message via first pls.

Of course, it does not end with proper housing, the other side of the coin also is about employment, proper access to education, social contacts and many other things. I have a number of ideas on this as well, please send me a Linkedin invite if you would like to take action by developing initiatives/ businesses that focus on empowering refugees.