The report of the Ombudsman finally made official the inacceptable state of affairs that asylum seekers in the Netherlands have to cope with. It was made clear that people’s medical and psychological needs are far from being met. The government is now oblidged to acknowledge that they can’t make people wait for half a year in a provisional camp like Heumensoord. The second report of the Children’s Ombudsman, Marc Dullaert, showed that the long waiting periods and the practice of constantly relocating people across the country contradicts the state’s own policies around children’s integration into Dutch society, let alone into the education system.
However, a focus on “achterstand” (backlog) and lost chances is not going to help anyone. What we need are constructive ideas and policies that stop categorizing and separating people. Instead of proclaiming these children as “a lost generation” we should focus on how they can be empowered.
Who are these children anyways?
Certainly not a group with a single or simply identity. Nevertheless, they managed to escape war and conflict. They have travelled across Europe. They survived the fragile boats, the European border fences and even the Dutch winter. If we, living in Europe today, are to put our hopes in a generation it should be them. It should be them because they have the chance to look further than the tip of their noses, it is a generation that might be able to build bridges between worlds that we separate by stereotypical oppositions, a generation that might live beyond modern trivialities. Let’s not frame these children as a lost generation just because they don’t speak Dutch yet and don’t know what is Vierdaagse. We should ask ourselves whether it is really so important that every child learns exactly the same thing at the same time. The rhetorics of “falling behind” reveal the obsession of conformity and competitiveness in our society.
Yes, they were uprooted and have to cope with an entirely different reality. Yet aren’t children much more adaptable than the older generations? Besides, there are plenty of examples of people who achieved great things in politics, art or academia who had to cope with being exiled and thrown into a different cultural context, who entered the regular education system later than usual and who had to learn an entirely new language. Ayaan Hirsi Ali springs to mind, who is well known to the Dutch public, or the American musician Regina Spektor, whose Jewish family flew the Soviet Union when she was nine.
Instead of pressing everyone into the same educational mould we should have a look at the knowledge and capacities that these children have brought with them. We should explore how their cultural background and the Dutch corpus of education can complement each other. Not just feed them with maths, history and philosophy but dedicate some time to listen to them. Give them space to express their unique way of experiencing instead of making all the effort to “dutchify” them as efficiently as possible.
Today in Nijmegen, tomorrow in Wageningen
The current system of transferring people from one location to another seems to be organized rather around the logistic convenience of the state actors and institutions involved in the asylum procedure than around any logical considerations that takes into account the experience and needs of the people. Or as the report of the Children’s Ombudsman states: “The government is considering the interests of efficiency and manageability rather than the interests of children.” People get the impression of being randomly moved across the country. This conveys a feeling of powerlessness, especially when one has stayed for months in one place, built up bonds with the city and made friends and then suddenly finds oneself in yet another unknown place all over again. This has been happening to some of our friends from Heumensoord recently, and is likely to be the case for everyone soon. The transfer always happens on short notice. One usually is informed about being transferred one or two days in advance. This shuffling around of people like playing cards several times during the asylum procedure obviously doesn’t benefit the children, neither anyone else.
Encounter instead of entertainment – the hypocrisy of the integration talk
Upon entering the education system the children from Heumensoord are isolated once again. After having spent half a year in the middle of the forest where virtually no Dutch child comes along to play after school, now they are taught Dutch language and culture in separate sections of schools in classes designed for refugee kids. Some might say that this is a necessary step before being able to participate in classes that are taught in Dutch. However, there would be many ways to include the children in regular classes and to foster more interaction between the Dutch and the international kids. The current policies stand in stark contrast to the public demand for integration and while migrants are blamed for “not integrating well enough”, they are structurally isolated and separated from the rest of society.
Instead of tons of orchestras and big bands visiting Heumensoord to play a couple of songs, bow, smile and leave again, there should be more initiatives of actual human encounter. Rather than entertaining the refugees, people might start considering getting to know the people in the camp. During the past five months of being present in front of the camp with coffee and tea, we met a number of Dutch people who came by, made contact with the people from the camp, went inside to give individual Dutch classes or just had a look out of curiosity. Hardly anyone, however, brought along their children. We may wonder why.
It is bad enough that we label people as refugees in a way as if that was their primary characteristic. As it happens in “information evenings” that are announced in the following manner: “Professor xy and policy maker yz are going to discuss European migration politics and a refugee is going to share his story”. “A” refugee – generic and exemplary for the category that he has been placed in – whose name apparently no one found worth mentioning while the so-called “experts” are announced with full name.
Labelling children as “a lost generation” doesn’t grant them the attention and support they deserve. Let’s leave the labelling and categorizing and sterotyping to the political right-wing and instead focus on seeing the humans and acknowledging their individuality.