Life in Europe: Dream or Nightmare? The Lives of African Immigrants in the Netherlands.

Moving to Europe is a dream for many Africans, but the reality is often a nightmare. The Dutch immigration policy has been repeatedly and severely criticized by the United Nations and Amnesty International for the violation of basic human rights. Recently, the European Committee of Social Rights has joined the list of critics. Nele Goutier provides a glimpse into the lives of African immigrants in the Netherlands.
“Can I come to Holland with you?”, he asked me, his face hopeful. I had met the man, who seemed in his early twenties, only a few minutes before, but his question didn’t come unexpectedly. During my stay in Ghana in 2013, it had become a common topic that was not seldom brought up immediately upon introducing ourselves.

But while the question no longer surprised me, the image that so many Ghanaians seem to have of life in Europe still did. For all I knew, Europe is not particularly welcoming to immigrants. Obtaining the right papers is in many cases virtually impossible, living conditions leave a lot to be desired and discrimination is no exception. It made me wonder: why is Europe so appealing? And does the reality of life in Europe come anywhere near to the expectations that many people seem to have? 

Living on the streets

To get an answer to my question, I decided to visit ‘Het Vluchtgebouw’ (Dutch for ‘refugee building’), a dreary building in a suburb in Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ capital city. It is one of several places that has been squatted by asylum seekers without a residence permit – ‘strangers’ in official vocabulary – mostly from African countries.
They are not only victims of violence and poverty in their motherland, but also of increasing anti-immigration policies in Europe that make obtaining a permit increasingly difficult.
Het Vluchtgebouw has been condemned because of asbestos and is extremely unhealthy to live in, but for thousands of immigrants the only other choice is living on the streets. Ilhaam Alwees, a 30-year-old Somali refugee, has stayed in nine different places over the past five years, often squatted, sometimes in tents. “At some point, they always decide to evacuate and throw us out on the streets. We have all slept outside in the cold.”
Meanwhile, the inhabitants depend on the society’s generosity to fulfill their basic needs. The butcher delivers offal, a neighbor brings cheese and a retired doctor provides basic medical check-ups. It is enough to survive, but without the right to work, to follow any form of education, or to get medical care and insurances, life consists of not much more than sitting around – waiting, hoping, fearing.

In August, a 27-year-old man fell of the stairs in the building and landed with his head on the concrete floor, Awees tells me. Despite a broken vertebra and a hemorrhage, the medical staff refused to enter the building, because of the risk of asbestos. Prudence is a matter of life and death when handling a patient with head injuries, but co-occupants had to drag the man out of the building while the professionals stood outside and watched. Awees says: “Without papers, you are worth nothing. You are an object that they want to get rid of.


The Dutch government decided in 2011 to penalize staying in the country without a permit. In case asylum is denied, one has 48-hours to leave the country. Whoever is caught without the needed documents is sent to detention centers, like criminals. “Worse even,” says Awees, “criminals know at least how long they will be locked up for and that there is life after prison.”
For the residents of Het Vluchtgebouw, going back to their native countries is out of the question. Katy Arnold, legal adviser for undocumented immigrants, explains: “Their countries are often in conflict and unsafe. Or people are sent back to countries where they know no one at all, because they were born but not raised there.” 

Others are not allowed back in their own countries because they don’t have any proof of identity. The documentary Lost lives gives the floor to a Ghanaian-Liberian man who has been deported to Ghana four times, and to Liberia seven, but has always been denied access and sent back to the Netherlands immediately upon arrival. Without papers, no one wants him. The man has been stuck in the middle for sixteen years.
While a solution seems as far away as ever, the number of immigrants in similar situations does not cease to grow. The Netherlands receives between 10.000 and 15.000 applications for asylum yearly and new people are arrive in Het Vluchtgebouw every week, Arnold tells us. The only way out is by obtaining a residence permit, but in an age in which right wing populism and xenophobia are rapidly gaining ground, the chances for an immigrant look less and less promising.

Don’t come

Some immigrants are lucky enough to get a hold of the much wanted piece of paper that allows them to stay. Samuel Duffour Kodu , a 26-year-old Ghanaian, is one of them. His family in Amsterdam looks after him and helped him to get a working visa and a job. Hence, no legal problems for Samuel.
Yet, the man is disappointed with his life in the Netherlands. He struggles with cultural differences, is dissatisfied with the amount of money he can safe – “because life in Holland is expensive” – and his social network is considerably smaller than it was in Ghana. “I made a mistake coming here”, he says. “Everyone is full of expectations about Europe; they believe everyone is rich and that money solves every problem. But I can tell: it is not true. Europe is not a fairytale.”
Two of Samuel’s Ghanaian friends came to The Netherlands for economic reasons too. They would bring millions back home. Three years later, they sleep under cars without a euro to spend, always afraid of the police. “My advice for other people who dream about coming here?”, Samuel asks. “Don’t, unless you really have to.”

A Greying Population

Samuel’s advice is clear, but European governments should disseminate the exact opposite message, argues Juan Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration. He beliefs that the value of foreign labor force is commonly overlooked or ignored.
Indeed, a quick look at the European demographics shows a rapidly greying population that shouts out for immigrants. The number of elderly increases continuously as a result of improved living conditions and a higher life expectancy. A report by the European Commission shows that in 2060 30% of the European population will be 65 years or older. Meanwhile, the younger age-brackets will shrink as a result of lowering birthrates.
The situation puts severe pressure on a system in which care for the elderly is financed by the working population. While there were four laborious people for each retired person there 2012, in 2040 there will only be two,writes the Dutch ministry for public health. The pressure on young people can only be eased by an influx of young people from outside of Europe. Immigration should be cherished instead of feared. Europe should start thinking about its future instead of going with its gut.
Photo Credit: Elmer van de Marel via