My previous blog was about some aspects of poverty in the Netherlands. This week I also want to address a social problem, namely that of caring for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. There is quite a bit of confusion about how these different groups should be defined. However, there are international agreements about that.
A refugee is someone who is forced, often quite suddenly, to flee his or her country, usually because of war, other forms of violence or religious persecution. International bodies determine whether people are granted refugee status. They may not be turned away by the country in which they ended up.The status of asylum seekers is uncertain until their right to asylum is assessed by the authorities in the country in which they seek asylum. Migrants are people who voluntarily go to another country, for example for work or study, and may after some time return to their country of origin.
Currently, the Netherlands is experiencing a crisis in dealing with asylum seekers. This is also the case in many other Western countries, but I follow what happens in my country more closely than the situation elsewhere. In recent months we have been confronted with the distressing situation at the national registration center for asylum seekers in Ter Apel (a small town in the North of the country, not far from the German border). There, all those who want to seek asylum in the Netherlands must register. In recent months, it appears that things in this center are no longer under control. It frequently takes several days before newcomers can register, and during that time there are often not enough facilities to accommodate them. As a result, hundreds regularly have to spend the night outside–under conditions that are simply degrading. The underlying problem, we are told, is that people cannot move on quickly enough to the various asylum-seeking centers elsewhere in the country, which in turn are full because there are too few houses for people whose applications have been approved and who are allowed to stay in the country. The current number of asylum seekers is not excessively high, but many facilities were closed in recent years after the huge flow of Syrians largely dried up. Whatever the causes, however, it remains incomprehensible and intolerable for me that in a modern and prosperous country we cannot prevent men, women and even children (!) from having to spend the night outside.
Of course, it is rather easy to blame the government for the chaos in Ter Apel. But I sometimes almost feel sorry for Mr. Eric van den Burg, the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, who travels up and down the country to find places where asylum seekers can be temporarily housed. In most cases, he gets zero response. In Bant–a village about 65 kilometers from where I live–the government has bought land to establish a facility that could relieve the registration center in Ter Apel. The population of this village has fiercely opposed this plan-for understandable reasons, by the way. Yet . . where can something be arranged without opposition and problems? Fortunately, measures are now being taken to ensure that the flow of asylum seekers can soon be managed.
This past week, however, I came across an aspect of the asylum-seeker problem that not only surprised but deeply disappointed me. Journalists have discovered that especially municipalities in the so-called Bible Belt refuse to provide housing for groups of asylum seekers. The so-called Bible Belt runs across the Netherlands, from Overijssel to Zeeland. In this broad strip of land live relatively many people who belong to conservative Reformed denominations. So, these are people for whom religion plays an important role in their lives. They often vote for a Christian party. In contrast, municipalities in which a large percentage vote “green” are most likely to help Mr van der Burg find places to house asylum seekers! And most of these “green” people tend to be non-religious.
As a Christian, I feel ashamed when confronted with such things. I don’t feel very connected to the way a significant portion of the Christian population in the Bible Belt deal with their faith. But surely, I thought I could expect them to be familiar enough with the contents of the Bible to know that caring for refugees is a very important issue to God. To hear that they, in particular, fall short on this point is surely very disappointing. Might perhaps the “greens” and other socially engaged people have understood in some respects more of the gospel than many Christians who often attend church twice on Sundays? As I write these lines, a Bible text comes to mind: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21 NIV). It definitely is God’s will that we care for refugees and asylum seekers.