Double binds and double edges: Wij Zijn Hier and refugees’ struggle for agency in the Dutch migration system


By Moses Hubbard

Abstract: The Netherlands receives approximately 13,000 applicants for political asylum each year, only a fraction of which are accepted. The rest find themselves caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a national asylum policy which is in many ways oppositional to itself – on one hand they can’t be deported to their home countries or apply for asylum elsewhere, while on the other they are refused any legitimate means to survive within the Netherlands. In July 2012, a group of these denied refugees banded together with activists in Amsterdam to form ‘Wij Zijn Hier,’ a movement aimed at combating this paralytic system. This article describes the double binds faced by refugees in the Netherlands, and explores the double edged response strategies they have developed in an attempt to combat them.


On one of my first days at the Vluchtkantoor (‘Refugee office’, the residence of Wij Zijn Hier, ‘We Are Here’, for most of the duration of my research), I was introduced to a group of Sudanese men, who invited me to their floor where we sat in a rough circle of chairs and beds drinking Lipton tea from plastic cups. This was at the beginning of my research, which in retrospect I feel more accurate calling the beginning of the beginning of my research, or the beginning of my research for my research. Learning how to learn about the subject was a journey itself, and reshaped the methodology of my analysis as well as my investigation. In this first stage I approached the Wij Zijn Hier community in a style I can most accurately describe as shoddily journalistic in form. Sitting in my plastic chair, notebook and pen in one hand, tea in the other, I explained my project and asked them if they would let me interview them. One of the men, Hassan[1], responded right away. He said, “You want something from us, our stories, for you to write down and show to others. We will do this, but we need something from you as well. What do you have to offer?” One of the men had already suggested that I ‘look up from my notebook once in a while’.

I received this reaction in less direct but basically the same terms from many of the refugees I tried to contact. They had been interviewed before, many times, but are still living day to day without knowing if they will go to bed hungry or make it through the winter. There is growing reluctance to repeat what has already been said again and again, especially with so little seen in return.[2] I realized relatively quickly that hard interviews and non-participatory journalistic or survey-style observation was going to get me only a nominal understanding of the dynamics of Wij Zijn Hier. The intricacies of a subject so active and intimate can’t be properly understood from an outsider’s perspective, and so I put down my notebook and voice recorder and instead worked on getting to know the refugees and the volunteers as people. I marched next to them and held banners in protests, traded food with them, went on walks and outings to documentaries.

A succinct way of putting it is that I moved away from examination and towards involvement. All of this, I suspect, is about as standard undergrad-research-development-process as you can get. I wouldn’t bring it up were it not for the fact that during this very normal, predictable transition, something actually quite unexpected happened. I noticed that as I moved into closer personal contact and participation, as my theories and expectations about Wij Zijn Hier were exchanged for real memories with and of the humans involved, the aperture of my academic curiosity began to expand outwards, rather than in. Macro-structural exchanges – relationships between individual and collective, and the multimodal interactions between state, citizen, refugee, and collective – became far more present and meaningful in the discourse than I had anticipated. I’ve come to the conclusion that the visceral, human elements of Wij Zijn Hier’s story; the claustrophobia and desperation of their political status, as well as the sense of empowerment through unity and mutual respect, need to be considered within the socio-political context responsible for the movement’s existence.

My initial research questions focused specifically on the relationship between the refugees and the various volunteer communities working with them, using the concept of agency as a bridge between the two. My focus is still on agency, but is now more structural and less abstract. My main question is: In what sense is Wij Zijn Hier’s struggle a struggle for agency? In my exploration of this question, a certain pattern has emerged – agency often has a binate nature. Power in this case is rarely compromised or exercised unidirectionally. The first half of the essay explores the double-binds faced by the movement, and the second is devoted to evaluating the double-edges of Wij Zijn Hier’s response strategies to said double-binds. It is my hope that this analysis not only function as a useful description of the movement’s situation, but that it also clarifies the debate somewhat and perhaps provides a more concrete framework for actualizing their goals.[3]

First, a perfunctory note on chronology: The Wij Zijn Hier movement underwent some major transformations in early December of 2013 (just prior to submitting this paper, ed.). I was initially inclined to set a strict cut-off date for the paper, after which I wouldn’t include any topical developments in the movement’s story. Because the real subjects at play in this article – agency, dualistic social patterns and political structures – are abstracts, I reasoned, a chronoscopic approach would be ancillary to its actual goals. I have had to reconsider this, though. In many ways, the movement that most of this paper deals with no longer exists, which is painful and also quite difficult to simply harmonize or integrate into the discussion. At the same time, to leave these developments out, to pretend that they didn’t happen would feel dishonest and also somehow disrespectful to the humans who have waited, struggled and hoped for so long as part of the movement. I have attempted to give space to these developments without derailing the paper’s analytic engine, which may result in some narrative disjuncture.

Double binds: The political scaffolding of Dutch exclusionism

Moses Hubbard - We Are Here logo
“Look with us, don’t look away – Open your heart”

We are refugees, we can’t go back
We are not criminals, we don’t go to prison
We are together, we don’t go to different AZC’s or VBL”s
We are here, we don’t move from Amsterdam

The first two lines of the above quote could be a thesis about the situation of illegal refugees in the Netherlands. Refugees in Amsterdam who have been denied asylum find themselves caught between the Scylla and Charybdis[4] of a national migration policy which is in many ways oppositional to itself. On the one hand they can’t be deported to their home countries or apply to asylum elsewhere, while on the other they are refused any legitimate means to survive within the Netherlands. This system strands refugees physically and judicially, excluding them from legal, authorized channels through which to improve their circumstances. Amsterdam’s illegal refugees are, in other words, stripped of their political agency. A major element of the struggle of Wij Zijn Hier is to actualize change in and for a system in which most of its constituents are officially powerless.

The Netherlands receives approximately 13,000 applications for asylum every year, not all of which are granted. Mulogo, a Ugandan now in his mid-30’s, was one of those denied. Fleeing the NRM (National Resistance Movement, the ruling political organization in Uganda since 1986), he ended up living in Ter Apel where he waited for his delayed interview with the IND (Immigration and Naturalization Service). He waited from early January to mid-February, spending over a month weathering the Dutch winter in a tent, until his verdict came back – negative. Because Mulogo had worked as a “mobilizer” for the NRM, he was suspected of handing people over to the government, and thereby facilitating human rights violations, which under international law can prevent an individual from being granted asylum.

Without asylum, an individual is unable to obtain a residency license, with all of its attendant benefits, particularly a work permit and a card for zorgverzekering, Dutch health insurance. This means no work and no medical assistance[5], leaving refugees with no legally sanctioned means of survival or aid. As of 2006, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) instituted a program of fingerprinting refugees, so their process could be standardized – if they receive asylum in one country, it is acknowledged throughout the rest, and if they are denied in one country, they are unable to apply in another, unless they are able to provide new criteria under which to be considered. Another UNHCR policy prevents countries from forcibly deporting refugees who come from certain areas deemed too dangerous. So refugees who have been refused asylum in the Netherlands are physically and logistically stranded in the country, unable to leave and powerless to support themselves.

Discussions about a group of people’s agency within society can take a number of forms, given the group’s various means and resources through which to actualize its goals – its access to media, popular support, currency, and political influence in a given society. This might be broadly referred to as the group’s capital, which Bourdieu (1977) would say has three facets – social, cultural, and economic, and are unequally distributed across a society. With illegal refugees, the struggle for agency is both defacto and dejure. Not only do they face the significant cultural and economic setbacks of entering a foreign society from conflict-torn backgrounds; they also are working within a political system structured to exclude their participation. Though the reciprocal relationship between political and socioeconomic agency is outside the scope of this article, it cannot be ignored when considering the multiple and mutually reinforcing obstacles asylum seekers face.

Refugees who have been denied asylum are given two options – agree to be deported to their country of origin or pursue an appeals process in the higher Dutch courts. Mulogo, like many, picked the second option. His appeal was delayed twice more, first for six weeks, and then for six months, during which time he lived in various AZC’s and VBL’s – temporary shelters for refugees. The Dutch appeals process, while tedious and consistent only in its incongruities, is also the sole legally legitimate avenue refugees have for gaining footing in the Netherlands. By entering into it, individuals are putting themselves largely at the mercy of the Dutch bureaucracy, but they have no other options, stuck as they are in the Netherlands and unwilling to return to the countries they fled from.

When Mulogo received the higher courts’ decision, it was again a negative. As of November 29, he was living in Holland as an “illegal,” and scheduled to be deported. Amnesty International’s 2011 focus documentary on the Netherlands explains that once a refugee has been ordered to leave the country, the state puts them under custodial supervision in a detention center. The officially stated logic behind this is that if an undocumented migrant or illegal refugee knows they are scheduled to be deported, they are suspect to try and run away or hide, to avoid having to be sent back to their country[6]. In theory, the detention centers function as a sort of temporary holding block where individuals can be supervised and monitored as they are processed through the deportation process[7]. Their lives within detention centers are carefully monitored. Mulogo described his days inside a center in Detention center Zeist: ‘8am is breakfast. Lunch is 12-2. You have to be present on time at regular intervals. You are locked in your room 5pm to 8am every day. At night they say you have to sleep, whether you can or want to or not. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Think, think, think.’[8] Detention centers are not jails or prisons[9], but in many functional aspects work as such – the regulated, regimented time frames, heavy guard presence, 24/7 CCTV monitoring. The correlations between ‘detention’ and ‘correctional’ facilities aren’t coincidental. Both function to inhibit physical liberties and geographically isolate groups deemed unpalatable by certain powers in society, keeping them out of both sight and mind.

Detention centers, in the Netherlands and across Europe, are a constant source of pressure for the refugees, as the threat of arrest and confinement is always present. Though only a few of the Wij Zijn Hier movement are detained at a given time – no more than eight at once since the movement officially coalesced – the centers have a powerful psychological impact on those outside them as well as the ones inside. Refugees have to be careful to not stand out or cause ‘disturbances’ in public, and many are reluctant to participate in protests for fear of being checked and detained. In several of the demonstrations held by Wij Zijn Hier, including their initial tent camp, the police cornered and detained hundreds of protestors, holding some for the entire 18-month maximum sentence. In this sense, the detention centers circumscribe and determine the refugees’ actions even without bodily detaining them – they dominate psychological geographies far wider than physical ones.

Denied asylum seekers face yet another legislative catch-22 inside the detention centers. Politicians Fred Teven and Gerd Leers (Secretary of Security and Justice, and Minister for Immigration, Integration, and Asylum Affairs, respectively) drafted a law that claimed to put the power of the detention and deportation process in the hands of the detainees. Basically, people are only held in detention as long as they remain ‘uncooperative’ – as soon as they cooperate, they are released. Cooperation, however, is strictly defined as agreeing to be deported, so refugees have no real choice in this situation – their ‘options’ are between remaining in detention and agreeing to be sent back to the countries they fled from, or a life on the streets.

Moses Hubbard - Illustration2

Perhaps the biggest irony of the refugee detention system is that only a quarter of detainees ever end up actually being deported. Another quarter is sent to another country, and the rest[10] are released onto the street, without documentation or support of any kind. Mulogo, after refusing to allow himself to be deported several times, was finally approached by his appeals lawyer. His case, it had been decided, had been mishandled, and upon reevaluation the higher court had given him approval to apply for another appeal. On October 23rd, 2013, he was driven to Amsterdam’s Central Station and dropped off at the platform, his belongings still categorized and packaged in plastic detention center baggies.

Refugees denied asylum in Amsterdam face legislatively structured double binds at nearly every stage of the Dutch bureaucratic process.[11] Their choices are essentially between deportation and life subject to constant, systematized marginalization by an establishment they have no legal authority to change. Refugees already face significant obstacles to integrating themselves into Dutch Society – most lack linguistic fluency and monetary capital, and even those with educations have a difficult time transferring marketable technical experience from places like Somalia and Uganda to a highly developed and unfamiliar society such as the Netherlands. When they become “illegal,” these obstacles are exponentially complicated, as they lose the opportunity to integrate and in time potentially work through these social hurdles.

Many refugees, especially ones recently released from detention centers, find themselves on the streets, with no internal Dutch connections and no sources of redress outside the country. They may spend years between detention centers, temporary housing, tent camps, and whatever shelter they can find on the streets of the Netherlands. In early September of 2012, following the mass eviction and demolition of a tent camp in Osdorp, a group of the refugees, organized by the M2M (Migrant to Migrant) foundation set out to find a more permanent solution for their situation. A flyer published on the M2M website[12] states:

Refugees from Iraq, Somalia, and other countries who have lived since 2011 in Ter Apel tent camps have seen where the Dutch refugee policy leads: nowhere. The Netherlands has 200,000 undocumented migrants, and every year 10,000 people in detention. People are spread through AZC’s and VBL’s all through the country… M2M builds We Are Here… We Are Here tells the story of these people through their own eyes. We give the look of the public a new turn and carry the conversation with refugees and other migrants in a different direction.

The initial idea was simple: bring as many undocumented migrants together as possible, and stand ground against oppressive bureaucratic measures. The group didn’t have money or PR men or political lobbyists – just hungry, tired, and increasingly impatient bodies.

Wij Zijn Hier is composed of people of all ages and from many different countries: Somalia, Kenya, the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Mauretania, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali, Guinea, Iraq, and, currently, one man from China. They are linguistically diverse as well, with the majority of the members speaking Arabic, but also a number of native French speakers from the Francophone countries[13]. Most of the refugees were raised Muslim, but only a minority practice actively, and there’s no broad enforcement of or pressure to conform to specific religious norms – those who do elect to do so of their own accord. In other words, aside from general geographical origin, there are no overall traits inherent to the group as a whole, physically, linguistically, or culturally. What they share, instead, is a common position within the Dutch migration system, and a common struggle to integrate themselves into Dutch society. In this sense, Wij Zijn Hier, characteristically heterogeneous and yet circumstantially homogenized[14], is a near perfect example of what Karl Mannheim (1952) defines as a “generation unit”: a group defined by common practices and ideas, a shared sense of destiny, and a shared sense of agency.

I submit that of these elements, the last – a sense of agency, or in this case a collective lack of agency, a feeling of paralysis in a sociopolitical system where they have no influence, no cultural capital, and nowhere else to go – is the most important, and the defining characteristic of the Wij Zijn Hier movement. The refugees who chose to unite together under a common banner did so not because they all spoke the same language or had the same relatives or worshiped the same deity, and neither did they join purely because they were facing the same circumstances; there are many other illegal refugees in the Netherlands who remain unaffiliated with Wij Zijn Hier. Rather, it was a common frustration with their powerlessness, and shared belief that a collective could hold more sway than an individual that caused the initial 90-odd undocumented migrants to band together early in September of 2012. In this sense, Wij Zijn Hier may be understood as a “youth culture” in its purest sense; a group searching for agency and change in a society as yet resistant to and unfamiliar with their value sets and methods of cultural production.

So far, this paper has examined the complex and layered series of double binds that compromise refugees’ agency and are responsible for effectively marginalizing the constituents of Wij Zijn Hier into active coalescence. Wij Zijn Hier is a movement defined by a lack of and search for agency – they were united by it and now exist to revolutionize it. Our focus now rotates to this second element, towards an evaluation and analysis of the strategies the movement uses to gain agency and cultural capital.

Moses Hubbard - Illustration

Double edges: Response strategies

We are migrants, we are moving
We look forward, we move on

You can look with us
You may walk along

We struggle to stay alive
We are stronger together

We share one planet
We have one mother

We are you[15]

The cornerstone of the Wij Zijn Hier program is visibility. The name itself – “We Are Here” announces a presence that demands attention; it exists and will not be forgotten or ignored. The general idea is that in a system designed to marginalize and circumscribe the refugees’ freedom, change has to come from the common people. If enough individuals are made aware of the existence and plight the refugees face, the logic goes, there will be sufficient political pressure to force the government to find a permanent solution. It should be noted up front that the movement itself has no coherent political strategy beyond raising awareness, and that there is still no consensus on how exactly awareness should be raised. It is also worth pointing out that the hypothetical elements of the movement, its ideology and goals, remain just that – abstracts that correspond asymmetrically to the day-to-day realities of the people living in the community. There are two primary tensions that the movement faces: maintaining external ideological cohesion while mitigating internal disputes, and pursuing political headway while taking care of the refugees’ basic human rights – food, shelter, and clothing. It may be said that in the face of legislative double-binds, the refugees are left with recourse only to double-edged response strategies.

Agency, specifically the exercise of agency through non- or supra-political channels seems to be the ideological nexus around which the many different clusters of volunteers and refugees in Wij Zijn Hier consolidate.[16] For refugees who have been denied asylum, means of redress officially sanctioned by the Netherlands’ political schema have failed. They have become jaded with battling against the current of these particular channels and have decided to pursue alternative means – the Dutch public. The refugees repeatedly express that they rely on the everyday people of Amsterdam, not the Fred Teven’s or Gerd Leers’, to be their base of ideological and physical support and source of political change. It’s considered essential to maintain a positive image in the eyes of the Amsterdam community, particularly with regards to the buildings they squat in.

The first major test of the movement’s ideological cohesion was in April of 2013, when the owner of the Vluchtkerk, the abandoned church in Amsterdam East where they had been living for several months, asked them to leave. Many wanted to stay in the church and refuse to be thrown out on the streets. The Vluchtkerk was a secure, established location and waiting for the owner to go to court to request an eviction notice could have bought them valuable time to wait for the cold weather to improve. At the general meeting on April 3rd, however, the movement decided that, though they would ask the owner for more time, they wouldn’t wait for a forced eviction. An excerpt of notes from the meeting reads:

We have to stay together to be safe and strong.
We don’t want to be criminal, we don’t want to break the contract and our good relation with the owner. So we do not want to stay in the church without his permission, as squatters.
If we don’t have another building we will go out on the street this Friday, unless the owner gives us more time. Younis [the refugees’ spokesperson] has direct contact with the owner.
Breaking the contract will make it harder to get a new contract and harm our good public image.
Going on the street will again show the shame of the government.
We rely on good will of normal people.

This decision is a prime example of the tension between competing modes of agency the movement is constantly negotiating. Wij Zijn Hier is unfortunately put in the position of having to relinquish their agency and acquiesce to unwanted demands for the sake of maintaining agency in the longer run. Staying in the Vluchtkerk might have been more comfortable for a month or so, but would also have potentially jeopardized their positive public image.[17]

The exercise of agency and cultural and social capital within the Dutch bureaucracy for illegal refugees has, as with their legal situation itself, a binate nature; a double edge rather than a double bind. Sometimes, their agency has to be sacrificed in the short term in order to preserve the only real power Wij Zijn Hier has – popular support from the Dutch people. This dualism plays out in other spheres as well. Another, particularly compelling double-edge is the refugees’ homelessness. Part of the brilliance of the Wij Zijn Hier movement has been their ability to use their weakness and vulnerability as a tactical political tool. Homelessness on the streets of Amsterdam, especially mass-organized, judicially determined homelessness, is a disgrace to the government and generates political pressure on legislators.[18] Every time they are pushed out of a shelter, they attract a great deal of attention, from the media, from tourists, and from everyday Amsterdam citizens.[19] So while one of the primary purposes Wij Zijn Hier organized itself for was to avoid being out on the streets, they understand that they can take advantage of the visibility that comes with being very literally in the public eye.

Physical visibility is closely tied to psychological visibility, and so another important element of the Wij Zijn Hier program has been to make sure that the movement avoids the geographical marginalization that other groups of refugees have been subjected to. “Many of the AZC’s and VBL’s and Detention centres we take and we put far from people in the towns and cities,” Analee, who oversees food donations and refugee coordination, explained to me. “They might say there’s a shelter in Meerkerk but then you go to Meerkerk and you go out and maybe you drive five, ten, fifteen minutes and then you get there. The government wants people to not have to think about this problem, because then they will have many more people angry with them about it.”

Since October 3rd, Wij Zijn Hier had been dwelling in the Vluchtkantoor, a squatted office space across the street from the Rijksmuseum. The location was ideal, because its centrality gave the movement visibility simply by virtue of its proximity to one of Amsterdam’s tourist hubs and a densely populated area. The front of the building functioned as a sort of patchwork billboard for everyone who walks by. The entryway’s windows were plastered with news clippings, slogans (for example, “WE NEED HELP;” “WE NEED A FINAL SOLUTION;” “ALL HUMANS IS LEGAL”), pictures of refugees, and brochure-type informational leaflets about the movement. Strung between two windows on the second floor is a 4-meter photo-banner, the same as their Facebook cover photo, with “Wij Zijn Hier” in bold red and white letters at the bottom. The location also afforded Wij Zijn Hier the ability to quickly access parts of the city for protests, city-council meetings, and leisure activities they otherwise would be unable to[20].

The Vluchtkantoor’s central placement was a logistical boon for the movement, but the refugees were again asked to move. After a series of negotiations with the volunteers and refugees, Mayor Van Der Laan agreed[21] to provide temporary shelter for 159 of the refugees[22] in a former prison in Havenstraat. Wij Zijn Hier faced a difficult decision – the alternatives to prison seemed to be going out in the soon-to-be-December cold, trying to scout out a new shelter to squat, or resisting the eviction order until being forcibly removed. Accepting the offer, however, meant giving up the tactical placement of the Vluchkantoor and, even more problematically, leaving the remaining 60-some refugees behind, splitting up the group. I was talking with some of the leaders when news of the mayor’s offer came through. At the impromptu meeting that followed, opinions were scattered in all directions – some were happy to accept, while others, especially those who wouldn’t be counted among the 159, wanted to push the Mayor for more space or to find a different solution entirely.

Around this time, one of the refugees, Mouthena (actual name), was arrested in Germany and placed in a detention center outside of Munich. Wij Zijn Hier mobilized quickly to get him out of Germany, composing a petition and organizing a protest in his name. Mouthena has been vocal against detention centers – just a couple of weeks before his arrest we had gone to a screening of documentaries about the detention of undocumented migrants. Mouthena had been particularly outspoken that night – he’s spent time in several detention centers and kept repeating that they “try to make you feel like you are not a human.” His arrest became a rallying point for the movement, and generated promising responses and energy, both online and in numbers at the protests[23].

Moses Hubbard - Free Mouthena

Late November saw significant developments for Wij Zijn Hier – the movement was poised for change. At the initial draft of this essay, as the volunteers and refugees were debating whether or not to accept the Mayor’s offer, I wrote the following:

Proceeding forward, the refugees again have to navigate between a Scylla and Charybdis – accepting the mayor’s offer means potentially losing agency, as he will be able to use the shelter to dictate his own terms, and will also physically separate the movement. Refusing, however, may strain the improving relationship between politicians and Wij Zijn Hier, and also leaves the movement potentially homeless and stranded in the middle of the winter.

The night of the meeting, as we stood in another loose circle rolling and smoking cigarettes, Jo, one of the head volunteers, had gone around with a recorder and waved it at the various volunteers and refugees, asking “What can you do? What can you do to save the world?” He seemed drunk and my answer was short and ended with a laugh. The question stuck with me, though, and later on that night I sent him a message, of which this is an excerpt[24]:

…I really believe it’s important that Wij Zijn Hier sticks together as a group, and that it not let itself be pushed out of the public eye (i.e. to somewhere tucked away outside the city). It seems like the reason the mayor has been so accommodating and willing to bargain with you is he’s really terrified of having a whole bunch of refugees out on the street sleeping under the Rijksmuseum … be careful to make sure that you not allow the government to hide the movement away somewhere or break it into smaller parts. That might be more comfortable in the short run but it’ll also rob you of your most powerful tools for enacting change – your unity and your visibility.

Jo didn’t respond, but it seemed like my message was at least one that the others agreed on. On November 28th, Wij Zijn Hier published a letter they composed to Mayor van der Laan, thanking him for his offer but refusing shelter in the Havenstraat. A prison, even a reconstituted prison, they said, was disturbing to the refugees, many of whom have spent time in the Netherlands’ detention centers. Another problem, they said, was that there wasn’t enough shelter for the entire community, and that they wished to stay together. I should make clear here that the main reason given for Wij Zijn Hier’s refusal wasn’t that the group was afraid of splitting apart – the fact that their prospective home had been a prison seemed more at the forefront. Either way, the movement had agreed to stay together.

On November 30th, though, Mayor van Der Laan had a secondary meeting with the refugees, after which the portion that was offered shelter[25] decided to accept and move into the Havenstraat facilities for six months. On December 2nd, Wij Zijn Hier split apart, with some going to the shelter while the rest were evicted from the Vluchtkantoor and sent onto the streets. In brief: The remaining 60-some refugees re-named themselves We Are Here Too (2)[26], and have been on the move since the Vluchtkantoor, spending one or two nights in various shelters, and then being asked to leave. The volunteers have been getting tired, and popular support has waned since the group lost many of its members – there have recently been a number of emails asking for more volunteers and potential locations for shelter. Getting a large portion of the movement into shelter has alleviated some pressure on the volunteers in terms of providing food and supplies, but also seems to have undermined Wij Zijn Hier’s base of support, and made their situation seem much less urgent. As things currently stand, many of the refugees are homeless, and the rest have been sheltered, both from the elements and from the public eye, for six months- as AT5 put it, “they have gained a bed, but no papers.”

Mouthena was freed from the Munich detention center at 1 pm on Tuesday, December 10th. In the email announcing his release, Joyce, a volunteer, wrote: “I had him on the phone briefly: he immediately asked with which group I was now and the next thing he said was: they should be together. I said: come back fast.” If the Wij Zijn Hier movement is coming to an end, it isn’t a happy one. The movement has split from the inside, part temporarily pushed out of sight and mind and part roaming the streets, and no progress on the actual issue of citizenship for either group.

Wij Zijn Hier’s vulnerability and visibility can only be effective political tools if these ostensible weaknesses are bastioned by a coherent and cohesive ideology. Without ideological unity, homelessness, hunger, and legal paralysis lose their reflexive power, and become little more than their physical realities. A major emphasis of the movement has been the need for a holistic revision of Dutch migration policy – they repeat the phrase “We Are One” in many of their propaganda flyers to emphasize that they don’t want to be handled as individual cases, but are working for permanent structural changes to the way the Netherlands deals with refugees. The developments between late November and mid-December are difficult to reconcile with Wij Zijn Hier’s stated goals. If the movement hopes to make lasting progress, it’s unlikely come by through the channels of double binds that comprise the Dutch migration system.


As the deadline for this paper neared I spent less and less time with the refugees and volunteers – when it was no longer research, I stopped making as much of an effort to be an active part of the movement. This as the refugees were evicted and split apart to roam the streets or wait in a former prison. I’m not sure if, looking back I’m anything more to the movement than a long-term tourist – I came, took my research, and in many ways disappeared. I think it comes down, for me, to a self-reinforcing feeling of helplessness, as a student, a researcher, someone only around for a few months and then gone. Seeing how infinitesimal and temporary anything I could have done was quite crippling, and for all I can talk about reasons for activism, I found myself paralyzed, unable to convince myself that anything I could do was worth it. It seems that sociologist’s work is frequently problematized by this tension – between observer and participant, analysis and action.

Three days before the December 13th deadline I had just put down some concluding remarks about Wij Zijn Hier’s failures to unify and organize, and I was walking home from the Oost Indisch Huis, down Oude Hoogstraat. It was dark and I could watch my breath frosting out and obscuring away into the night. I had been rolling a cigarette as I went and I stopped to look up and ask for a light, when I saw, across the road, a loose crowd marching down the street in the opposite direction. They were talking and laughing, their Arabic with a quality to it that cut through the air and the other sounds around me, not quite a song but almost. I hesitated for a second – I recognized several faces, but none of them had seen me. Then I kept walking, down my side of the street, trying to think of something warm or bright or soft.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


[1] Real names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

[2] Of course, this attitude is about as antithetical to the core principles and approaches of the Wij Zijn Hier program as it can get. This is one of a number of internal tensions that will be explored in the body of the paper.

[3] In another sense, it may be read as part of a broader academic debate on the nature of agency in youth cultures, specifically their dualistic and frequently antipodal elements. Consider, for example, the “Hope for the future” vs “Moral panic” discourse, or the question of authenticity vs inauthenticity so frequently raised in examining various youth demographics (Bucholtz 2002; Flanagan 2008; Wheaton & Beal 2004). Part of what makes “youth cultures” so difficult to pin down definitionally, and also what seems to generate such rich debate around them is that some of their most fundamental characteristics – activism and apathy, appropriation and individuality – exist simultaneously at diametric ends of their given spectrums. It’s easy to understand why some would be inclined to call youth cultures schizophrenic or unintelligible, or feel the need to discredit one polar element to validate another. Part of the larger aim of this paper, however, is to demonstrate that this discordance can be a sort of coherence. Youth cultures exist and evolve in a dichotomous world; paradoxical, binate programs may often be the only principled responses.

[4] The Greek heroes Odysseus and Jason have to navigate their ships between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. One will drown the ship, and the other will swoop down and eat their crews alive – an ugly fate on either side.

[5] Except, provisionally, in extreme imminent-death cases. Treatment policies are often more stringent for refugees held inside detention centers, though this varies from center to center as well. Specific policies also differ between Dutch municipalities, where mayors have no small measure of autonomy.

[6] From the Amnesty International video and speakers at a conference on Detention centers.

[7] According to the most recent detention policy, individuals can be held in detention for up to 18 months at a time. After the time is up they are released, though as long as they remain undocumented within the country they can be detained again an indefinite number of times.

[8] Paraphrased from loose notes.

[9] I state the possibly obvious because it took me a couple of hours listening to Mulogo and others before I parsed this out. The issue or question of “illegal” as opposed to “criminal” plays a prominent role in legal debates about the refugees, inside the centers as well as out, and will be returned to later in the paper.

[10] 4,680 in just the first half of 2012, according to the INLIA (International Network of Local Initiatives with Asylum Seekers).

[11] It’s worth pointing out that there are compelling and thoughtfully considered arguments on both sides of the political table over the broader issue of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants entering Europe. Even while one is inclined to err on the side of clemency, there are many factors in asylum cases that demand consideration, among which I find participation in human atrocities particularly imperative. International law among European Union countries also limits the power of individual states to make sovereign decisions on issues like migration that may affect other EU members. This is especially true for smaller countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The point here is basically that the labyrinthine bureaucratic process refugees face in the Netherlands can’t be chalked up to racism or apathy or corruption in Dutch politics. If anything, reductive localized explanations hinder efforts to candidly analyze the complexity of the double-binds that illegal refugees face. There are bigger issues at play, and while international power relations are outside of this paper’s purview, they can’t be forgotten when trying to dissect the how’s and why’s of refugee migration and integration.

[12] Many of the M2M and other Wij Zijn Hier documents were only composed in Dutch. I used Google Translate to make the best sense of them that I could without an actual translator. I’ve kept as true to the translations as possible, but some paraphrasing, sentence rearrangement and synonym swapping were necessary to make anything cogent out of them. Parts that I didn’t understand have been left out. Translated passages have been footnoted as such.

[13] Linguistic barriers and bridges play prominent roles in many aspects of Wij Zijn Hier’s story – their ability to communicate with local communities, politicians, volunteers, and between the various constituencies internal to the refugee movement have shaped it’s development a great deal.

[14] I use the perfect tense here because I think it’s important to emphasize that Wij Zijn Hier is defined and united by topical status rather than traits people have inherited or appropriated. The Spanish first person singular distinction between “soy” and “estoy” might be a more overt and direct grammatical homologue.

[15] Translated from Dutch.

[16] Of the volunteers, this is probably least true for those affiliated with Church groups.

[17] Again, the criminal / illegal definitional distinction brought up earlier and referenced in footnote 11. It’s important for the refugees that they not be seen as criminals to the public, even while technically “illegal” according to the Dutch government.

[18] Another way of talking about these dualities might be as inversions – weakness as strength, sacrificing power to retain power. Again, in situations with no established channels for resolution, these anti-strategies seem to be the only means of recourse.

[19] It isn’t accidental that the cover photo on Wij Zijn Hier’s Facebook page features a handful of men and women wrapped up in blankets, taking shelter for the night underneath a bus stop. The picture sends a powerful message – ‘We are here. We are here and we have nowhere else to go.’ Again, this is an example of how by exhibiting helplessness, the movement turns its lack of power into an instrument of change.

[20] In the first few months of their existence, they had a small bus that was used to ferry members to and from these sorts of functions, as well as to detention centers to visit friends in custody. The bus is now defunct, effectively eliminating the possibility of long-distance mass-transportation.

[21] Cooperation of any kind from the Mayor, not to mention acquiescence to demands, is a major achievement for Wij Zijn Hier, given that Van der Laan was vocally against the movement as late as mid-October.

[22] I’ve heard two explanations of the 159 number cap – first that there were 159 “original” refugees that the government considers Wij Zijn Hier, and second, that there are 159 currently enrolled in the Asylum appeals system. Of the two the latter seems more probable, but the hard facts on the subject have escaped me.

[23] For example, Wij Zijn Hier, in conjunction with M2M, created a group on Facebook, ‘Free Mouthena,’ which garnered several hundred likes in its first few days. Freeing Mouthena became a kind of microcosmic platform for the larger refugee debate, where volunteers and supporters could concentrate their efforts on a smaller, more immediate scale.

[24] Which I include less as a quote than as a proxy expansion of my earlier points about the connection between vulnerability and agency.

[25] Those refugees who are in the process of having their cases reviewed or reconsidered in the Dutch migrant courts. Newspapers referred to their cases as “individualized” as opposed to the refugees outside of the appeals system and fighting simply for citizenship.

[26] The play on “Too” and “2” seems like something of a verbal stab – at the government that has isolated them and also, perhaps, at those who left them behind, who are no longer “here.”


Bourdieu, P. (1979). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press.

Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and cultural practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 525-552.

The Economist Online (2013). Worries about workers from Eastern Europe are changing Dutch politics. 24 August 2013.

Flanagan, C. (2008). Private anxieties and public hopes: The perils and promise of youth in the context of globalization. In Figuring the Future: Globalization and the Temporalities of Children and Youth, eds. J. Cole and D. Durham, pp. 125-150. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Global Detention Project (n.d.). Netherlands detention profile – List of detention sites. Global Detention Project: Netherlands List of Detention Sites, accessed 10 Nov. 2013.

Mannheim, K. (1952). The problem of generations. In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, pp. 276-322. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Singh, G. & Th. Hammberburg (n.d.). Migrant detention centres in the Netherlands., accessed 13 Dec. 2013.

Wheaton, B. & B, Beal (2004). Keeping it real: Subcultural media and the discourses of authenticity. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38(2): 155-176.

All photos courtesy of Wij Zijn Hier.