Mayor of municipality with Ter Apel center for asylum seekers criticizes government inaction
In recent months, people have become aware of the overcrowding and government inaction plaguing the Netherlands' reception center for asylum seekers at Ter Apel. However, the mayor of the municipality of Westerwolde, which includes Ter Apel, says the problems at the center have been going on for much longer.
When coronavirus travel restrictions ended in August 2021, an influx of asylum seekers appeared at the center, said Jaap Velema, mayor of Westerwolde, in an interview with AD. By October, there were already not enough places for refugees to sleep and the electricity, plumbing and sewage systems were at risk of overloading, he recounted.
Although the government was "very slow" to react to the crisis, the former state secretary forced many municipalities to take in refugees before Christmas, easing the numbers slightly. However, this intervention proved to be a "hiccup" –– a one-time event as the situation steadily deteriorated, Velema told AD.
Now, reports regularly surface of people spending the night in chairs or even in the open air at Ter Apel. There is often a lack of food and drink for asylum seekers, a situation which the Red Cross denounced in June as "inhumane." The Red Cross has appealed to the Cabinet to open a second application center in Groningen to alleviate the conditions at Ter Apel, which it called "extremely urgent."
Amid it all, Velema feels an "important part of the Netherlands is failing."
"On bad days, I am convinced that if this happened in the Randstad, [the government] would have acted faster," Velema said. "On good days I think: I'm happy to live here, in a beautiful area, with great inhabitants."
Velema told AD he does not wish to play the victim. However, he feels the government has shown a lack of urgency since the beginning, despite clear signs that the application center would become overloaded. He added that the perception of the people staying at the reception center might also be skewed.
"The picture is now colored by single men who sleep outside, but that is also because the women and children do sleep inside," he noted.
And, while Velema is glad the Netherlands stands with people from war zones, he sees a double standard in how some Ukrainian refugees were received. "It is very difficult for me to accept that the Syrian family standing at the gates is treated differently from a refugee Ukrainian family because of the same Russian bombs and missiles that flattened Aleppo."
The Cabinet is currently in the process of opening a second reception center in the Noordoostpolder municipality in Flevoland. This center is expected to open in the autumn, when it will be available for asylum seekers by appointment. The Red Cross called this measure too late. Velema said the application center is "still not in sight" and the Cabinet seems to be ineffective.
"It is an attack on the liveability and reputation of the village and the region," the mayor told AD. "That must come to an end. If the government does not perform, society will eventually stop.”