Hopes on hold for Syrian refugees homed on Dutch ferry

'The National' goes on board ship where the Netherlands has placed hundreds of asylum seekers amid housing shortage

The 'Silja Europa' is moored at the VOB quay in Velsen-Noord, the Netherlands. About 1,000 asylum seekers will be accommodated on the ship. EPA
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Sitting in largely empty lounges in a big ferry moored on a canal near a small Dutch town, groups of men play cards or stare at their phones.

These are not ordinary passengers and the ferry, which is one of the largest in the world, is not going anywhere. The 54-metre Estonian Silja Europa will remain moored in the northern city of Velsen-Noord for the next six months.

About 1,000 people will live on the ship, where rules are stricter than in asylum centres on land. Many hail from Syria, but also from other Middle Eastern and African countries.

This is a first for the Netherlands, a small, rich European country with a long coastline on the North Sea.

A nationwide housing shortage coupled with what experts describe as years of poor planning pushed the government to take the unprecedented decision earlier this year to move about 2,000 asylum seekers from squalid overcrowded camps to two large ships, one in the capital Amsterdam and one in Velsen-Noord.

The shelter crisis in the Netherlands peaked this summer when hundreds were forced to sleep outside the country’s main asylum reception centre near the north-eastern village of Ter Apel, and the death of a baby in August triggered a national outcry.

Inside the Silja Europa, a lot has changed since the days when it shuttled up to 3,500 passengers between Sweden and Finland.

The state-run Dutch central agency for the reception of asylum seekers (COA), which rents the ship, has closed the casino, the pool and the restaurants. Only one large canteen-like restaurant has remained open for asylum seekers.

“We closed everything that shows any luxury to make sure that people in the Netherlands don’t consider it a cruise ship. It’s a ferry. There’s a big difference,” said Hanneke Niele.

Here, we have the captain’s rules
Hanneke Niele, COA’s location manager on the Silja Europa in Velsen-Noord

She is COA's location manager in Velsen-Noord, which runs the entire operation at an undisclosed cost.

One third of the ship's 300-strong Estonian crew, including the captain and engineers, has remained.

'We're suffocating'

COA recently allowed The National on-board the Silja Europa for an hour-long visit in the company of Ms Niele. It was the first time media was permitted on the ship visit since asylum seekers arrived on September 24, she said.

COA, and more generally, the Dutch government, is trying to strike a delicate balance as it struggles to address the shelter crisis.

On the one hand, COA employees say they want to make life as comfortable as possible for the ship’s inhabitants. Yet at the same time, the state does not want to give the Dutch public the impression of being excessively accommodating while their fellow citizens struggle with housing shortages and record inflation.

The ship lies close to a small country road just outside Velsen-Noord, where people protested against the arrival of the Silja Europa back in June. Few are happy with the temporary solution that the government has found. But up to now, frustrations have been contained.

The ship, whose imposing build is visible from the nearby motorway, is closely guarded with security guards checking the ID of those entering and exiting the perimeter around the boat.

COA permitted unsupervised discussions with residents. To protect their privacy, it did not allow pictures showing their faces inside the boat, or visits of occupied rooms.

The National saw an empty room that was roughly six square metres, with two bunk beds and a closed-off shower and toilet. “This is the most basic cabin there is,” said Ms Niele.

Inhabited rooms have daylight and beds lie next to each other instead of on top of one another, she explained.

“If you compare it to other locations in the Netherlands where they are eight or more in one room, this is luxury,” she said, before adding: “but it doesn't feel like luxury.”

At the time of the visit, about 600 people were on-board, and dozens more were queuing at the entrance of the boat.

“Some people arrive with only plastic bags, some with large suitcases. There are people with all kinds of backgrounds,” said Ms Niele.

Complaints were common among the handful of Syrian men that The National bumped into standing by a table with all-day tea and coffee in a lounge area.

“We are happy but some things are lacking,” said Fadi, from the city of Manbij. “There's procedures and hopefully we’ll get there slowly. We need to help each other.”

Fadi was quickly interrupted by Ahmad, from Aleppo, who complained about the quality of the food and the delay in receiving a weekly stipend usually given to asylum seekers in the Netherlands.

“Nothing is good on this boat,” he said. Other men, who said solutions were on their way, quietened him down.

The visit was winding to an end, but The National was also able to speak to another Syrian asylum seeker, Hassan Mechaal, as he re-entered the ship after a walk in the grass fields nearby with his friend Mazen who he met in Ter Apel.

“We’re suffocating. It’s like a prison,” said Mr Mechaal, who says he fled his native Syria after he was arrested in 2019 in his home town of Homs on what he described as unfounded terrorism charges. A university student at the time, he says he was tortured in prison for months.

The following year Mr Mechaal travelled by land to the Netherlands via Turkey. Before being transferred to the Silja Europa, he was living in another COA-run camp near the Belgian border.

“We were five in a big room,” he said. “It was tight but psychologically it was easier to bear.”

Local authorities have set up a free bus which runs hourly to a nearby town, but Mr Mechaal rarely uses it. “I have no money to buy anything anyway,” he said.

Food is his main grievance. He says that the only meal he has eaten for the past four days is chickpeas and eggs for breakfast. “They reheat the same food several days in a row. But it’s not just that. They didn’t give us residency or a bank card. What are we supposed to do with no money for six months on a boat?”

'This is the first time'

The state-run Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) said in an email that more than 80 per cent of first applications for asylum among Syrians are approved. But the wait is long. “Asylum seekers who submit an application now have to wait nine months on average for a decision,” said the IND.

“The number of asylum applications this year is substantially higher than that for which the IND is equipped,” they said. There are many reasons for this, including the abolition of Covid-19 travel restrictions and the continuing high influx from countries such as Syria, Turkey and Yemen, according to the IND.

COA, which is responsible for shelter, food and medical care for asylum seekers, is aware of complaints such as those aired by Mr Mechaal.

“I understand that if you’re in a foreign country and they serve you food you don’t like, it’s a problem. But there are also 580 other people who said the food is very good,” said Ms Niele.

Asylum seekers on the Silja Europa are entitled to 12.5 euros a week that they can spend using a special debit card, but Ms Niele is waiting to receive all of the cards so that she can distribute them to everyone at once.

“If I give 100 [people] a bank card, 500 others will say, where is my bank card? It’s not fair to give one and not to another,” said Ms Niele.

The government expects that asylum seekers will all be able to leave the ships when long-term solutions are implemented beginning early next year. It is working on legislation to oblige cities throughout the country to accept a set number of asylum seekers. This has involved months of discussion with municipalities about the distribution of responsibilities.

COA says it is working hard to address complaints and is operating under tremendous pressure in unfamiliar surroundings.

“This is the first time we do it this way,” said Ms Niele. “There are some boats [that house asylum seekers] but they are totally different. This is a sea ship and the other boats are more river ships.”

“I hope we will be able to let this boat go to Estonia again and have a solution for people who are on board, but it’s a big, big challenge,” added Ms Niele. “I’m sure we’ll make it a success if they give us some time.”

The ship’s captain has so far expelled four asylum seekers for violating the smoking ban in rooms. COA relocated them to other asylum centres on land, where the rules are less strict.

“If they smoke there, they get a talk and we try to reason with them”, said Ms Niele. “Here, we have the captain’s rules.”

Local frictions

About 300 people in Velsen-Noord staged a protest this summer after hearing that local authorities had decided to place 1,000 asylum seekers on a ship in the city. Monique, a receptionist at an orchid nursery, said that she took part because she felt that the decision had been taken without informing the residents.

“I was angry because they told us too late. They already had plans for the boat before we knew [about it],” she said.

In her industrial town known for its steel production, there is only one doctor, one school and one supermarket. Inhabitants of Velsen-Noord have historically felt neglected compared to other cities in the larger district of Velsen, which houses 70,000, said Velsen's mayor Frank Dales.

“And so they say: 'now he’s going to dump 1,000 refugees [on us] when we are only 5,500 inhabitants. How are we going to manage this?'” said Mr Dales.

“I can accept those feelings very well,” he added.

In the Netherlands, a mayor is not elected but appointed for six years by royal decree after consultations between the city council and the Interior Ministry.

Mr Dales felt compelled to help the government when it asked him last May to find space in Velsen-Noord's harbour for a ship following reports about the difficult living conditions of asylum seekers in Ter Apel. “We were making a disgrace of ourselves,” he said.

But for asylum seekers who have fled a life of hardship, the nuances of local politics are sometimes hard to grasp.

Mazen said that he had sold land to pay a smuggler $15,000 to leave his home town near the city of Hama and take the dangerous sea route to Europe earlier this year.

“Why are they keeping us in the Netherlands if there are no houses for us?” he asked. “We thought Holland would have more humane values.”

Some in Velsen-Noord have embraced the ship's arrival and plan to volunteer to teach Dutch or organise creative activities in the coming weeks. Leslie, an artist and gardener who wants to help, said she was “really proud” of her city.

COA is waiting for permission from local authorities to organise sports activities in a hall near the Silja Europa.

Asylum seekers without a residence can do paid work for up to 24 weeks a year but only if the employer has a special permit and if the asylum application process has lasted at least six months.

So far, the mayor has managed to appease concerns among locals by arranging for extra security around the ship, for asylum seekers' children to go to school in another town and for all medical care to be provided on board.

This has not stopped small incidents from occurring, including accusations against migrants on Facebook when a local girl disappeared recently.

“Half an hour later, she popped up and there was nothing wrong at all,” said Mr Dales, who said he is working hard to contain such incidents.

COA and the city have the ability to cancel the contract with one month’s notice.

Monique, the receptionist, says she wants to “wait and see”.

She worries about asylum seekers damaging the city’s communal orchards, which are near the Silja Europa.

“There’s a little cabin with plants and fruits. I hope they won’t touch it,” she said.

She says she recently wanted to help a young girl in the street that she mistook for an asylum seeker.

She laughed as she recalled the incident. “I don’t hate them,” she said.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 1:25 PM