A thousand-five-hundred asylum seekers live at the Budel-Cranendonck Asylum Processing Center in North Brabant, the Netherlands, waiting to be sent elsewhere. Most stay at Budel for weeks or months. I was there for seven days. On the eighth day a counselor from the COA, the group that manages the daily lives of asylum seekers in the Dutch system, came to my room and told me to go home to Rotterdam and see my doctor, “before you get any sicker.” It wasn’t covid, although covid was common at Budel, but a mental breakdown that’s unlike anything I can recall ever happening to me.
I’m an American who’s lived in Rotterdam for seven years, working as a writer. The Dutch-American Friendship Treaty granted me that right because I can support myself and maintain a certain bank balance in a Dutch account. I pay taxes, vote in the water council elections, and have learned Dutch up to the level two (out of five needed for citizenship). However, I’m unwelcome in the U.S. In 2013 the Americans sent the Dutch a “secret indictment” requesting my extradition. The process and punishments violated my human rights. I fought the extradition in court and won the case. In 2018 the Dutch prosecutor told the court his office would stop pursuing my extradition, and I resumed my regular life as a writer. This March my work permit expired, and in June the Dutch immigration authority (IND) refused my request for a renewal; their letter said that I would have to leave the EU within four weeks. But, I have no passport, no valid ID, and the U.S., which chose to ignore the Dutch court’s findings, has maintained orders for my arrest and extradition in every other country that would listen. Now I needed asylum. To apply in the Netherlands you first must go to Ter Apel, the IND’s largest processing center, three hours from Rotterdam, near the German border.
Like most of the bigger Dutch facilities for refugees, Ter Apel and Budel are in remote places, as far from towns and services as possible, an interesting puzzle to solve in one of the most densely populated nations in the world. The IND does it by using abandoned facilities whose past function also required some distance from settlement, former prisons or ex-military bases. Ter Apel was a military base until 1994. Now it houses up to 2,000 asylum seekers “temporarily.” While a handful remain at Ter Apel for more than a year, most asylum seekers wait weeks or months for transfer into longer-term housing in one of scores of smaller facilities in Dutch towns and cities around the country. 20% of the hundreds who come to Ter Apel each week are sent back to the country they’re fleeing, or to another European country they passed through before reaching the Netherlands. But the rest remain and must be processed.
Ter Apel and Budel aren’t prisons, as the “aliens police” frequently reminded me, but they are fenced, gated, and guarded. Asylum seekers who’ve received the green sheet of paper that functions as ID there, can come and go by showing the paper to guards. Without it, the camps are closed. Visitors must register in advance and carry proof of their permission with them. Photos aren’t allowed. The aliens police can search and review whatever visitors or asylum seekers bring with them to the centers, including papers and electronic devices.
A friend dropped me off at the gate to Ter Apel at 9:30 on a Monday morning. He drove back to Rotterdam, where we both live, and I got in line with twenty or thirty others, waiting to be allowed inside. My friend, Niels, worked for the COA in 2014, and he was surprised to see such a small crowd. “The first few years they’d be organized in lines along the highway. And inside they were sleeping on the floors, at least until 2017, when the IND re-opened Budel and some other bigger facilities.” It was a warm-enough day, the 22nd of June, and dry; the people outside of Ter Apel’s gates waited patiently. It took me an hour to reach the front of the line, where a doctor took my temperature and let me pass into the vestibule. I never saw the doctor turn anyone away.
My case was unusual and unusually simple. I’d already gone through four years of Dutch judicial procedures and arrived at Ter Apel carrying two court rulings that said, specifically, this man cannot be sent to the U.S. because he’s threatened with a human rights violation. I’m a walking example of asylum law—a foreigner prevented from his desired return-trip by a human rights abuse back home. But asylum procedures are not flexible, at least not in the Netherlands. Only money, or the intervention of a political leader or a high-level bureaucrat, can put you at the front of the line. I had none of those, so I waited with everyone else. Usually the process begins with three days or so, at Ter Apel, for medical check-ups, legal advice, and the “first interview.” After that, I’d return to my work in Rotterdam.
The Dutch asylum process is run by several groups. At the core are two that wield state power over every asylum seeker—the aliens police and the IND. They alone can grant or interfere with the asylum seeker’s rights and liberty. This leaves all the other good people—the GZA medical staff, the COA (including trained social workers, untrained volunteers, food and shelter providers, and others), VWN (the refugee aid group), and the unarmed security assistants of Trigion (who normally work as airport security)—in a position to support the asylum seeker’s well-being, while having no power to grant them what they evidently need most: political asylum and the safety that goes with it. This division of labor reminded me of elementary school, where, for all that my beloved nurses, cafeteria workers, janitors, and librarians could do to boost my sagging spirits, only the teachers could raise my grades. At Ter Apel and Budel, asylum seekers faced a similar division, but the stakes were much higher.
In the asylum process the state positions the applicant as legally equivalent to a child: needs are acknowledged but no rights are granted. After the doctor sent me through to the front desk, I was asked to give up all of my IDs and travel documents, which the IND would keep and inspect. Step one: I no longer had papers of any kind; no asylum seeker does. Step two: I was made to give up all the papers and electronic devices I carried and sign away my right to privacy. The aliens police would copy all of the data and make it available to all European law enforcement for a period of five years. I could refuse, but that would mean turning around and exiting both the asylum process and the Ter Apel processing center with no valid ID of any kind. To call this a “voluntary choice” is pure make-believe. If hardship and fate haven’t already reduced the asylum seeker to a state of helpless dependency, the first step in the Dutch process will insure that it becomes the case. We arrive stripped bare.
Sometimes (increasingly, I’m told) bureaucrats will elevate the stateless from the status of children to that of “clients.” The business-management experts tasked with streamlining government (by adopting for-profit models of customer service) speak of “client needs” and “cost-benefit comparisons.” This puts the stateless on the same footing as most citizens by casting the government as a well-to-do provider of things the client desires and will apply for (citizenship, for instance, in the case of asylum seekers). This model turns the relationship of people and governments upside-down. People possess rights: governments respect them, or not. Faced with the violence of competing nation-states, people need the protection promised by citizenship in one or another country. The bureaucrat who believes that he’s in charge of supplying rights or citizenship, that can be doled out to the deserving and withheld from the rest, has wrongly assumed that the human beings he serves have no rights, and must petition for them, like asking the McDonalds drive-up clown for a Big Mac and fries. Sitting in the waiting room at Ter Apel, I’d clearly entered the queue for something like that, a formula of EU Happy Meals that might or might not answer to my needs, but was all the government was offering. I wasn’t hungry. I believed that the rights I required had actually arrived with me—my human rights. I’d carried them all of my life, and I’d come to Ter Apel simply to be reassured that the Dutch state would respect them.
The waiting room was pleasant enough. One guard equipped himself with several cigarette lighters, because all of us in the process had already relinquished “unsafe” items like lighters and penknives. He stood near a doorway that opened onto a small, fenced smoking area, and lit people’s cigarettes. Two large flatscreen TVs broadcast “The Lion King” in Dutch. A machine dispensed coffee, tea, water, or hot chocolate for free. Two hours or so after I’d sat down a woman came through giving each of us two white rolls with cheese and a juice-box. My name was called soon after that, and a guard took me to a hallway where an IND worker asked if I knew that I was in an asylum center. Was I sure I needed to apply for asylum? I confirmed it, and returned to the waiting room. An hour later the aliens police called my name and escorted me to another wing of the building.
In a note I wrote to my family a few days later, when I was at Budel and unable to think or act, I described Ter Apel as similar to the many “free clinics” that I’d relied on for health care back in the U.S.—“A series of sterile, modestly furnished waiting rooms, bracketed by expensive, high-end security check-points, hosted our journey through a team of overworked, well-meaning professionals who did what they could to move us through the process as quickly as possible. A crowd was always waiting. Inevitably a score or more of the day’s applicants were left outside at day’s end, first in line for the next morning. There was no down time. If the doors were open, there was a line to get through them.” The waiting crowd was uniformly content, relieved to be here, and grateful for every small favor. Of course I knew why, and a part of me felt the same, as I’d always felt at the free clinics. But another part of me was slowly, deliberately being killed.
The aliens police left me in a room with three or four other asylum seekers, faces I would recognize again and again in the week ahead, but whose names I never knew. We waited a long time, maybe another hour, and I grew bored. I stood by the wall of windows watching crows in an interior courtyard. A policeman told me to stay away from the window and sit in a chair.
He returned with two other policemen. “Come with us.” They moved swiftly down another hallway, encircling me like shepherd dogs, hurried me into a room, and told me that I was under arrest and would be sent to jail awaiting extradition to the United States. “Shock” is too mild and specific a word for the darkening void that opened up inside me, a dread made equally of terror, incredulity, and confusion. “I’m confused,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“We’re arresting you,” the shorter policeman, the one who was grinning, said. “We caught you.” He relieved me of everything I had in my pockets, including my reading glasses. “But they’re my glasses,” I said, “I need them to read.” “They’re dangerous,” he answered, “they’re made of glass.” “They’re made of plastic, even the lenses,” I said. “They’re dangerous,” he repeated, “they’re made of plastic.” “Let me call my lawyer,” I said, “if he explains this I can cooperate with you.” “No,” he said. I had no right to call a lawyer before arriving at the jail, an hour away.
“I’m very confused,” I said again. The short one answered, “We found the arrest warrant. It’s not so easy to fool us.” Although they refused to say so, it seemed clear that they were looking at the same arrest warrant the Dutch court struck down in 2017. I told them so and gave them a transcript of the court ruling, which I’d brought with me to prove my need for asylum. They weren’t interested.
I’ve been arrested four times in my life, so far. Arrest is a very specific legal exchange, and the arresting officer must say “I’m arresting you” and explain why (at least that’s the law in both the United States and the Netherlands where it’s happened to me). If they don’t, you have not been arrested. Most arrests are carried out calmly inside a state facility, or maybe a police car, but many happen in the chaos of pursuit and apprehension. I was twice pursued and twice arrested in an office. Every instance was dreadful. Every policeman has a first duty, a precondition for the arrest, which is to erase your humanity.
The shorter one handling me at Ter Apel was appalled to hear me speak: first he was shocked, as if a dog had spoken words to him; then angry, because the words actually said something; and then contemptuous, because I had no right to speak, or act as his equal in any way. He wasn’t a malicious man, that I knew of, just well trained. Every glimmer of human feeling I expressed was met by this swift sequence, so seamless it had the studied quality of a martial art—shock/anger/contempt/action—deployed with precision and efficiency until I was mute again, moot. That’s the policeman’s job, his function. It’s not easy. Who among us is capable of physically detaining other people against their will, quieting them, and, if they’re unquiet, threatening violence, choking or shooting them? Look at the stranger nearest to you now. Imagine doing all of this to them. The police must be ready to do so always; and to be ready they must turn strangers into “suspects.”
State arrest is never a human exchange. The police must transform the human being they encounter into something else: a captive (that is, property); a criminal (that is, an identity warranting arrest); less-than-human (that is, as a material to be managed unilaterally). Police training directs a mix of intimidation, indifference, contempt, and violence to accomplish this goal swiftly. The policeman who’s doing his job correctly will dehumanize you within seconds. All of the policemen who arrested me were well trained.
Another officer, their superior, arrived and took the court papers from me, along with a letter from my lawyer explaining my case. While his juniors readied me for the trip to jail he scanned the pages, looking glum and annoyed. He called the number on the lawyer’s letterhead and asked to speak with him. I felt a wave of relief as I heard the call go through. The superior officer seemed to like my lawyer well enough. He brightened up and even laughed a few times, chatting indecipherably, and then he slid the phone near to me on the desk. “Don’t touch it,” he said. “You can talk to your lawyer. We’ll wait outside.” Then the police left the room.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re arresting you. It’s bizarre. No one ever took you off the Interpol list.”
“It’s the old warrant, the one the court blocked?”
“Yes. If there was a new warrant the prosecutor would have told us. Obviously they screwed up. They never had you cleared from the record.”
“So, I’m okay then, right? I showed them the court ruling. They’ll just not arrest me now, and I can finish the asylum application.”
“No, they’re arresting you. They have a warrant. They’ll keep you in jail overnight, and transfer you to Amsterdam tomorrow. A judge will hear your explanation and free you tomorrow, or the next day, at the latest.”
That thought was unbearable. I already knew the conditions of arrest and Dutch jails and prisons. If I went through this again I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my house to return to Ter Apel and start all over again. “They can’t arrest me. I showed them the court documents.” My lawyer was silent. “If the prosecutor screwed up he should call them and say so. They’re acting in his name right? If he told them to stop they’d have to stop.”
“Maybe,” my lawyer said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The worst part of my false arrest was the necessity of carrying through with it even though everyone knew it was false. The short policeman didn’t want to abandon the exciting drama he’d found himself in, catching an Interpol criminal, arresting him to cleanse the asylum system of foul cheaters. Giving up on that would recast him as a fool—and rob the police of their pleasure in the domestic drama of jailing me. For the next half-hour he kept me to himself, taking fingerprints, moving me between offices, showing me off to his colleagues and other asylum seekers. He had his hands on me all the time, and it felt weirdly affectionate. I’m gay, and I could easily summon real erotic desire for this man; but I only smiled, feeling certain that any further indication would both stimulate and horrify him. He had a lot he wanted to tell me. “I’ve read your file,” he said, when we were alone in the fingerprint machine. “I know what you did.” He wasn’t asking for a reply. “I know that you violated your bond. Your lawyer sent you to Ter Apel because he thinks we’re stupid and we won’t find the warrant. But we found it, we caught you.”
Two policewomen pulled up in a van and the short policeman handed me over to them, calling me “onze klein cadeutje,” our little gift. They drove me to Hooghoudt, an hour away. I was completely emptied of feeling or reason. The horizon of my life had suddenly collapsed down into the next second, the next minute, the next hour. All my choices were immediate and specific: sit here or there; speak or be silent, look in the driver’s mirror or out the window; get through this minute and into the next. This was a kind of crash/reboot that had been wired into my brain by two-and-a-half years (2015-2018) that I was forced to spend in hiding, while the Dutch court considered and ruled on the illegality of extradition. Now, again, anything beyond my radically truncated horizon was too unreal, too vague and frightening, to even formulate as a thought.
To the policewomen I was merely “quiet.” At Hooghoudt they took me from the van and were opening the cell door when one of their smartphones rang: it was the public prosecutor calling to tell them to stop, that what they were doing was illegal. I broke down and wept. The police were aggravated. They gave me water and drove me back to Ter Apel.
It’s clear now that the shock of the false arrest, and the way it rebooted my brain, made me vulnerable to what happened later at Budel. But I don’t think that it was the cause, nor an unusual precondition. Everyone else arriving at Budel had been through far worse. I’d been through worse. The false arrest simply reminded me, returning the body I live in to its earlier condition. We carry these things with us, even if they seem minor or inconsequential. Every small injury remains, each inch we give to whoever needs to dehumanize us, however briefly, remains as ceded territory, a flood plain that‘s prepared for the return of heavy rains. Only an idiot could arrive at Budel and not see what I saw.
I found my voice in the ride from jail back to Ter Apel and asked the driver to return me to where they’d picked me up—inside the facility, part way through the asylum process, so that I could continue. She agreed. But she wasn’t happy, and neither was her partner. I could hear it in the tone of their squabbling. Their Dutch was easy for me to understand because they were Groningers, brought up in the same Northern province where I’d first lived and learned Dutch, in the 1980s and ‘90s. I didn’t like the sound of their exchange, and as we got near the gate at Ter Apel they pulled up in front of a crowd of asylum seekers and told me to get out, pushing my bags with me. It was almost five o’clock. Fifty or more men and women, who’d come to Ter Apel but not yet made it inside, watched my inglorious arrival. I slunk to the front of the line and showed the guard my processing papers from earlier in the day. He looked at them and said it was too late, I couldn’t go in. “You can wait out here with everyone else,” he said. “Start over again, tomorrow at nine.”
Ter Apel is difficult to reach, yet hundreds manage every week, most of them at the ends of long, harrowing journeys. In 2014 and 2015, Niels told me, the ones arriving at night often numbered above a hundred by the time the gates would reopen in the morning. They slept in the grass or in empty “portable rooms” placed just outside the gate by the IND. Of the fifty or so there this night, about half (all the women and the families) were given a waiting room inside, to sleep in. The rest, all the single men, stayed outside the entry and chose between the grass along the highway or a portable room with nothing but chairs and tables. I had house keys in my pocket, a bed and a life in Rotterdam. I had a bank card and a cell phone. I could easily call a cab, and go anywhere. A guard described lodgings in the nearest town, but I couldn’t act. Twenty or so men had gathered by the portable, standing in the doorway or sitting in its open windows, staring at me in silence, or speaking in languages that I didn’t understand. They were all young. At 61-years old, I could’ve been a father to any of them, and a grandfather to some. I watched the policewomen climb back into their van and drive away, heading home to their families. It was becoming obvious how I would spend the night. As Ahmet Altan wrote, when he was briefly released from a Turkish prison (where he is again serving a life sentence) “when you’re imprisoned you’re the victim of injustice. When they release you, you become an accomplice.”
The first to speak English to me was a Yemeni student, a teenager. He translated a question from his Syrian friend, “are you sure you’re in the right place?” I showed them the processing papers I’d been issued that morning, which they inspected with great interest and admiration. To his next question I answered, “America.” “Cuba?” he asked. “No, United States.” Into a puzzled silence I just shook my head, indicating all of the things that I could not say. The unheated room had rows of plastic chairs fixed to each other with braces, and three tables. Guards left us a thermos of tea and a bag of white rolls with cheese, the same as at lunch, to which the men added some bags of potato chips. I was hungry, but I had no appetite for the rolls or chips. On the way in I recalled seeing a farm stand within a few hundred meters of the entrance. I walked to it and found them just closing, but they sold me carrots, oranges, apricots, olives, and some flat bread, which I brought back to the portable to add to our table.
I exchanged fewer than a hundred words that night with a half-dozen men, at most, but I’ll remember every minute of it and every face in that room. The gaunt, silent Eritrean men in the corner by the door; the Iraqi who kept saying, “America, us great friends!”; the silent Chinese guy who pecked at his smartphone all night; the Afghan who organized the food and put shares of fruit or chips or rolls on separate napkins; the affable Syrian teens who might have been in a feel-good Hollywood movie, or the nightmarish destruction of the lives they’d been living; they laughed and joked about everything; the shy Yemeni who spoke to me, who I knew as “Yemini” because that’s the name the Syrian boys gave him; the Palestinian, twenty years my junior, who was white-haired and very tired. I have no idea what any of them had gone through to get to this room, nor what their chances of asylum really were. They were careful to give each other, and me, the human respect we all needed, and for which we’d come to Ter Apel. I would see a dozen of them at various moments over the next eight days, and it was always with grins of recognition and warm greetings. It was a memorable night. I smile whenever I think of those men.
Because of my papers, I was brought to the front of the line when they opened the next morning. The IND bureaucrat looked me over, consulted her computer, and told the guards to take me to Budel. I’d never heard of it. They put me in a van with an Arabic family and drove us two-and-a-half hours south to a scrubby woodlands in the province of North Brabant, the first covid epicenter in the Netherlands. Like Ter Apel, Budel is a former military base, but in worse repair and housing fewer refugees; 1,700 is its capacity. The sandy pine woods and the scattered post-War low-rise dormitories, with their small fields and playgrounds, give it the feel of a down-at-the-heels summer camp, or a rehab program for juvenile delinquents. Residents, as the asylum seekers are called, wander in small groups or sit outside chatting, waiting for the few events that mark their days—COA’s 2:30–4 PM advice center; the 4:30–6:30 PM distribution of bags of food; and the 9 PM posting of times and numbers for the next day’s IND interviews. More than 1,000 residents are waiting for interviews, the first step in the asylum process, and each night COA posts the thirty or so that the IND can schedule for the next day.
The ride to Budel was a respite. The week was getting hotter, but for two-and-a-half hours we had cool breezes through the van’s open windows and rest stops where we could buy food and water. The Arabic mom was tough, and she demanded the stops for her kids, a boy, seven or so, and two girls, five and one. At Budel the aliens police met us at their headquarters—a half-dozen armed officers, plus as many plainclothes helpers, stood in a cordon facing the entryway. One spoke loudly, ordering the five of us to wash our hands with an alcohol disinfectant and put on face masks. None of the police wore face masks, but the one instructing us caught my eye just as this thought occurred to me and she barked, “I don’t ever want to see you without one.” The scene strangely resembled television—the blocking, the sight lines, the casting (I later saw a look-alike of the cop who spoke featured in the Netflix series “Stateless”), a kind of planned staging of this key relationship—the state’s integrity, their matchless power, over our clueless submission.
This was just the first indication that the spread of covid at Budel was a subject of genuine, unresolved concern among those who work there. The anger and fear on the face of the policewoman scolding us was completely real. And their example sent the worst possible message to every new arrival—at Budel, those with power would not wear masks. During the next week I never saw any resident wear a mask, unless the unmasked aliens police was there demanding it. I was surprised to find, among those lined up in the lobby, two of the officers who’d arrested me at Ter Apel. Not the short one, but a tall, quiet Dutchman, and the superior officer who’d been so amused by my lawyer. I had wondered when and how they would apologize to me, but when I made eye contact with the superior officer he just turned and walked away. I had the strong impression that the aliens police and the IND had all gathered this way specifically to witness my arrival. I suppose that every asylum seeker feels that way. I was taken down a hallway to a small room and told to hand over all of my luggage and papers.
As it turned out, regular asylum processing closely resembled my earlier arrest; the only difference being my voluntary involvement in the former, which gave this day a somewhat friendlier cast. I thought they must all know that I’d been exonerated, that I wasn’t a criminal but a victim, yet nobody mentioned it. They searched my bags, took my wallet and keys, and took my laptop and phone. They had me sign forms giving my consent to their copying all of the contents and making the data available to the EU police forces. They took my fingerprints and “booked” me into their system. An officer interviewed me and asked for all the social media accounts that I use. I signed some more forms, giving up more of my rights. When he was done, I told him that I’d been falsely arrested by his colleagues and I felt that they’d treated me poorly. “When will they apologize for what they did?” I asked. He became deeply uncomfortable, and in his fine English he said, “No one is going to say anything to you about that. If it bothers you, you’ll need to speak to a lawyer, that’s all.”
It was almost four PM. I was very tired, having not slept in two days, and hungry, having had only a sandwich (and the day before only oranges and olives). More vans arrived from Ter Apel and I saw two or three of my friends from the “portable room,” while the Arabic family and I sat waiting in the lobby, finished with the aliens police, ready to find our rooms and, soon I thought, dinner. The whole rigamarole of state ID that I had hauled around with me for most of my adult life—the passports, residence permits, state driver’s license, visas…all the paper and biometrics that the state asked me to carry, so that they could recognize me—was gone now, replaced by a sheet of green A4 paper printed with a small picture of my face and the numbers 2********** (my asylum case number) and 1**** (my building and room number at Budel) above a grid of boxes to be checked off, for the bags of food that I’d pick up each day for as long as I needed to be fed.
Three smiling young Dutchies with walkie-talkies entered the lobby, clearly different from either the severe aliens police or the tired, aggravated IND workers, but familiar to them. One cop called the shortest and oldest of the group (a Hispanic-looking man named Jeff), “the boss of the playground.” These were the COA workers who’d be in charge of our housing, food, and well-being for as long as we stayed at Budel. To say I was happy to see them is an understatement. As in school, when the final bell let me out of class and into the library, where I could hide in a world of books, ruled over by the beneficent librarian, COA’s arrival felt like our reward for surviving the program of the aliens police. See ya later! I thought, desperate to talk to anyone who could tell me what was happening to us at Budel.
Jeff, Ruhit, and Ashleigh put me at ease. If a lifetime of school, and all my previous arrests, had already prepared me for the dehumanization that I endured with the aliens police, they’d also prepared me for the relief and confederacy I immediately felt with these good people—whose principal qualification was that they were not the police or the IND. They walked our group of six (one of the Syrian boys had joined us, coming out of the police HQ) to a reception center, to watch a video and pick up our garbage bags of linens, bedding, and cleaning supplies. The mother and kids might have been Syrian, too; they chatted amiably with the one I knew from Ter Apel. I told Jeff what had happened to me, the false arrest and the failure of anyone to apologize, within the first five minutes of meeting him. He was a good listener. Because it was almost time for food distribution, Ruhit and Ashleigh also fetched the daily bags of food that we would otherwise have stood in line for. Then they escorted us to the buildings where we’d live.
Budel accommodates its 1,500 asylum seekers in a mix of one- and two-story dormitories that previously housed soldiers. The private rooms hold two to eight people, but families with small kids will often squeeze in several more. Toilets and showers are centralized (a dozen or so, of each, shared by two- or three-hundred people). About a tenth of the rooms include a sink with running water. Residents do all of the cleaning. I was assigned to the same building as the family, #16, a one-story H-shaped dormitory near to the IND building. Jeff opened the door onto a tiny room with a bunk-bed, a mini-fridge, a desk, and two lockers, and said, “good, there’s no one else in this one. You can rest and have some peace and quiet.” He gave me the key and left.
It was Tuesday evening, not yet six PM. The building was noisy with small kids and the excitement of dinner time. Groups of residents wandered back from the central food depot with the frozen dinners alloted to them, and queues were forming for the half-dozen working microwave ovens. I looked in my food bag and found my frozen meal, a vegetarian falafal with rice pilaf and peas. The bag also held a half-loaf of white bread, two slices of American cheese, a small yogurt drink, apple juice, milk, an apple, and individual serving packets of honey, jam, margarine, liver paste, instant coffee, sugar, and three tea bags. I drank the yogurt, a Turkish beverage called ayran, and tried to open the window, but it was secured. Only a wedge at the top, 15 cm or so, opened, and I put my face as near to it as I could. The west-facing room was warm, the day having reached the upper 20s.
I had my phone. I had my iPad with Skype and email—a hundred meters away, the IND’s wifi could be engaged by sitting in the dirt next to their building. But I sat by the window in my room and watched the sun move lower in the sky. I sat quietly and listened, unable to imagine what kinds of conversations I would have, what message I could send to my family, my friends, anyone. My situation had become astonishingly simple—I was stateless and I needed to wait for my interview. I had no other identity. 2********* was sitting in room 1**** at Budel, and when the state found time for an interview, it would be announced by COA on a bulletin board the night before. Until then, a bag of food each day, and new cleaning supplies once-a-week, would keep me from dying.
I’ll tell you my first full day and you can multiply it by seven. I slept poorly because of the heat. I woke at dawn and walked to the COA building to see if my number had been posted. Budel was beautiful at dawn, the air cool and the clouds fringed pink with sunrise from the East. I knew that the sun rising on me was, at the same time, setting on my child, on the West Coast of America, my kid who I’d not seen in seven years, to whom, in fighting all of these legal attacks, I had been trying to return. The human rights violation by the American prosecutor had been initiated by a call from the mother of my child, during a family crisis when she wanted to make a new family without me. My number’s not on the board. It’ll be 24-hours before I need to look for it again.
I like walking in the cool morning air, so I walk around Budel. Not many are awake then, three or four I cross paths with in an hour of walking. In the two-story dorms, sited among trees along two main roads, most of the windows have been jimmied so they’ll open wide. Beds are pushed close to the windows, for more air I assume, and they’re crowded with sleepers, mostly children. Bird song is sometimes interrupted by the rumble of an intercity train running a half-kilometer away, from Maastricht to Eindhoven. Bikes in poor repair are scattered along the road or left in bushes. Several hundred are in working order, owned by the residents who bought them or paid the camp’s bike repair shop to fix the broken ones. With bikes, residents can easily reach two nearby towns to shop or simply see a different setting. Others rely on the public bus that stops along the highway every half-hour, and costs a few euros. That first morning I thought, I’ll get a bike, but then, the next day, something happened and I didn’t pursue it.
Aside from the dozen or so occupied buildings at Budel there are twice as many that are abandoned, and some in ruins. A library, classrooms, and a big gymnasium all sit empty, closed by the covid scare. These amenities are still listed in the handout every asylum seeker is given on arrival; but, even while similar facilities have reopened across the Netherlands, the ones at Budel stay closed. The buildings are a squatter’s dream, I think, peering in the windows of the gym, great meeting halls, restaurant and bar facilities, and even an old swimming pool. But the residents are restricted to those few “safe” buildings that include the dormitories, the offices of COA, IND, the aliens police, and the GZA medical center. A computer room has recently reopened, and for four hours each day residents can use the Internet there. COA says there’s wifi in all the occupied buildings, and that’s mostly true. Just not in mine, where we have to cross the road and sit outside the IND office to use their wifi.
The other common destination is the large food depot and clothing bank where all of the residents line up in the early evening to collect their daily bag of food. The whole is surrounded by chain-link fence and borders a still-active artillery range, where the Dutch armed forces do their daily exercises. It’s a strange background soundtrack to an otherwise serene and bucolic setting—the regular reports of heavy artillery and rifle fire that begin around nine AM. I can’t help but wonder what the other residents, for example the children who’ve escaped from Syria, make of this background noise? Each day I end my walk by visiting the chickens kept in coops next to the garden. Residents dug and tend the garden, and they bought chickens from a nearby farmer. COA manages the work schedule, and I’m told that the waiting list is long. However, a resident who’s in the garden every day tells me that I can come by and help him anytime I like. There’s always work to do.
Most of the families are awake by the time I get back to #16. Little kids swing on bars and climb the mini-playground out front. A few men, Syrians, sit on chairs on the porch entry and watch the kids. One of them looks uncannily like my American friend, John; the same weary smile, the same hand-rolled cigarette, the same sparkle in his grey eyes. But he has no English, and I no Arabic, and it takes him a few days to get used to my warm, uninvited smiles and teary glances. I still wonder what sense he ever made of me. The rooms of single men in #16’s back two wings stay quiet and curtained until almost noon. I sit by the IND building for awhile, gathering papers off the Internet, things I’ll need for my work, and sending whatever emails I can manage to write. Normally, back home, I write all day, which is my job. No one I work with knows I’m at Budel; and, based on my daily belief, that on this night I will see my number listed and the next day be interviewed and go home, I never tell them. When I’m done, or it gets too hot to stay out there, I go back to my room and work with the curtains closed and a damp washcloth I keep in the fridge wrapped around my neck like an icy cravat. It’s peaceful enough, the sound of kids playing a balm rather than a distraction. Only the periodic explosions of nearby artillery keep me from getting lost in my work for most of the day.
At 3:00 PM I visit building #8 where COA is open for two hours. I ask about the bikes, and Jeff finds a broken one and signs a letter granting it to me. In exchange I promise to pay for the repair and return it when I’m done. It’s a good solution, and I walk home with Jeff’s letter, planning to fetch the bike the next day. At 4:15, I line-up outside the food depot. There are ten or twenty of us who come early, and I smile and nod at each soon-familiar face. By 5:00 I’ve got my bag of food back in my room and I’ll need to decide how and when to take my turn at the microwave. Tonight’s dinner is frozen chicken shoarma with rice and broccoli.
The food and its dispensation became the sharp focus of my days at Budel, a strange echo of the short time I’d spent in Dutch prison during my fight against extradition. I was in a medium-security prison, locked alone in a cell for twenty-hours every day, sleeping for about ten of them. As at Budel, prisoners each got a bag of food and one hot meal a day; though, at Zwaag Prison, near Hoorn in North Holland, the hot meal was delivered to your cell each evening already cooked. I also recall that in prison we were given the choice of potatoes or rice. Not each evening, but as a categorical thing at the outset of our incarceration—every prisoner was asked during intake, “potatoes or rice?” and it struck me that this was a very neat sorting instrument for a nation that is preoccupied with the difference between Europe and its recent Muslim immigrants.
At Budel, there was only rice. The black-plastic trays held a frozen slab of something resembling the foods many of Budel’s Arabic residents would have cooked and eaten at home. Shoarma, couscous, kofta, falafel, pilaf, and moussaka are among the meals I recall. And our bags of cold food didn’t include the Dutch treats I’d enjoyed at Zwaag (Dutch cheeses, vla, brown bread rolls, Dutch butter), but NGO disaster-relief surplus (as described above). The packaging for these limitless individual-servings of non-perishable foodstuff was ten or more times the amount of garbage I generated as a prisoner at Zwaag.
It’s difficult to describe the psychological injury of Budel’s daily provision of nutrients—which was the only metric to which their plans answered. No one thought of the asylum seekers as a social group that would gather for food each day; we were numbered bodies requiring specific amounts of nutrients to survive the next 24 hours. Budel gave us precisely that—in a bag every day. Imagine the Arabic parents whose prior lives must have included their gardening, or their savvy in the market, and the skills each one brought to making a real kofta or shoarma, a fresh fattush or kibbeh, heating these cynical frozen replicas in the microwave ovens each night to feed their own children? Imagine then swallowing it, washing it down with the 250 ml of ayran they received every third night? Imagine knowing that—if trusted with some bowls, pans, knives, and a kitchen, or even just a fire—you could easily make a proper meal from much less than the camp spent on the disposable nutrients and packaged junk they gave you to feed to your family? To withhold real food and its preparation from a group that is desperately trying to retain its hope and dignity—and then substitute degraded, wasteful foodstuffs that this population must swallow and digest, just to go on living—is a very refined tool of dehumanization.
Every day it baffled me why the Dutch didn’t ask more of the refugees. This was an incredibly skilled, resourceful, willing group of people who knew how to survive, and even thrive, in far worse circumstances than Budel. Why were there no kitchens? Why was the skill of opening a locked window, so that it could function as it was designed to, rewarded with fines and punishments? Why did the Dutchman, who opened his bike repair shop for only three-hours a day on two days of the week, have a monopoly on repair tools? Why were the vast available facilities mostly locked up and dirty? All of the decisions at Budel seemed to go back to that instructive first moment on arriving, when the aliens police and IND lined up to show each and every newcomer exactly what would happen at Budel—the state would have power, and the residents would have none.
The worst policies of the asylum process all stem from the same root—the state’s fear of humanity; and, it must be said, their racist fear of dark people. The state asks the police to exercise power over people because it has no faith in the effective rule of law. They see all refugee as lawless aliens, as threats. But the refugees at Budel, the ones lining up at Ter Apel, are the ones who fled from war and lawlessness, looking for a society of law. Instead, the Dutch gave us the aliens police.
Each day is more still and hotter, mid-thirties by week’s end. The food line snakes from tree shade to tree shade. I only walk at dawn. They say thunderstorms and rain will break the heat. On the second day, before I can fetch the bike from COA and take it to the bike shop for repairs, I witnessed something that left me silent and hopeless.
At the southern gate, next to building #16, each day the aliens police assembled groups of residents for transfer. Some were taken to Ter Apel or other large facilities, some to the smaller residential centers where they’d live next to new Dutch neighbors awaiting the IND’s decision. Others were bussed to airports, and flown back to the places from which they’d fled. It was fairly easy to tell who was going where. The families sent to resettle in Dutch cities grinned and laughed, only shedding tears over the abrupt end to new friendships at Budel; the ones going to Ter Apel were quiet and bored; while the ones being sent home were distraught and emotional. Some waited with families who would not be going with them.
I liked standing near the gate to watch the new arrivals from Ter Apel get off of the bus that would soon make its return trip with the day’s transfers. That morning I saw the Afghan man and two younger Syrians, from the first night in the “portable,” and they gave me big smiles as the aliens police led them all in a column toward police HQ. Behind that group, a family was gathered in a tight circle: four adults, two generations of them, and as many kids. The younger man was their focus, and he stood very still, blank faced. By now I’d overheard enough Arabic to know that’s what they were speaking, even through the tears and crying of the women and the low, melodic rumbling of the older man. It was clear that the younger man was being sent somewhere he didn’t want to go. The older three kids (maybe seven to ten years old) were as still and quiet as their father. They stood, touching him, staring off in different directions, while their younger brother, about four, screamed and wailed, dragging at his father’s pants leg, lost in a maelstrom of grief. The father touched the boy’s head with his hand, but would not look down or move. The boy cried his eyes out and moaned, grabbing all the fabric and leg he could, wrapping his body tightly, trying to climb against the force of his father’s hand, and all the while no one—not his parents, his grandparents, his older siblings, nor the bored aliens police who stood next to them smoking—would look at or listen to him. He was a child.
Because we’re too afraid to confront the terror inside ourselves, we watch the child from a distance, lost in his grief, and we pretend to live in a different world—a world of reasons and plans, a world of proportion, that this child will someday understand. The one person who has the capacity to scream against the terror we’re all drowning in does so, and we shake our heads and pretend that he, alone, is in terror—and then he is in terror, alone. Watching this scene I realized what idiots we are, to refuse to hear what a child knows, what we know, the truth that he’s somehow managed to express—that this is not acceptable. That this is a horror, inhuman, and it has to end. All of us know it, but only the child finds a way to say it. And when he does, we turn away. How can we be so stupid and cruel? No adult felt they could stop, or step back, or slow down, or reverse this calamity. The grown-ups were all resolute and “strong.” They’d simply take the next step forward, and then the next, dragging the hysterical child along with them. He would grow tired. Worse things would happen. Someday he’d forget. But I won’t forget, not a second time. I wrote a note to COA explaining that I couldn’t use the bike. Then I left it with someone at their office and went back to my room.
My room at Budel had an unusual feature that I only discovered by accident. The heat of the day was so oppressive, especially after 2 PM (when the sun bore down directly through my window until it set), that I spent all of the hours after noon with the dark curtains pulled shut. They were heavy curtains, and, while the sun beating on them from the other side generated waves of heat as if from a baker’s oven, the room itself at least was reliably dark. Around 8 PM, when I would lie down after dinner to read, I was often so tired I’d turn off my small flashlight and stare into the room. And there it was. On the wall opposite of me: the western horizon of trees and the clouds that blew above them were projected upside down, and a glowing orb that was the sun moved slowly up the wall, toward its setting. My room at Budel was a camera obscura; that is, when I pulled the curtains shut and left only a small aperture of light breaking through near the top, where the curtains did not meet. How strange that the state would take me to Budel and put me in a camera obscura! It showed me what I could not look at directly—the unbearable day outside; the progress of the sun; the world in which we live. I can’t help but think of it as a gift. Budel showed me what we will all know soon. The stateless are just the low-hanging fruit. In time, we’ll all be alien refugees, less-than-human clients, asking for better service. Every inch you cede now readies the flood-plain for the erasure of your humanity. Heavy rains are on the way.
10 August, 2022