The Ter Apel eviction is part of a larger phenomenon. Great numbers of undocumented refugees are currently living outside of the Dutch system. Approximately 40,000 people are systematically held in administrative detention for up to eighteen months—and this process can be repeated endlessly. In this way, Dutch bureaucracy has created a substantial infringement on migrant human rights and dignity. Affected refugees depend on the charity and good will of private people and struggle for their livelihoods. Tens of thousands of refugees essentially disappear into the fringes of Dutch society. They tend to live their undocumented lives hidden away from the system. But more and more of them refuse to hide. Instead, they fight for life and hope. “We are here,” the evicted refugees in Ter Apel said collectively. And in order to add power to their statement, they built up a tented camp right in front of the centre from which they were sent away. With their slogan, the refugees express that they too are human beings, they have nowhere to go, and they will be around until a solution respectful of their human rights is found.
A meeting place of public manifestation
The initial tented camp outside of the refugee centre in Ter Apel was soon moved to the Amsterdam neighbourhood of Osdorp. Here, a growing number of refugees found shelter, food, safety, and medical care. Soon, the Osdorp camp became a place of public manifestation, a stage for direct and mediated exchange with neighbours and society at large. Around the camp, a network of helpers gathered to provide direct aid, temporary solutions and advice on more structural and political tactics. Quite a few of the active supporters were artists, architects, and designers. They shared their design thinking and crafting skills with the inhabitants of the Osdorp camp, by way of facilitating Design the Future workshops. Additionally, Migrant to Migrant (M2M) Radio hosted a conference that elaborated on the organisational structure of the group of refugees. If they were to inform the public, maintain communication between the different refugee groups, and take care of the overall day-to-day organisation of the camp, some form of representation was required.
Self-organisation: the Parliament of Refugees
This is how the idea of the Parliament of Refugees was born. The parliament is a representative body that articulates the points of view of the various refugee groups, finds the common ground between them, and moulds this into a coherent discourse that can then be used to enter into a dialogue with the authorities and Dutch society. Consequently, the existence of the camp and its inhabitants quickly became known to the Dutch public. Through demonstrations and actions as well as by their presence in the media and in politics, the refugees powerfully joined the public and political debate.
Theatre of Hope: refugees creating their own country
Through the design workshops that were offered by volunteer designers, the concept of the Theatre of Hope was born: the refugees were to create a stage for dialogue with mainstream Dutch society in search of a normal life. The Theatre of Hope project is meant to meet the two most urgent needs of the refugees: it is to offer a safe and warm place to stay as well as a space to develop their movement. An involved migration professor interprets it as the refugees “creating their own country.”
After the camp in Osdorp was evicted, a church was squatted. With the help of architects and other supporters, over one hundred refugees have created another temporary place to live together here. They continue to build a support system around them that is based on public manifestation. The demonstrative “camp” attracts wide media exposure and negotiations with counsellors, mayors, ministers, members of parliament, and diplomats are ongoing. General meetings bring all campers together and a public General Assembly ratifies the steps proposed. Public actions at the offices of the Immigration Service and in front of the Parliament are all public performances of presence, passion, and the power to unite. Instead of counting on the support of the relevant authorities, the refugees will continue to depend on the goodwill and support from the public at large. This is ultimately what the Theatre of Hope is all about: it is about engaging the public in such a way that it feels connected to the refugees’ cause. Rather than leaving the branding of the initiative up to the mainstream media, designers have been mobilised to help to create space for imagination, self-representation, and true connection with supporters and the public at large.
The design of the We Are Here initiative is essentially about building relationships between refugees and mainstream Dutch society. The related design question —which might be called sustainist—focuses on how a “commons” can be created where the general public can offer support and engage with the cause of the refugees. Additionally, it functions as a “space” in which the refugees can develop their movement. Their overall aim is to express their message in a powerful way and channel the public debate. It is here, that the refugees find starting points for their renewed livelihoods. The Theatre of Hope represents a public space where supporters and refugees meet and create together. Essentially, it is about embedding the concepts of democracy and solidarity with new meaning. After the refugees leave the church —their eviction from the church is expected in the spring of 2013 —they will essentially take the Theatre of Hope along on their journey. Wherever they may go next.
- The design of the We Are Here initiative is essentially about building relationships between refugees and mainstream Dutch society. The related design question —which might be called sustainist —focuses on how a “commons” can be created where the general public can offer support and engage with the cause of the refugees. Additionally, it functions as a “space” in which the refugees can develop their movement. Their overall aim is to express their message in a powerful way and channel the public debate.
- The Theatre of Hope results from a collaborative design process in which the refugees took the lead as much as possible. It shows that building relationships and mutual trust takes time, but is key to effective co-creation.
- We Are Here is a manifestation of the need for the design of situations that facilitate resilience when formal institutions take a step back.
- By making places that are accessible to the public and the media, the refugees are able to connect to people that can help on various levels: from providing food to legal advice. Results of the co-design workshops are physical and mental stepping stones for the future, however insecure it may be.
The call “We are here” says it all: the refugees belong just where they are. The refugees raise awareness of the fact that we live in a world of interconnected local worlds. Bringing this fusion of local qualities into the design process supplements the way in which we look at placemaking and community building.
Designing for connectedness concerns various aspects, from empathy and understanding to connecting the public to a cause. Designing events to celebrate togetherness and collaborative action is a way to encourage supporters to join in and become part of the network.
Small steps in the design process take into account the individual problems as well as the potential of the refugees, but also of their neighbours and other helpers.