'Not coping': Crisis at overcrowded Dutch asylum centre

'Not coping': Crisis at overcrowded Dutch asylum centre
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at his weekly press conference on Friday "The images from Ter Apel are shameful."

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Aid organisation members hand out blankets and a hygiene package to asylum seekers at the overcrowded application centre in Ter Apel, on August 26, 2022, in the Netherlands. [VINCENT JANNINK/ANP/AFP via Getty Images]

Asylum seeker Lawrence resigned himself to another night sleeping outside near an overcrowded Dutch refugee centre, as aid groups warn of a humanitarian emergency at the facility where a three-month-old baby recently died.

The Ter Apel centre is in crisis, hit not by soaring arrivals but a backlog of people waiting to be processed — plus severe staff shortages after the government scaled down capacity.

And the centre faced huge scrutiny this week after a baby died inside the facility from unknown causes.

The chaos is a disappointment for those seeking a better life like Nigerian-born Lawrence, who arrived 13 days ago by train.

"I am still waiting to be processed -- and no, I'm not doing fine," the father-of-two told AFP, who left Nigeria to seek a better life for his family.

"Conditions are terrible here. This is not what I expected -- at least not in a civilised country like the Netherlands," he said, not wanting to give his surname for safety reasons.

Lawrence endured an arduous journey getting to the Netherlands from his home in the African country's volatile southeastern region via Italy.

Arriving at the country's main asylum centre, he expected a quick process and a roof over his head while he awaited the government's decision.

Instead, he joined more than 700 other hopefuls who have been sleeping in front of the gates -- many of them for weeks.

Both the Red Cross and the Dutch arm of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned Friday of a growing humanitarian emergency at the refugee centre, a short drive from the northern Dutch city of Groningen.

"It's clear, if you look around, that we have hundreds of people living here... in dismal conditions and in the open," said Monique Nagelkerke, an emergency coordinator with MSF.

"There still is no proper sanitation and there are all sorts of medical complaints," she told AFP.

"The system here is trying to cope, but they're not coping and that's why we are here to help."

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'Bunch of dogs' 

On Thursday, MSF deployed staff to the Ter Apel centre -- a first for the organisation that usually gives medical assistance to those in war zones.

Nearby, MSF doctors were treating a number of patients at a "hospital on wheels" set up early Friday.

Patients suffered ailments "you would expect of people who have been on the road for a long time," Nagelkerke said.

Many had "skin diseases because of poor hygiene, feet problems because people have walked a long way".


Both MSF and the Red Cross warned that the situation may deteriorate, especially with the end of summer approaching.

"People are cold at night, having to sleep on the ground. What happens when the weather changes?" a Red Cross official told the ANP news agency.

AFP correspondents saw hundreds of men laying under makeshift tarpaulins, with a row of dirty toilets nearby, many littered with empty plastic bottles left by those attempting to wash themselves.

A group of Turkish asylum seekers say some in their group have been sleeping in front of the centre for the past 11 days.

"We are not criminals. I wonder if we'd be better treated if we were a bunch of dogs," one 37-year-old asylum-seeker told AFP, asking not to be named.

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The government has launched an investigation into the baby's death, which has thrown scrutiny on conditions at the centre.

The Dutch refugee agency (COA) has said the current crisis is down to staff shortages after the government scaled down its capacity to handle asylum-seeker numbers, which took a downturn during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The images from Ter Apel are shameful," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at his weekly press conference on Friday, adding "mistakes have been made".

Rutte promised "structural solutions", warning that improvements could take time.

"But that doesn't mean the situation at the centre will instantly be fixed today, tomorrow or even the day after," he said.

The government said Friday it plans to boost the homes available to asylum seekers by 20,000, to alleviate pressure on Ter Apel.

But the Netherlands is already dealing with a housing shortage, and plans to give asylum seekers accommodation can run into fierce resistance.

And there are 16,000 processed asylum seekers desperately looking for places to stay, COA spokesman Leon Veldt told AFP.

"There are too few reception centres and too few opportunities to move on to homes," he said.