May 5th: Whose Freedom are we celebrating?
“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
– James Baldwin in ‘An open letter to my sister Angela Davis’, 1970
Since 1945, May 5th has been national Liberation Day in the Netherlands. This national celebration is marked with large and small scale free public events commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands by the Allied forces in 1945. Today is a celebrationof the freedoms the Dutch people have gained since then. Needless to say the conceptions of freedom and liberation that are today’s focus are very much contested. In ‘45 this freedom didn’t loosen the colonial grip the Netherlands had on Suriname, the (Dutch) Antilles, New Guinea and Indonesia. Contrary to the rhetoric, the Dutch-supported invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not lead to the liberation of the Iraqi people. In 2009 none of the memories of the Dutch struggles against oppression kept the Netherlands from boycotting the UN Conference against Racism and today, in 2014, there aren’t enough red-white-and-blues to cover the inhumanities of the Dutch asylum regime. Since the Netherlands are still complicit in restricting the freedoms of non-white communities domestically and globally… whose liberties are we celebrating?
This question is thrown into sharp relief when we consider the fate of the four pregnant members of the We Are Here-group, the well known migrant activist collective protesting against Dutch asylum policies. Our most recent conversations with Hanane and Fartuna, two of the four pregnant members, added a new layer to our understandings of the communities whose flags won’t be flirting with the wind today. During yesterday’s meeting about our call for baby supplies we learned that their lives have taken a dramatic turn. The women, bellies swollen with future and eyes marked by fatigue, call for conversations about political homelessness and its impact on both the housing and health care of the new families. “Write everything and tell everybody,” they urge us. There was a palpable sense of anger and fear among the women, which already resulted in the disappearance of one of the ladies who is due in the first week of June.
“We don’t know where she is. We don’t know what the government does with the babies of homeless mothers, and we don’t know how much longer Fartuna will still get medication for her gestational diabetes (‘pregnancy diabetes’) if she refuses to go to the return centres they want to send us to… everything is uncertain.” Despite the joyous news that the Fadumo has given birth to a beautiful, healthy boy named Musab, the clouds swallowed most of the silver linings and the answers can’t keep up with the questions.
The uncertainties Hanane and Fartuna were already facing have become more serious now that they both have a child to plan for. Not knowing if they will be able to offer a stable home for their children creates enormous amounts of stress. Living in the Vluchthaven, the latest of a series of temporary shelters, was uncertain, but at least there they are part of a collective and therefore more visible in their political protest against the policies that are making a stable family life impossible for them. This situation dramatically changed last Friday when the women’s partners– not Hanane and Fartuuna themselves – were contacted by Vluchtelingenwerk with the unexpected news that they should prepare themselves to be sent to a terugkeercentrum, a return-facility in Goes, Zeeland, in the south of the country.
They were expecting to be sent to an asylum center in the last six weeks of their pregnancies, as has happened to the two other pregnant women of the group, Fartuun and Fadumo. What they were not expecting was to be sent to a return facility, which is specialised in ‘preparing’ migrants for deportation. Much less were they expecting to be sent to the other side of the country on such short notice, far removed from their support network and in the case of Fartuna, away from her husband, because their union isn’t legally recognized the state. The powerlessness the women experience, unable to influence decisions that will deeply impact their young families, is characteristic for the lives they have been forced to lead.
The vicious cycle of detention, asylum centers, return facilities and homelessness has seems to be entering the next phase for Hanane and Fartuuna, but the stakes are higher this time. Both women are not able to return to their countries of origin, Algeria and Eritrea respectively, nor will the Dutch state allow them to build a life here. Collectively, Hanane and Fartuuna have spent almost 10 years in detention, asylum centers or left to their own devices and turned out on to the street by the state. Now expecting, the women aren’t really able to prepare for the arrival of their children, but are instead faced with basic questions like “how and where am I going to raise my child?” “will the state allow me to keep custody of my child?” and “will I be able to raise it with my partner?”.
A shift in the debate
Hanane and Fartuna have been protesting the Dutch asylum policies for more than a year and a half now. They and the other We Are Here-activists took enormous risks telling their stories to the Dutch public, staying together as a group to increase their visibility and to do so, collectively squatting in barely habitable shelters ranging from industrial office buildings to churches. Together with migrant-activists in other cities, they succeeded in making the consequences of Dutch asylum and migration more visible to the Dutch public. In a society where marginalised groups are always spoken about and not with, the We Are Here group has succeeded in at least partially reclaiming the narrative about undocumented communities.
The work done by activists like Hanane and Fartuuna seems to have an effect; more people seem to be feeling a greater sense of injustice in regards to a system in which we are all complicit. The fact that this group is about to become multigenerational should add a new urgency to the public debate about the basic rights that are being denied to asylum seekers by the Dutch state. The painful reality is that this is not the case.
The four pregnant We Are Here-activists are not alone in facing the worst of Dutch asylum policies whilst expecting; their realities represent those of hundreds if not thousands of other (partially) undocumented families in the Netherlands. And yet, these stories are not on the front pages of Dutch papers. But why not? More importantly, considering the symbolic meaning of today, why aren’t the struggles of those fighting for their most basic freedoms at the center of the conversations held today?
It is clear that the narratives that dominate Liberation Day are meant to celebrate those who are most privileged and those who stand to gain the most from the lack of freedom of others. Others whose experiences are then strategically erased from national debate about what freedom means in the Netherlands today.
As Black women living in the Netherlands, as women with different histories of migration but the shared privilege of having Dutch passports, we take another view of Liberation Day. For us this day is not merely about free festivals. We want to decentre the current, complacent conceptions of freedom and liberation and critically reflect on what is necessary to achieve “freedom” for the most marginalised communities in the Netherlands. What can be done, both domestically and globally to guarantee freedom for the undocumented communities living inside Dutch borders? What can we do to enable Hanane, Fartuna, Fadumo and Fartuun to build a safe future for their families? What do “freedom” and “liberation” mean in this larger context?
These questions demand more from us. We must go beyond mere celebration and recentre Liberation Day towards critical self-reflection and activism if it is to mean anything substantial at all. We advocate for a Liberation Day that draws our collective attention to the bigger picture and the more difficult questions concerning freedom and oppression. In order to truly work toward freedom and understand how we ourselves are complicit in different forms of institutionalised oppression, we must understand the legacies of colonisation, and the realities of imperialism and capitalism. An honest conversation about freedom and liberation also requires us to centre and amplify the voices of those who experience first hand the effects of some of the most oppressive and violent policies the Dutch state implements; her asylum and immigration policies. Hanane, Fartuna and their fellow migrant-activists should be leading the national debate on freedom. Instead they are invisibilised.
The Day after Liberation Day
There are ways to subvert, reclaim and refocus the concept behind Liberation Day to make it a transformative experience, individually and collectively. Our suggestions? Connect to migrant-activists like Hanane and Fartuna. Listen. Organize. Support. Politicize. Vote. Document. Archive. After all, the Dutch state is executing these policies in our names. Donate goods, time, and join the conversation online. To join our online conversations, please include the hashtag #UndocumentedNL in your Tweets and posts on Instagram.
To help support the new families of Hanane, Fadoma, Fartuun and Fartuuna we will (co-)host various fundraisers, the first of which is “Violent Borders: short films & talks with radical thinkers” which will take place in OT301 this Sunday. Join us!
Written by: @HodanWarsame (Redmond) and @Lazeefuik