The Vluchtmaat


1 September 2018

Perhaps the most radical act in the early days of the Vluchtmaat, a legalised squat on the outskirts of Amsterdam, was the installation of curtains. Soft and easily transportable, indicative of comfort but also privacy, curtains are a quintessentially domestic object. In this context, they signalled the evolution of an office building into a home.

Located just outside Amsterdam’s A10 ring road in the shadow of Rem Koolhaas’s muscular G-Star RAW headquarters, the Vluchtmaat is a 1980s two-storey concrete slab roughly 60m across. Where once it contained a constellation of offices for Bouwmaat, a Dutch construction-materials company, since autumn 2015 it has housed a shifting group of undocumented migrants and small businesses.

The residents of the Vluchtmaat – a contraction of “vlucht”, short for vluchtelingen (refugees), and “maat”, short for Bouwmaat – are 40 Ethiopian and Eritrean undocumented migrants who have been denied residence in the Netherlands but are unable to return to their countries of origin, often for political reasons. As in other parts of western Europe, Dutch asylum policy requires applicants to prove the risks they would face should they go back. This can involve the harrowing, and at times ridiculous, stipulation that they provide specific evidence, such as a warrant, that might lead an oppressive regime to target them. In Ethiopia, for example, arbitrary arrests and torture of the Oromo people under the ruling administration were reported by Amnesty International in 2014. Gaining proof of this persecution on an individual basis, which would have to be provided by the administration itself, is clearly absurd.

These residents form part of a larger collective of asylum seekers who have grown to national prominence under the banner of Wij Zijn Hier (We Are Here). “The purpose of the collective is to fight for human rights,” explains Bushra Hussein, a spokesperson for the group. “We don’t have basic human needs, we don’t have shelter, we don’t have medicine rights, so we just want to come together and to support one another.”

Since its foundation in 2012, We Are Here has co-ordinated residential occupations, ensuring temporary shelter for more than 300 undocumented migrants across Amsterdam, including the high- profile occupation of a Brutalist church – dubbed the Vluchtkerk – over the Christmas period in 2012. “They use all the protocols of Dutch squatting practice,” explains René Boer, curator of Architecture of Appropriation, an exhibition on squatting and architecture, which featured the Vluchtmaat and was held at Rotterdam’s Nieuwe Instituut in 2017. “Like regular squatting actions, they assemble at least 40 people and then collectively occupy the building. They are very open with the press and the police. It’s interesting how it continues a movement that has existed for decades.”

The office that would become the Vluchtmaat had only been empty for a month when its new occupants changed the locks and installed curtains in November 2015. The building’s previous incarnation made it relatively easy for the new residents to adapt it. Carpets, small kitchens and sealed windows meant little structural intervention was required to make the space habitable. In keeping with Dutch squatting protocol, the new residents and Here To Support, a group of volunteers working with We Are Here, contacted the owner of the building, Bouwmaat, to inform them of the situation. Where another proprietor might have begun proceedings to remove the squatters, the Bouwmaat director took a different approach. As Elke Uitentuis, an artist and supporter of the Vluchtmaat explains, “He said, ‘I don’t want to give up my rights as an owner, so I don’t want to leave the squatted situation as it is. But I would like to help out because the building is empty and I don’t think I’m going to be able to rent it out.’”

The resulting compromise, and central innovation of the Vluchtmaat, would allow the group to stay for a fixed period, provided the costs of the building were covered. To do so, the Vluchtmaat building would be divided into spaces for living and working, and a simple financial agreement would allow it to survive autonomously, avoiding an unsustainable reliance on donations or state funding, as is the case for many other shelters. The workspaces would be let out to small businesses that would pay a relatively low monthly rent, a rarity in increasingly expensive Amsterdam. This income would be used to cover the essential costs – shelter, water, insurance, basic maintenance – without the landlord drawing a profit. In order to sign a contract with the Bouwmaat, a non-profit foundation named Stichting Noodzaak was set up to collect rent, pay the bills and manage internal difficulties.

IMAGE Courtesy of the Vluchtmaat

Soon after the curtains were put up and the contract with the owners signed, residents and volunteers co- designed a new layout. The office building had previously consisted of four open- plan wings across two floors separated by a central core. Using simple and cheap materials funded by donations, the Vluchtmaat team divided it into rooms with wooden frames and plasterboard. Three of the wings would be used as residential space and the fourth would house the offices.

The arrangement is the same today. Each resident has their own room, unless they prefer to share with a partner or friend, and one room, which sleeps five, is used for new arrivals. As well as the bedrooms, there are three communal spaces, one of which is used as a dining room and hosts a monthly restaurant evening serving Ethiopian food. There are 13 offices, some of which are shared. Current tenants include a photographer, a fair-trade coffee company and a small media company, among others. The front door is always open.

The first contract with Bouwmaat gave the residents a guaranteed six months of shelter. This has been extended by increments of six months ever since and the current residents can count on a place at the Vluchtmaat until the end of 2018. In the context of many We Are Here members’ experience of being evicted from squats every two to three months, this security marks a major shift.

Mahmud Mamma, who arrived in the Netherlands from Ethiopia following his involvement in anti-government demonstrations in 2014, had lived in four different We Are Here squats before arriving at the Vluchtmaat a year ago. “Life is better here than in the other groups where I’ve been: it’s a stable place,” he explains. There remains, of course, a profound precariousness that comes from living undocumented in the Netherlands. The Vluchtmaat is by no means a panacea. The residents have gone through the process of seeking refugee status and, once rejected, are nearly entirely isolated from the social infrastructure. As Yonas Berhanu, an accountant originally from Ethiopia and a Vluchtmaat resident for the last two years, says, “it is really difficult because we don’t have any source to live. We don’t have a chance to go to school. If you want to get some medical treatment it is really difficult.”

Nonetheless, the value of stability goes beyond the simple fact of a roof over residents’ heads. “Three of the residents got married, which you might think is not a wise thing to do because you don’t have any certainty or anything,” says Uitentuis, who pays €290 per month for a 21sqm workspace at the Vluchtmaat. “But I think the feeling that you have a little bit more time for yourself and less time being in the situation that you need to survive day-to-day makes it possible for people to make steps towards the future.” Applying for residency is one such step which the stability of the Vluchtmaat has facilitated; 15 residents have gained legal status while living there.

IMAGE Courtesy of the Vluchtmaat

The layout of the building, with shared living rooms, kitchen and open access into and through the building, has also seemingly facilitated a communal way of living and a close-knit community. “There is a tolerant atmosphere here that comes by sharing and respecting each other, by living together,” says Mamma, who recently received his residency status but continues to live at the Vluchtmaat while waiting for a government home.

The coexistence of the residents and the renting businesses is, however, clearly the linchpin. Day to day, the relationship between the Vluchtmaat’s residents and renters is neat and functional without excessive sentimentality. Interactions are largely pragmatic and efforts by the foundation to manufacture a false sense of community are, thankfully, avoided. This is not to say the environment is cold or unfriendly, however. There is a visible ease and familiarity between the two groups, albeit more akin to the interaction between colleagues than cohabiters. However, the truth remains that the residents rely on the renters more than the other way around – the need for shelter, warmth and solidarity trumps the requirement for an affordable workspace. As Boer points out, “There is a clear imbalance in power and privilege between the residents, who are hyper- precarious, and the renters, who are comfortably incorporated into Dutch society.” Or as Berhanu puts it, “If the renters are not here, we are not here.”

Yet, by the same token, it is this set- up that has made the Vluchtmaat a success: first, in its ability to survive; second, in its provision of a platform for individuals to feel more human in a fundamentally dehumanising immigration system. It’s also what gives the Vluchtmaat model the potential to travel beyond the post- industrial periphery. When it was nominated for a Dutch Design Award in 2017, alongside internationally recognised architects such as MVRDV and NL Architects, the judges praised the Vluchtmaat’s independent economic model as a “prototype of a social design for an inclusive society”. The Vluchtmaat “prototype” has also garnered interest from other Dutch organisations working with undocumented migrants who face a constant struggle to win pockets of funding from churches or the state. What’s more, it’s unique on a European level. Its closest equivalent, the City Plaza squat in Athens, has led a much more fraught existence, being targeted for closure by the neighbours, the police and even right-wing extremists. Admirably, it continues to house 400 refugees, undocumented migrants and other precarious individuals while relying on crowdfunding.

There may be as many as 100,000 undocumented individuals lacking secure shelter and basic social infrastructure in the Netherlands, and so the need for more shelters following the Vluchtmaat model is clear. Yet the most significant barriers to replicating the set-up are the owners of Amsterdam’s empty buildings. The Dutch legal system may have a fairly relaxed attitude to squatting, especially in comparison to the UK, but the rights of landowners are still virtually sacred. Thus the chances of creating a new Vluchtmaat rely on stumbling across another proprietor who “is willing to give away his property, in a sense, for such an extended period of time”, as Boer puts it.

IMAGE Courtesy of the Vluchtmaat

This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that housing capacity struggles mean prices in the capital have risen to pre-2008 levels. The city’s expansion bears this out. Although the Vluchtmaat exists on its outskirts, it is a stone’s throw from a new 7.5ha development that involves the conversion of a former prison and luxury residential zone by OMA. Clearly in this economy, finding landowners willing to forgo profit for social good will be a challenge.

There is room for hope, however, following the municipal elections held in March 2018. Amsterdam voted for a significant shift to the left and the GroenLinks (Green Left) party is now forming a coalition with the Socialist and Labour parties, as well as the centrist D66 party. Most importantly for the residents of the Vluchtmaat, We Are Here has begun to establish connections with GroenLinks and is lobbying for the provision of 24-hour shelters for undocumented migrants. These would essentially provide the same relatively stable shelter as the Vluchtmaat with support from the state, alongside guidance on obtaining a resident’s permit or support on returning to one’s country of origin.

Should these shelters, which would probably occupy decommissioned municipal properties such as schools, go ahead, the Vluchtmaat may well cease to exist. Somewhat paradoxically, this should surely be its ultimate aim. While the success of the structure, the foundation and its residents is laudable – even inspirational – the provision of support from the state and the legal recognition that comes with this should be the goal. Indeed, the Vluchtmaat as a lasting entity, no matter how successful, could never be an end in itself.

That said, as the urban-housing scholar Alex Vasudevan argued in his essay ‘Squatting the city’, squatting provides “an alternative vision of the city and a robust defence of housing in both its lived social dimension and in its ‘identity as home’”. The Vluchtmaat offers a similar vision of cooperation and an alternative way of doing housing in the contemporary city, which can be considered further and in separation from the context of the precariousness of its residents’ existences. What’s more, the Vluchtmaat, from curtains to Ethiopian kitchen, provides a valuable expansion of preconceptions surrounding the “identity of home”.