Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them. She also works as a communications consultant, mostly in the area of housing and urban development.
The interactive art project utilizes the only right the refugees have in the Netherlands: free expression.
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands—The tiny white trailer parked on a public square here doesn’t look much like an embassy. But for the migrants who have been streaming into Amsterdam in increasing numbers, it will have to do.
No visas, asylum requests or official papers get processed at the trailer, known as the “In Limbo Embassy.” There is, however, a certain kind of diplomacy as migrant “ambassadors” shake hands with people passing by and invite them inside for conversation.
Manon van Hoeckel, the art student who launched this “embassy for the undocumented,” says the goal is to foster communication. Dutch citizens, who have been divided over the migration crisis, get personal contact with people they might otherwise hear about only in news reports. Meanwhile, migrants can ask questions about the place they aspire to call home. “They are interested in hearing what other people do,” van Hoeckel says of the ambassadors. “They talk about what kind of work they did back home and what they would like to contribute here.”
As Europe debates a response to the waves of people coming from the Middle East and North Africa, efforts like the In Limbo Embassy are one way of building trust and understanding in the host countries. The Dutch government has agreed to take in 7,000 additional refugees this year, increasing its total for 2015 to 35,000. While some Dutch citizens are collecting clothes, toys and food to help the newcomers, others are fearful about their arrival.
Fed up with people venting anti-immigrant hatred—often anonymously through social media—van Hoeckel wanted to find a way to encourage face-to-face exchanges. She set out to use art to create a platform for migrants to express the only right they have in the Netherlands: the right of free expression.
Platform for dialogue
While the plight of people fleeing Syria has received a lot of press coverage in recent weeks, the migration phenomenon is nothing new in Amsterdam. Currently, 32,000 people are living in centers for asylum seekers across the Netherlands. Those whose asylum applications are denied are supposed to leave the country, but in reality few do. Fearing conditions back home, they lay low and quietly pick up odd jobs or work on building better legal cases to stay.
While most people in this situation try to stay invisible, some have begun speaking out. Three years ago, 200 undocumented migrants in Amsterdam set up a group called Wij Zijn Hier, or “We Are Here.” They advocate on behalf of migrants and find empty buildings to squat in for shelter. In an experiment last year that Wij Zijn Hier embraced, the city of Amsterdam housed more than 100 in a repurposed prison.
It’s through Wij Zijn Hier that Manon van Hoeckel first came into contact with the city's undocumented population. She helped hand out informational leaflets to the neighbors of buildings they were squatting in. “Many neighbors complained to me about the rubbish or the noise the refugees were making,” van Hoeckel recalls. “So I said: ‘Why not go and talk to them yourself?’ But of course, it is a big step to enter an empty building and talk to people you don’t know.”
“I wanted to create a place where refugees feel represented and that could serve as a platform for dialogue,” the artist continues. “That is how the idea of an embassy was born.”
Right to free expression
To create the embassy, van Hoeckel raised €11,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. She furnished the trailer’s spare interior with a large wooden desk and stately portraits of ambassadors taken by photographer Alexander Popelier. Two blue flags are posted outside.
The installation is really a co-creation of van Hoeckel and several people associated with Wij Zijn Hier. One man named Kouassi from Ivory Coast was very adamant that an embassy would need stamps. Manon says: “I hadn’t even thought of that, but of course for them stamps are vital, because they express their status.” Another collaborator, a man named Mufti from Ghana, was skeptical of the idea of an embassy, since many migrants don’t feel represented by their own embassies. “Why an embassy?” he asked. “I am against borders.”
After discussing it, they all agreed that the embassy would not represent a bordered space, but a group of people: Those who cannot stay in the Netherlands, but cannot go back either.
The project is walking a thin line between what is legal and illegal in the Netherlands. Manon van Hoeckel is learning quickly about the details of Dutch immigration law. “People without documents are not allowed to work, to go to school or even to do volunteer work,” she says. “However, they do have the right to free expression. Since this is an art project, posing for a picture or running the embassy is not seen as work, but as a way to express themselves.”
The refusal of these basic rights is the hardest thing for many of the people stuck in limbo. As Kouassi says, “I have been here for three-and-a-half years and wasn’t allowed to do anything. Now I can finally do something.” Still, the migrants’ difficult circumstances can make them unreliable ambassadors. “Sometimes, they don’t show up at the embassy, because at the last minute they had the opportunity to earn a couple of euros with an odd job, or they have an unplanned meeting with their lawyer because their case might be re-opened,” van Hoeckel says. “This is of course understandable, but it made me realize that we have to enlarge the group.”
For its first week, the In Limbo Embassy was parked in a place where most people passing by were young and educated and open to the ambassadors’ stories. Now, van Hoeckel is looking to move the embassy to other cities “where people might have a different opinion,” she says. To make it a success and make it more sustainable, she is trying to find partner organizations around the Netherlands that have contacts with refugees and can “adopt” the embassy. “I want to dedicate one year to this project,” she says. “But it is not about me. It is about the refugees. It is their platform.”
Ambassadors like Kouassi are ready to use that platform and make a statement. Dressed at the embassy opening in polished shoes and an impeccable bow tie, he said there’s no reason for people like him to hide any longer. “True love,” he said, “will cast out fear.”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.