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Our Music Bus NL projects works with different partners in refugee reception centers in the Netherlands. This month we interviewed Lilian van der Vaart from Rode Kruis (Red Cross Netherlands) who shared her perspective on the urgent support needed in Dutch asylum centers.

What is the situation facing families as they arrive in the Netherlands? 

Families often arrive in the Netherlands after a very difficult journey. This is followed by a period of great uncertainty for many people. Especially with the current situation in which asylum procedures take a long time due to capacity problems and backlogs at the IND (Immigration and Naturalization Service), and the lack of space to accommodate families in a dignified manner.

After arriving in Ter Apel on the North-Eastern border of the Netherlands, most families are transferred to another location in the country. Some families will undergo several such transfers; I recently heard that someone has lived in ten refugee locations in eight months. Furthermore, people usually know nothing about the asylum procedure: when it will start, how long it will take, when asylum seekers will be called up for appointments. Unfortunately, there is no information to give about that either. That uncertainty is very stressful for people. Feelings of frustration and despair are ever-present.

What are some of the challenges facing people in Dutch reception centers from day to day?

First of all: what I have seen and experienced is that all employees at the reception locations do their very best to receive people seeking protection as humanely as possible. Residents themselves indicate that they are very grateful for that. Organizations such as Musicians without Borders and the Red Cross can improve the situation. Musicians without Borders does this by giving music workshops, whilst The Red Cross organizes sports lessons, encourages people to cook or do groceries together, by installing extra showers, or by simply offering a listening ear. 

Whilst these are transformational experiences, they remain a means of fighting the symptoms rather than targeting the causes of unhappiness. The lives of people on the move are in fact on hold here – they are not yet allowed to fully participate in society, cannot always cook their own food, have to sleep with the whole family in one room the size of a bedroom which does not always have a ceiling or adequate ventilation. There is insufficient privacy. People live with all kinds of different cultures close together, which can cause tensions. And on top of that comes the stressful bureaucratic uncertainty! Organizations such as Musicians without Borders and my own Red Cross do very valuable work, but unfortunately that cannot always take away the frustrating feeling of waiting for clarity.

Is the situation improving or getting worse?

Last year people slept outside in Ter Apel and the Red Cross had to set up tents. We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening again. But the situation in many crisis emergency shelters is still not much better. A report by Doctors of the World, Pharos, and the Red Cross recently pointed out that people’s health is deteriorating as a result of the conditions. This is happening behind closed doors, out of public view. The Red Cross helps at many crisis emergency shelter locations and runs a number of locations independently. We try to do everything we can to improve living conditions, for example by creating sleeping areas with more privacy. 

But the bottom line is that the system really needs to change. People shouldn’t have to spend months in a location that is only suitable for a few days, such as sports halls or fire stations. The longer people stay in such a location, the worse it is for them and the harder it can be to recover from it. Although I am sometimes amazed by the resilience and courage of these people, that gives me hope!

What does the current approach of the Dutch government mean for asylum seekers and refugees in NL?

For me it is paramount that people seeking protection in the Netherlands are received in a dignified manner. To me, the lack of information that asylum seekers have for indeterminately long periods seems to be the most difficult thing of all. In all that time they can hardly, if at all, work on building a better life for themselves and – especially – their children, for whom they have left their shelter and home in their own country and have made an often difficult, dangerous and long journey. They are free of violence here, and in that sense safe, but there is still no end to the fear and uncertainty about their existence.

Have you witnessed any impact of music activities on refugees in the centers?

Music, and especially making music, has a tremendously positive, uplifting effect on people, in my experience. It is often an important part of culture and helps you escape the grind of everyday life. All cultures have a musical tradition, which says enough about its importance to us as human beings – individually, but above all collectively. Music is similar to sport – it connects people. You often make and enjoy music together with others. You don’t need words for it, so it also connects across cultures if you don’t speak each other’s language. You can also see people really revived by music: sparkling eyes, laughing, swinging along, tongues out in concentration, beating along on their drum, synchronized in rhythm – it’s beautiful to see! 

So if music is made at a reception center – as a daytime activity, or just spontaneously – then I think it contributes a lot to people’s well-being at that moment. It allows people to get out of those difficult circumstances for a while. I once witnessed how a situation of conflict transformed into one of great enjoyment within a few minutes because music was turned on and people spontaneously started to sing and dance along. It was a fleeting moment, but everyone was able to go their own way without conflict. The impact therefore continues to have an effect. And finally, making music is a great way to express feelings in a positive way. I think a lot of stress can fade away in that. In my experience, music is incredibly healing.

How important is it to have these sorts of interventions, especially for young children and families?

The importance is enormous, especially for children. Children are magnificently flexible and have great resilience, so making music can make a huge difference to their development. This applies to all children, and certainly to children living in a refugee reception center. You can almost see it happening before your eyes during the music workshops.

The fact that these children also have such pleasant experiences during this difficult and uncertain period in their lives, and learn something that they will enjoy for the rest of their lives, can have a very positive effect on their lives now here at the shelter, but also on their later life. It gives them confidence. I’m not really familiar with the scientific research on this, but I’ve read that music has a positive effect on the development of the brain – that seems very possible to me anyway. And as for the parents, fun is contagious and parents only want one thing for their children: that they are able to thrive. When the kids are happy, the parents are too. I also saw that in the workshops. All in all, I think that musical activities are an indispensable part of daily life at reception locations. And that Musicians without Borders do a very good job with their workshops.

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