A young Eritrean refugee took his own life in Amsterdam. It could’ve been prevented.

Years of neoliberal center-right politics have set Dutch social programs back considerably. The vice is tightening. We need to bring these issues to the fore and call for more generous social programs.

Container housing in the Netherlands. Photo: Creative Commons.

In late February, a 24-year-old Eritrean refugee threw himself from a bridge in Amsterdam. Friends and neighbors told Het Parool that he spent weeks in a terribly depressed state leading up to that moment. The challenges he faced leading up to his tragic death should serve as a lesson in the failures of a system to properly accommodate people fleeing instability and violence in search of a better life.

Henok Zeru Germai fled a country wracked by war for the better part of the last 25 years. At first he was enthusiastic and optimistic about his new life in the Netherlands. He wanted to become a fork-lift operator, a wholly attainable and realistic goal. But he was met with met with many challenges. Then his brother died and his mother fell ill. Depression soon took over his life and the social services that could have saved his life fell short.

“Its not just a failure of the mental health system and of not providing timely, accurate and culturally sensitive care,” says Zahra Khazai, Henok’s former neighbor, an Iraqi refugee who has worked at the Dutch Council for Refugees for 2 and a half years. “But it’s also a failure of the government to better guide these young people in terms of work, study, etcetera. They’re just seen as numbers that need to get out off of welfare programs as soon as possible – but no one really asks them what they want and what their ambitions are,” Khazai tells me via text message.

Henok found it difficult to assimilate into Dutch society and could hardly afford the bills in his tiny studio. He lived in a housing complex for students and refugees made up of repurposed shipping containers.

These cheap individual units are about as depressing in appearance as they are to inhabit. I would know – I and many of my friends have lived in them. A frequent complaint is the total lack of community. There are often no communal areas and outside spaces are mostly unusable in the colder months. The tiny rooms can start to feel more like jail cells.

This cold, utilitarian response to Amsterdam’s critical lack of housing seems a cruel joke: Stick those at the edge of society into shipping containers at the literal edge of town.

Henok Zeru Germai in a photo taken before his untimely passing. Neighbors said his door was often open and he would chat with them in the hallway. Photo: Het Parool.

Henok, like many of us, had his ups and downs. Several crises landed him in different mental health facilities. While these services may have helped him in the short-run, they ultimately failed to provide real solutions. That’s a tragedy – and an avoidable one.

But what does a real solution look like for Amsterdam’s down and out? The bare minimum is a system that would’ve allowed Henok to meet his goals and build the life he was hoping for in his new home. It’s unacceptable that he fell into such desperation. And he’s not the only one.

Asylum seekers in Europe often grapple with complex traumas, the result of surviving the conflicts that they’ve fled. Their claims to residency in Europe shouldn’t be treated as a privilege afforded to them by benevolent benefactors – asylum should be seen as a humanitarian imperative and should be supplemented by all the services refugees need to integrate. Diversity is a key strength for the Netherlands and new-comers have the world to offer. They shouldn’t be treated as a burden by a system that feigns an inability to fund social programs.

Stress, drug use, and depression are worryingly common among international students too.

Research by Saskia Kelder at the University of Twente.

Suicide rates are disproportionately high among asylum seekers in the Netherlands. But they’re not alone: Stress, drug use, and depression are worryingly common among international students too, according to a study by a researcher at the University of Twente.

My experience with friends and acquaintances is that the pandemic has compounded these stress factors. It seems like as a foreigner, it’s more impossible than ever to find a job, a house, and ultimately a place in this society.

Jan Evertsenstraat in Amsterdam. Finding housing is notoriously difficult in this capital city. Photo: by the author.

While the factors at play in mental health data are complex and it’s probably impossible to pin this phenomenon on any one root cause, one thing is for sure: More programs and services need to be available to refugees and other international people in the Netherlands. And to be clear – that means more funding.

“I think we could improve on a lot of levels but it really has to start with the governmental and policy level,” Kharzai told me.

Crushing austerity has taken a dramatic toll on much of Europe since the 2008 financial crisis. The Netherlands was no exception in the widespread implementation of needless suffering. Years of neoliberal center-right politics have set Dutch social programs back considerably. We need to bring these issues to the fore and call for more generous social programs. And it needs to happen soon – because the system ends up failing precisely those that are most vulnerable: People like Henok.

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