Asylum seekers in the Bijlmerbajes: How bad is it to live behind bars?

The short answer: very bad, according to Lorien Beijaert of Studio LA. Last summer, Amsterdam welcomed 600 temporary asylum seekers in the former Penitentiary Facility Overamstel, also known as the Bijlmerbajes. Beijaert and her companion Arna Mackic decided to make sure the bars would be removed. “Every time the asylum seekers look outside, they are faced with being in jail. Removing the bars is a symbolic gesture to show them that they are welcome”, explains Beijaert. She and Mackic got in touch with Robert Glas to make a film of the process with the actual removal of the bars as a ‘happy ending’.

article by Merel Pit, ISHF team

Long procedures and disappointing meetings

One way or the other, they would succeed; or so they thought. How little did they know. “Unfortunately, the reality was remarkable,” Beijaert explains during the workshop on the Bijlmerbajes as part of Amsterdam Arrivals, on June 13th. “We got stuck in the process. Nobody took responsibility. In the end, we decided to collect money to remove the bars ourselves.” But even that was impossible. The film became a sad story – a long saga of long procedures and disappointing meetings – told from behind bars.

In Taiwan everyone lives behind bars

“Why didn’t you put your energy into things that were possible? How important are the bars?”, askes Arnold Reijndorp. These are legitimate questions, certainly after Doug Saunders’s lecture that morning during the Opening Event, in which he stated that “even a shitty looking place can be a perfect for immigrants, as long as they have a good social life”. A visitor from Taiwan took it a step further by saying that everyone in Taiwan lives in high towers behind bars. “Nobody has a problem with it, as we are used to it.”

Dominant architecture of the Bijlmerbajes

Perhaps it is not the bars in itself that have the greatest negative impact on the asylum seekers, but the overall oppressive architecture. The long anonymous corridors, the dense prison doors and the lack of good meeting rooms, make it difficult to build a social life. “The two places in the complex that have WiFi, are very popular. But where can you sit? There are only hard steel prison benches”, says Beijaert. She became friends with a Syrian boy who, just like her, has a workplace in Lola Lik, a creative breeding ground in the Bijlmerbajes. “The boy now sleeps in his ‘office’ because the walls of his tiny ‘cell’ felt like they were closing in on him.”

New movie?

Mackic, Beijaert and Glas wanted to show what impact the built environment has on asylum seekers, as many of them are put into empty prisons or military complexes. In this case they decided to figuratively ‘free’ them by removing the bars. However, with their film, they mainly show how exhausting it is to move between opaque political interests and bureaucratic processes. Fortunately, they are also busy with other initiatives, such as improving the signage and dressing the meeting rooms. They will need a dose of patience and perseverance to make them happen. Hopefully, they will succeed, as I cannot wait to see their results in future films of theirs.

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