The social importance of squatting: Milena Belloni’s intervention at Amsterdam City Council

Based on 9 months HOMInG research in Amsterdam, Milena Belloni addresses the commission of the municipality over the mayor’s proposal to restrict squatting. As she argues, squatting can provide cheap and creative solutions for the unsolved housing problem of the many undocumented migrants living in the city. Here is the text of the speech.

30th January, 2020

Intervention over the agendapunt 13: Kraak- en ontruimingsbeleid

The social importance of squatting:
a proposal for further collaboration between civil society, municipal actors and migrants

Dear Commission members,
My name is Milena Belloni and I work as an anthropologist at the University of Trento, Italy and at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. My main areas of expertise are asylum migration and European asylum policies, including the Dublin Agreement. In the last 9 months I researched the housing conditions of undocumented people in Amsterdam. I interviewed about 40 people between migrants and key stakeholders and visited migrant groups squatting in different neighbourhoods. It is based on this research, that I would like to tell you why squatting has a crucial and necessary role to play in the city today.

Amsterdam has implemented a programme for sheltering undocumented migrants. However, the scheme at this moment, suffers from two main problems:

1. The inability to accommodate all those who, in theory, have the right to be sheltered. As municipality officers confirmed, there is a waiting list of about 215 people at this moment. Moreover, the initial offer of 500 places has not yet been realised due to the difficulties in finding suitable buildings. Many of the Sudanese migrants whom I interviewed are now shelterless due to this.

2. Second, this scheme does not include migrants coming from countries listed as “safe”.
Although I am aware of the fact that this criterion has been established at a national level, it is worth spending a few words on why this does not represent a sufficient reason for exclusion. First, no matter where people come from, 98 percent of the migrants we are talking about today come to Europe through the hardships of the Sahara desert, Libyan detention centres and the Mediterranean sea. Thus, they usually suffered from degrading treatment, generalised violence and torture. Their vulnerability has to be assessed independently from their countries of origin. Second, the principle of safe countries is in clear contraposition with the principles of the Geneva Convention which rules over asylum and refugee matters and of which the Netherlands is signatory. Asylum application have to be assessed INDIVIDUALLY to understand how the applicant has suffered from religious, political, ethnic, gender persecution. The case of the Gambia, the country of origin of many undocumented people in Amsterdam today, is here a good example. There democracy remains extremely fragile after decades of authoritarian government. Thus, the principle of safe countries should not be used as an ultimate tool to assess who needs assistance and who falls out of it.

Several scholars highlighted that the challenges of dealing with the social and security problems related to irregular migrants mostly fall on the shoulders of the municipal administrators, caught in between national rules and the reality on the ground. You are left to find a pragmatic solution to the fact, that several hundred people are unsheltered today and more will be in the same conditions if the regulations on squatting become stricter.

Given these circumstances, organised squatting should be seen as a realistic solution to the unsolved problem of housing for undocumented people in the city. The capability to find places which are unused and turn them into housing for those in need has characterised the work of Amsterdam squatters for long time. A few recent instances of unorganised squatting, which have attracted the attention of the media, should not hide the important role that squatting has played to make Amsterdam a fairer city, not only for migrants but also for its citizens.

Initiatives, like the Vluchtmaat, should be encouraged and repeated. Vluchtmaat, a building initially squatted in 2016, has represented a solution for emerging local entrepreneurs, who needed space for their activities, and 40 undocumented refugees, who simply needed a home. The collaboration between the landlord, squatters, migrants and local businesses not only allowed to find a cheap and productive solution for shelter, but promoted cultural integration and social cohesion.

A similar solution could be found for those who inhabit the garage close to Kraainnest metro station today. In this nine months I had the opportunity to follow from close these migrants. This group is composed by a fluid population of about 80 men mostly coming from Nigeria and the Gambia. However, this group has at times hosted young women searching for a place to stay and something warm to eat. These men are aged in between 18 and 40. They are hospitable and open to civil society organisations. Some of them are often following mass in different churches of the Bijlmer and participate in collective meals organised by the catholic church of All Saints. Others play football in local teams. They entertain good relations with the neighbourhood. Several organisations are actively collaborating with this group to find housing and legal solutions. First of all, Ms Samantha Selima with her stichting “Family on a mission” who not only provides material help, but is also aiming to set up a social network between Italy and the Netherlands to provide legal assistance to the many migrants who have unsolved procedures in Italy. Another supporter is Lisa Elsenburg who speaks today in front of you. This growing network of migrants, local community and civil society is a useful resource and informed interlocutor for the municipality to find creative, and cheap housing solutions in Amsterdam and to prevent widespread homelessness and its human, social and security costs.


Dr. Milena Belloni
Postdoctoral Researcher
ERC HOMInG Project
Sociology Department
The University of Trento, Italy
FWO researcher
University of Antwerp, Belgium