The Voice from Academia

An Interview with Dr. Paul Mutsaers from Tilburg University

18 minutes to read
Sukran Ceren Salali

Paul Mutsaers is a Tilburg University researcher. For our file Asylum Seekers Online, we have interviewed Dr. Mutsaers to give voice opinion of academics on asylum-seekers crisis.

Paul Mutsaers is a researcher specializing in diversity in organizations, globalization, multiculturalism, and minorities. In addition to his research at Tilburg University, Mutsaers is employed by the Police Academy in the Netherlands. Consequently, he has done ethnographic study of the interaction of the police (station) migrants in the Netherlands for several years (2008-2013). He walked along with officers on the street and conducted hundreds of interviews about the experiences of agents with diverse ethnic backgrounds within the organization and the work of the police in super-diverse neighborhoods throughout the country in cities such as Amsterdam, Bergen op Zoom and Tilburg. According to him, discrimination by and within the police is a large and growing problem. Based on his research and experience on diversity of organizations and migrants in the Netherlands, Mutsaers answered our questions on the use of social media among asylum-seekers.

It is not an asylum seeker crisis that Europe is facing but a European crisis that asylum seekers are facing. – Dr. B. Kalir

Based on your observations so far, what kind of social media tools are being used among asylum-seekers in the Netherlands?

Paul Mutsaers: This is a topic which I started investigating like a month ago. What I have come across is that they are using the same kind of applications that we use here. They are very transparent about it. I’m still waiting for one asulym seeker who promised to send me his WhatsApp pictures that he had forwarded to other people who would come after him at border control and showed them how things were at the border. They mainly use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram sometimes, so the regular social media we are using too. The interesting thing is they are not using these for their own individual purposes, to do a lot of self-branding and self-expressions as we do, as me and my friends do, but more for solidarity with the intention to help other people. This functions to keep people updated about their status like “I am still alive, I survived a trip from Turkey to Greece”, “No worries, I made it”, so really existential things that are discussed on WhatsApp or Facebook. The only thing I heard of was the “Refugee Body” app that was built by the Red Cross and is in English, but made in the Netherlands. (He shows the App only for Android and explains its characteristics).  I also know Facebook groups that are designed to track people, to find relatives, but they are all in Arabic so it is really hard for me to understand.

Based on the news reports in the USA, social media profiles of asylum-seekers have been checked before giving them any kind of permission and visas. Are there any policies or proofs you can highlight for the Dutch government or police who use social media to track asylum-seekers? Any kind of act of surveillance?

PM: Looking at the police, I am not talking about the asylum-seekers per se, but I think I can imagine that it happens here as well. Knowing from my experience with the police, they definitely use Facebook and other social media to gather intelligence data. They look at online domains to bring people to court for certain statements. Two years ago, a guy was talking about “f*ck the king” and then they wanted to bring him to court.  

So, online statements do have offline repercussions. For sure, the police are doing that. And I think they also use it to check the asylum-seekers as well, to check their stories. It is a kind of asylum-seeker trajectory. I haven’t heard of any kind of policy about this here in the Netherlands, but that does not mean it does not exist. If I were a police officer and I worked as a border police or the IND, then I would try to verify the person through the social media. 

My interviewees who came here a year ago have everything on Facebook, pinpointing; “I’m now in Damascus. I’m now in Athens. I was in Istanbul”. I mean as the police, you only have to look into that. You can even check if theywere actually there.  Still, I’m not sure if you have to pinpoint your location yourself or Facebook is doing it. I think that if you switch on your GPS function, then it is done automatically, right?

I think it is traceable. Yet, I haven’t heard people or the police talking about it, because, of course, they don’t want people to know. But I’m sure that it happens.

How does the Dutch government differentiate between asylum-seekers depending on their nationality? Are some asylum seekers luckier to be granted asylum-seekers status than the others?

PM: That’s really difficult question because I didn’t research that directly myself. What I do know is that the Dutch government has a sort of ‘blacklist’. They make a hierarchy in terms of nationalities and when it comes to visa allocation, they give the visa to different people. I wrote an article about it for the British Journal of Criminology 3 years ago. There is a stratification of who is welcomed and who is not. 

One of the things we had in the Netherlands, as the first country in the world, was what we would call ‘pre-departure integration strategies’. So, this was implemented by the Dutch government in 2005 and amended that people who would come from wherever in the world, would have to do a sort of integration test in their home country before they would even come to the Netherlands. So, our colleague here in the department of the Law Faculty called it ‘pre-departure integration strategies’. Still, of course, that doesn’t count for people coming from New Zealand, the States, Canada, Australia; that is what I have written down in the article, all the names of the countries. . People from Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Syria would have to make that pre-departure integration test. There is a specific Dutch name for it, if they would come as economic migrants. So, this does not count for asylum-seekers. It would be the direct violation of human rights acts that we have in the world- asking from an asylum-seeker, who is trying to instantly get away from a dangerous situation, to do a test. It would be ridiculous. 

So, that is something that they have had for economic migrants only. Still, I cannot imagine that they have such a stratification list for asylum-seekers which would be in direct violation to all the human rights acts and all the asylum-seeker conventions that we have in the world. On the other hand, there is an ongoing public debate since the chairperson of employers’ organization in the Netherlands has said that we have to select asylum-seekers who are incoming to Europe on the basis of their resume. So, depending on what they can add to the European economies. The neoliberal ideal of what can the individual do for the society instead of what can society do for the individual is already there in the discourse.

How does the Dutch government decide whom to give the visa compared to other countries?

PM: I think you are better off when you would apply for asylum say in Greece or Turkey. Looking at the Dutch government, I did some interviews with IND and ‘alien police’ and ‘military police’. There are things that are awfully wrong there- how they talk about asylum-seekers. I have interviewed a guy in alien police. Alien police, yes, which is a weird thing; they don’t even have that in America. This guy was talking awfully about migrants. For instance, he said that they always talk about ‘Liegerians’, not Nigerians, because they think Nigerians are always lying so they call them like that. So, this is again related with that discourse of how we construct images about the others, which does not square with the official policies that we have in the Netherlands. 

These kind of discourses have an impact on politics and policy that they are constantly pushing this to the right spectrum of politics. What I have found important to look at is ‘street level bureaucrats’, who have to implement these policies. They have to abide the law but always have the kind of discretionary authority to abuse it- to have their own sense of justice involved in their encounters and interactions with people. Okay, looking at the Netherlands, we are not doing it that badly. I mean, in Denmark, people even get prosecuted for having asylum-seekers in their car and bringing them to the capital. There was this , case of the former children’s ombudsman in Denmark who had taken an asylum-seeker family in the car, to bring them from a kind of provincial area to Copenhagen because she thought “this is not human so I’m going to assist these people”. She was punished a 3000 Euro fine for human trafficking. We don’t have these sort of things in the Netherlands yet. I think, in that sense, the official policies are still more humane, more liberal than in countries like Denmark, where you have extreme right wing politics for years already.

Looking at the concrete practices and interaction between people, I think we have to watch out. We do have hierarchies and stratifications for people coming from different nations and how they are being dealt with, like that guy who speaks about ‘Liegerians’ because people from Nigeria always lie and they are fortune hunters. That’s how people talk about it.


Do you think that Dutch government would issue legal papers for children, minors?

PM: I don’t know, it is a very general question and I don’t have insights about statistics. But I do know that, when kids turn 18, they can immediately be deported, just for the fact that they turned 18.TheThe Local discourse that the police and municipal officers use when talking about other people, is, I think much more influential than the actual policies that we have. How they talk and deal with people has great consequences. They always have their discretionary space, their individual freedom when working on the streets that can completely sabotage any kind of policy that is intended to protect people. If you talk to asylum-seekers, I would definitely focus on these grassroots experiences that they have, because they can be very different than direct experiences of legal laws.

I had an interview with a Syrian asylum-seeker who is 24 years old. The interesting thing was that she went all the way up to the north of Poland to get into Germany and then back to the Netherlands. She could have taken the direct way. The curiosity is that she passed the Frontex headquarters. So, she passed in effect the main organization that is responsible for European border control all the way up in Northern Poland when coming to the Netherlands. Still, you can take the Southern route which is the main road that is taken nowadays, because a lot of people come directly from Turkey, Greece and by plane to Amsterdam or Berlin. Yet she went all the way up to the North because she thought that’s not the regular road I'm takingso that’s relatively safe. But, she was passing the main headquarters of the Frontex border operation of Europe. which is interesting because it says nothing about where that organization is located in terms of headquarters, as long as everything is controlled in the South. So, ironically, she passed the headquarters. She didn’t know that until I have told her.

These apps provide 24/7 updated information about how Europe and its border controls are changing. – Paul Mutsaers

Do you think that the accessibility of the apps influence the amount of asylum-seekers coming to Europe? Are there messages shared that may attract people to certain destinations or warn them not to go somewhere?

PM: I have to think about that. So, we discussed this book, right? Written by Ruben Andersson. (He refers to the article that is discussed in a lecture). I will get to your question, but I have to take a little detour first. So, one of the things Andersson starts with in the very first chapter, “the Mother Mercy”, is initiative in Dakkar. Mother Mercy is a woman who works there and has her own NGO. The interesting thing is that she lost her son when he tried to travel to Europe, and her whole enterprise is tailored to keep people from going. She said that they have experienced these things with many family members who all died during the boat trip in 2005 or 2006 and she tried to keep people from going there when these apps were not so much in use. 

So, you can argue that these apps also serve as an early warning system for people like ‘hey, don’t go because it is too damn dangerous’. On the other hand, of course, it provides people with that enormous digital infrastructure that can help people know the border and where the gaps are to be found in the border or where to pass, to keep each other updated about safe routes into Europe. These apps provide 24/7 updated information about how Europe and its border controls are changing. For instance, what is now going on at the Macedonian border, Idomeni, people immediately know about, “don’t go there”, because, you know, it is a concentration camp. What interests me is this mechanism of how people keep each other updated, how they convincingly argue to their relatives that they should come and should not come.

My observation with the regular police and how they are busying themselves with the asylum-seekers and migrants in the Netherlands is also sort of thickening borders inwards within the nation state. This is what I call internal border policing. Even here in Tilburg, or in Utrecht , in the center of the Netherlands, an asylum-seeker or a migrant can experience the same behavior as if he was at the border. Being checked by the police officer, or being asked about asylum-seeker status or migrant status for his residence permit. What is so interesting is that there is an expanding control apparatus that is not only including the police, but a wide bunch of organizations like healthcare organizations, municipalities, employers who are under the “Linking Act” ( the Dutch word for it) obliged by law to check the status of a migrant if hired for a job, given a house, registered at school or whatever. So that's called a linking act and it was introduced in 90’s. It obliges the public and semipublic organizations in the Netherlands to check the status of an immigrant by law.


Do the police have a right to stop someone on the street and ask for an identification?

PM: Yes, which is quite unique in the world. A regular police officer has a mandate to do that. So, we do not only have alien police specifically to do that, which is striking in itself. We also have wide mandate given to a regular police officer to do alien policing. If you look at the law, you will think that we have a fairly humane system in the Netherlands, but if you look at how all sub laws, bylaws and rules and regulations are having impact directly on the street, then you will find a whole different story.

They were there for four days and the only thing that could save them was their mobile phone. So, they called a family member who was already in Europe. After four days, she was able to put some pressure on Embassies in Greece or Turkey to save them. If they wouldn’t have had a mobile phone, they would have all died.

Do you think that there is a danger of exclusion in providing information online?

PM: There is a higher key in terms of technology use stratifying in terms of age, class, capital, money and power. I would say it is only part of a solution, it is very interesting and innovative thing to do. I would definitely download it. We should always be aware that we are excluding people by doing stuff that includes people. Inclusion always leads to exclusion. Let me tell you a brief story. There was this guy that I was interviewing who came from Syria. He came through Turkey and he was in Istanbul for several months trying to get into Greece but he didn't succeed. He took the sea way and he couldn't succeed in seven times but in the eighth time he finally made it. In one of these seven times, there was a human trafficker who had taken him and his family members to Greece, he thought. In fact, he was brought to an uninhabited, unpopulated island. He, his friends and his family were actually put in an island where there was nothing. They spent four days there and the only thing that could save them was their mobile phone. So, they called a family member who was already in Europe. After four days, she was able to put pressure on embassies in Greece or Turkey, I forgot, to save them. If they wouldn’t have had a mobile phone, they would have all died. One young kid had died because of dehydration. They used their phone to call the Turkish coast guard who were asking: "Are you drowning right now?" They had to reply ‘no’ because they were on the island. The coast guard said ‘Sorry, we cannot help you’. It was only that mobile device that enabled them to call people. That saved them. They even came too late and one of the kids died. It is always difficult to answer these questions in a general way, would be in favor of this or would you be against it. I think it is a very important thing that can save a lot of lives. Of course, we should be aware that making particular plans or helping people like the Red Cross is doing - it  is excluding people whi do not have the capacity to use it or to buy it. It's a symptom of class and divisions as well as money, power, poverty, but also age.

In Denmark, there are opportunities for asylum-seekers to stay in people’s houses. Is there anything like this in the Netherlands?

PM: I think there was once in the beginning of the 'asylum-seeker crisis' . By the way, there was also a very interesting statement on Facebook by Dr. Barak Kalir who said let's get the story right. It is not an asylum-seeker crisis that Europe is facing but a European crisis that asylum-seekers are facing which was a take on it. That is a side, I think, when it started, we had these kind of Facebook groups but then we had official governmental organizations like the IND (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the COA (Central Organ for Asylum-seekers) which warned people to be aware of the risks when they take people into their houses by actually saying ‘don’t do it’.

Did they warn them?

PM: Yes, that is what happened. I think you can even find it online, it was in the newspapers as well. I think it was COA who said ‘don't do it' meaning ‘we discourage people to do it because there is a lot of risk’. You do not know what you are up to. So, you have that grassroots of solidarity. You have people who are willing to do it and the government is discouraging them.

And they are doing it for the sake of security…

PM: Yes, security is always the number one issue, of course. This is what you get, I think, these are the consequences of making security the key principle of organizing your society.  Security is always the number one priority. Placing it in the shadow of the humanitarian reasons. People have a kind of humanitarian reasoning that comes from very core of human beingness-to help other people, which gets immediately discouraged by the security fetishism of the government. Of course, things can go wrong but you should put them on a scale, weigh pros against the cons. I was very shocked when I read the message.

How do the reactions of the public differ regarding economic migrants and asylum-seekers?

PM: I am not so sure. If you look at the protests in front of the asylum-seeker centers that is not even the case. If it is the case, it fits perfectly in the Dutch capitalist understanding of people. These migrants come here for economic reasons and they are stealing our jobs. We already have a crisis and we can't let that happen. Of course they know that Dutch law forbids asylum-seekers to work. As long as you have no residence permit, you cannot work. So, that is not an immediate threat, in that sense. People always look at the short term consequences. That is a general question I couldn't really answer. I can only make references to public discourse, the media, the politics. I couldn't say. Looking in the economic argument, I can imagine that the Dutch protestant ethic is indeed making people say such a thing.

What is the reaction of academia in the Netherlands?

PM: We have something that is going on here at Tilburg University. It is a Facebook group called “Tilburg University Helps” which was initiated by Ingrid Ramaan, who used to be a communication advisor here.  She is very much involved with this issue. She was able to bring Tilburg academics together with asylum-seekers in Tilburg. It is also focusing on the Language Center where academics are working with asylum-seekers to teach them Dutch and English. 

There is another initiative that I heard of from one of my interviewees who came from Syria a year and half ago, the one who was in the Greek island. He is a doctor. He was interviewed by the Amsterdam Medical Center (AMC). They had a huge initiative with doctors from the Netherlands and doctors from Syria bringing them together to exchange ideas and to help people think about the future. There is UAF (Study and work support for highly educated asylum-seekers) organization for highly educated people. This is something that has already existed for a long time. They have already been trying to help highly educated asylum-seekers in the Netherlands for years. The foundation for asylum-seeker students, it is an independent organization. 

For the rest, I think it is pretty silent in the Netherlands. We have a lot of people who study asylum-seekers. Ingrid Ramadan also came up with an initiative during Christmas. We had a box full of presents from university and she asked us to bring the box to her place and she would distribute it to people. So, really local and low profile initiatives are very important, I think. It might bring people to contact each other. 

In September, I will be going to Oxford where we have group border criminologist. It is an initiative from Oxford Law Faculty. They mainly deal with state violence against asylum-seekers, human trafficking as well as how authorities deal with asylum-seekers. They bring together academic perspectives and perspective from people who actually fled from their country. They are part of a group which includes Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford that came up with the idea to nominate Greek islanders for the Nobel Peace Prize. It refers to people who are actually assisting other people to help them and give them shelter, etc. That is also very important I think, as a way of collaboration between academia and asylum-seekers. We will have conference “Race, Criminal and Justice “ and all of these issues will be covered.

Will there be different people from academia?

PM: Yes, absolutely.

I just thought about this project, I do not have a full overview of the material that I can share with you. But like I said, it is completely new and it hasn't been covered in academia yet. One thing that I would like to add is the notion of ‘hashtag activism’. People are using social media to protest against border police as well.

How hashtag activism is used in both sides; people who want to keep them out and people who protest against police brutality at the border. The use of new technology is very important there. 


PM: You have hashtag activism on both sides. You also have groups of people who gather around asylum-seekers centers to protest against their arrival. Still, I also mean the use of mobile technology by asylum-seekers to protest against police brutality at the border. That is something I would like to focus on in the future. How hashtag activism is used in both sides - people who want to keep them out and people who protest against police brutality at the border. The use of new technology is very important there.


Important Links

Foundation for Refugee Students UAF


The British journal for criminology