By NAOMI O’LEARY
OUDE PEKELA, the Netherlands — As the Netherlands prepares for elections in March, immigration is emerging as one of the defining issues of a campaign pitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte against the anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders. And few places illustrate the tensions over the issue better than Oude Pekela, a village of roughly 8,000 residents close to the German border.
Syria may be thousands of kilometers away, but the fallout of its civil war has reached the town’s orderly streets. Like many places in the country, the response to a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers mobilized residents fearful of the impact of immigration on their communities.
The number of people who claimed asylum in the Netherlands doubled in 2015 as thousands of Syrians made their way to the country, often through difficult journeys across Europe.
The result was that asylum seeker centers, many in provincial surroundings far from the Netherlands’ cosmopolitan cities, rapidly increased the numbers of people they hosted, bringing in bunk beds and temporary shelters to make space.
Rush to welcome migrants
In Oude Pekela, locals said, it suddenly seemed like the newcomers were everywhere — walking on the roadside, filling the supermarket to buy groceries, taking up seats on the bus to the nearby town of Winschoten.
“Our community is too small for this number of people,” said Heye Meyer, a 60-year-old former construction worker, sitting on his mobility scooter outside the supermarket. “We are afraid.”
Like elsewhere in the country, discomfort grew into protests, citizen street patrols and a building momentum among small-scale political groups opposed to immigration that could prove decisive when Dutch voters head to the polls in March.
The numbers of asylum applications to the Netherlands was a fraction of those next door in Germany. In 2015, there were some 56,900 applicants; from January to November 2016, another 26,600. But the sharp increase meant that normal procedures to acclimatize local communities were rushed, according to Dutch asylum agency COA.
“Everything had to be done quick,” recalled spokesman Jan Willem Anholts. “You have to take time for these changes, and last year there was no time. But then again, nobody had to sleep outside or under a bridge.”
Ahmad, 20, a refugee from Aleppo, said it might have been better for new arrivals like himself to have been placed in a city. “It is maybe strange for them that we are here. It is a small town, with many old people,” he said. “It could be better in Amsterdam.”
Tensions came to a head in September when a wildcat protest, fueled by rumors of harassment by asylum seekers shared over social media, formed outside the asylum center gates. Police kept the crowd back, but the mayor was forced to issue an emergency order to disperse the protest. Shortly afterward, he promised to cut the number of people housed in the center.
That was the month the neighborhood watch began patrolling the village with the aim of stamping out anti-social behavior and harassment, reporting any wrongdoers to the police.
Such self-appointed anti-crime groups have ballooned in the Netherlands from 124 groups in 2012 to 661 in 2016, according to a study by sociologist Vasco Lub, raising fears of vigilantism.
Crime perceptions and anxieties
Official statistics show that reported crime is falling among all nationalities and has halved since 2005, but the rise in neighborhood watches, often coordinated over WhatsApp chat groups, reflects a widespread perception among residents that the streets are less safe.
Asylum applications are dropping, but the political movements that grew in response to worries about the influx show no sign of going away. As the election approaches, a constellation of overlapping groups and activists share reports of misdeeds by immigrants, fueling a sense that the Netherlands is under siege.
One such group, Kameraadschap Noord-Nederland, which describes itself as “national-minded people with a socialist heart,” has organized repeated protests against asylum seekers in the area.
Another, United We Stand Holland: Protecting Our Citizens, was formed after an incident in which locals accosted an Oude Pekela asylum seeker and handed him over to police, accusing him of harassment. (A statement released afterward by authorities said that the man had “behaved inappropriately” toward a 12-year-old girl in a supermarket, but had not committed a crime.)
In the run up to Christmas, United We Stand has switched its focus to gifting hampers to households. And as the election approaches, it and other groups like it have turned their attention making sure their voices are heard.
United We Stand’s Facebook page features streams of posts about misdeeds by asylum seekers, perceived attacks on Dutch culture, and updates about Geert Wilders.
“People are tired of it! And rightly so!” the group wrote on Facebook this month as it shared a poll that showed Wilders’ Freedom Party had increased its lead against Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. “Wilders is the only hope for a better governance of this country.”