We are living in the social media era of news. The forces that have traditionally controlled media and information sources (governments, big business and the extremely wealthy) are being stripped of their power by the ‘everyman’ nature of social media, and a new set of voices is starting to be heard. Regardless of the conflict, all effective propaganda must, it seems, first be filtered through Twitter and Facebook.
An example of these new voices can be found in the Amsterdam campaigning group Wij Zijn Hier (‘We are here’ –WZH); a group of refugees who have started using social media to tell their own stories.
WZH is a campaigning group of self-identified ‘refused refugees’ – men and women who have been refused asylum in the Netherlands. Since 1998, illegal aliens here have not been entitled to access social services; in 2010 it was made illegal for municipalities to offer them emergency shelter.
This hardline attitude flies in the face of the human right to ‘bed, bath and bread’. The European Committee of Social Rights responded by asking the Dutch government to provide some basic assistance in the form of shelter, food and medical care. The government’s solution was to provide 6 months’ worth of shelter for the refugees by housing them in a former prison known as Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven).
WZH members started squatting at various locations in 2012, setting up a social media presence the same year. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, the 120 refused refugees were able to keep their supporters informed of the Dutch government’s decision, on subsequent life in Vluchthaven, and what happened once they were no longer welcome there.
WZH’s time at Vluchthaven came to an end on the night of the football World Cup semi-final between Holland and Argentina. As the citizens of Amsterdam cheered on the national team, the streets were deserted, and many supporters of WZH’s campaign were distracted by the game.
As a result, people were unaware that WZH had been told that they would have to leave Vluchthaven and (due to the hardline laws preventing Dutch municipalities from offering shelter to illegal immigrants) they would no longer be housed by the city of Amsterdam. The group of refugees took to the streets and social media in an attempt to tell their supporters that they had nowhere to go.
For many other refugee groups, this would have been the start of a lonely, harrowing night. But thanks to the ability of social media to reach into people’s homes, WZH was still able to contact its supporters.
Offers of help began to trickle in. People brought tents and sleeping bags, food was offered, people began to tell the story on Twitter, cutting across the World Cup static, and finally a local church offered the group a roof for tonight.
Getting over 120 people off the streets, fed and safe for the night is a massive challenge. Had it not been for WZH’s established presence on social media it is likely most of the help offered would not have been forthcoming.
WZH member Ali Juma is quick to point out that social media has a greater use than sourcing food and donations. Juma credits the group’s social media presence – which gained hundreds of followers that weekend – for its success in making contact with Dutch citizens who might otherwise never have heard about what was happening.
As more people became aware of their campaign, the members of WZH felt less alone; a triumph in the face of the ongoing and sustained rejection they have experienced as refused refugees. Facebook alone cannot stop them being evicted, but it has allowed their voices to be heard.