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“In Oude Pekela they know one thing for sure: asylum-seekers are no good,” ran the headline in De Volkskrant, a Dutch national newspaper, in September. 

The photograph above the piece showed a large, shaven-headed man with a neck tattoo, Paul Röbbecke, who had founded a “citizen guard” to defend little Oude Pekela against dangerous foreigners. 

It sounded like the archetypal story of the populist era. Oude (or “Old”) Pekela is a poor village of 8,000 people stuck away in the Dutch north-east, 20km from the German border. Now, the Volkskrant implied, the mostly white Pekelders (as the inhabitants are known) were telling the political elite in The Hague that they had had enough of the local asylum centre.

That’s certainly how the Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders sees it. His proposed policies include “zero new asylum-seekers”, Dutch exit from the European Union, the closing of all mosques and a ban on sales of the Koran. 

On March 15, in the first elections in a western country since Donald Trump became US president, Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, or PVV, will probably become the Netherlands’ biggest party. After Trump and Brexit, is another domino about to fall to nativism? 

In winter in Oude Pekela, the mist rising off the flat meadows is so thick that you cycle around with lights on even in daytime. Most days when I visited in January, the sun only shone for a few minutes. Almost the only pedestrians are the asylum-seekers, shrouded in ill-fitting coats, trudging to and from the cheerless barracks where they live, just across the provincial road from the village centre, presumably wondering how on earth they ended up here.

In 2014 the Dutch weekly Elsevier placed Oude Pekela 403rd and last in its ranking of “best municipalities” in the Netherlands. It cited the large number of Pekelders on benefits, the village’s low incomes (by one measure, the lowest in the country), scant jobs, high crime and poor facilities. 

The ranking prompted the Evangelische Omroep (EO), a Dutch broadcaster, to make a documentary billed as “Six Months in the Poorest Village in the Netherlands”. The EO focused on a few jobless locals who seemed to spend their days lazing on their sofas smoking. The documentary irritated many Pekelders, who are fed up with other Dutch people stereotyping them as rural savages. 

It’s an old caricature. Ask people from elsewhere in the Netherlands about Oude Pekela, and many still spontaneously mention allegations of wide-scale paedophilia perpetrated by people dressed as clowns in the 1980s. 

No crimes were ever discovered, and the police eventually said the stories were mass hysteria, but the village’s image never recovered.

In the village

The first thing you notice in Oude Pekela is how much richer it looks than poor towns in Britain or France. If this is the poorest village in the Netherlands, then the Netherlands is in pretty good shape. The Dutch state is very present here. In the village centre there is a warm, clean public library with a coffee bar, which adjoins a sports hall. Across the parking lot are the frozen fields of the local football club, Noordster. 

Pekela’s housing stock looks well kept. I visit a jobless single mother named Rianne Kapteijn, a long-time PVV voter, in her pretty brick house with a garden in a cul-de-sac just off the canal. “I feel quite happy in Pekela,” she says. “Me too!” choruses her well-dressed daughter, doing handicrafts beside her. Kapteijn adds: “I don’t feel poor, because we can afford everything.” The minimum gross benefit for a single adult in the Netherlands is €266.40 a week, more than triple the maximum Jobseeker’s Allowance for a British singleton; Dutch child benefit is higher too. 

Rianne Kapteijn and her daughters: “You do ask yourself why all these people are here”

On reporting trips to poor towns in northern England I have encountered fierce distrust of the media. But everyone I meet in Pekela seems happy to sit down with a journalist, often over a cup of the local hemp tea (nothing to do with marijuana, they explain) and hold forth in High Dutch. (With each other, Pekelders favour the local dialect.) 

If Oude Pekela looks reasonably well off, it’s partly because it used to be well off. People began digging peat out of the ground in this region more than 1,000 years ago. They used it to bake bricks and bread, and to brew beer. Later a local river was reshaped into a canal to transport the peat. Ships constructed on the canal sailed to the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. Some of the gorgeous mansions that line Pekela’s waterfront were built 200 years ago for ship captains. Today you can get a large beautiful house here for less than €200,000.

After the peat ran out, and the size of modern ships outgrew the canal, Pekela became an industrial village. Last century, its engineered strawboards were exported around the world. Many Pekelder factory- and farmworkers were poorly paid, and they rallied behind communist leaders like local boy Fré Meis. His statue now stands by the canal, on the spot where he led a strawboard workers’ strike in 1969. Nearby are Socialist Realist-style statues of workers – one depicting a man in a cap pushing a dog-cart – of the type you might have found in East Germany. 

The centre-left PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) has been the biggest party in Oude Pekela since 1946, and until the 1980s the Communist party was reliably second. In the last national election, in 2012, Wilders’ PVV finished third here with 14 per cent, but it expects to do better this time.

Pim Siegers, a local councillor for the far-left Socialistische Partij (SP), insists that Oude Pekela remains one of the Netherlands’ “reddest” villages. But the Pekelder strawboard industry died decades ago, and nothing much replaced it. “There are a lot of people in the shit here,” says Siegers. Some of them rely on a food bank. Much of the northern Groningen province suffers from similar neglect. Lucrative gas is pumped out of the ground, but the main effect on the province has been a series of small earthquakes. 

The asylum centre opens

It was largely poverty that prompted Oude Pekela to host an asylum centre – a source of state subsidies and jobs. The residential centre opened in spring 2001, initially with about 400 places. Suddenly Africans in long robes were walking through the village. For the first time since the Germans invaded in 1940, the wider world had come to Oude Pekela. But the timing was disastrous: months after the centre’s opening, the September 11 attacks happened in the US, and anti-immigrant populism took off in the Netherlands. 

The Dutch ruling parties had long taken immigration almost for granted; suddenly that consensus crumbled. In the anxious winter of 2001, the giant, bald, witty, gay, populist Pim Fortuyn emerged as a brand of politician the Netherlands had never seen before. He inveighed against elites and multiculturalism, and called Islam a “backward culture”. Days before the elections in May 2002 he was assassinated by a green activist, but his leaderless LPF party got enough votes to enter the Dutch government, before imploding months later. 

The recreation room at the Oude Pekela asylum centre

In the Pekela asylum centre’s early years, there was frequent irritation (and the odd fight) between local and refugee youths. Boredom is a problem in a village without a cinema or train station. A popular view in Oude Pekela held that the asylum-seekers were cosseted by the Dutch state: they always seemed to be getting money from the bank machine on the high street, bought brand-name beers in the supermarket, and later acquired smartphones. 

Rene Akkerman, a young Pekelder who admires Wilders, notes that most asylum-seekers must have passed through safe but poor eastern European countries on their way here. 

Rene Akkerman admires Geert Wilders but feels political persecution “is a reason to let [asylum-seekers] in”

In their shoes, he says, he too would take advantage of the Netherlands’ generous government: “If I go on holiday and I can choose between a two-star and a five-star hotel, I’ll choose the five-star.” 

But over the years, tensions between Pekelders and asylum-seekers mostly diminished. Many new arrivals attended the local school or played in the village’s sports teams. A few refugees, after getting permission to live in the Netherlands, settled in the village for good.

Every now and then, some episode has revived tensions. Things heated up again in Oude Pekela last summer. Asylum-seekers were blamed for a string of incidents: shoplifting, attacks on two police officers, peeing in a resident’s garden, and a man trying to stop a 12-year-old girl on a bike and asking her to come with him. (The local rumour is that he sexually assaulted her, but police said no criminal act occurred. The girl managed to cycle away.) 

Pekela’s mayor, Jaap Kuin of the PvdA, says: “It quickly turned out that the culprits were a group of ‘safe-country’ people” – a term used to refer to asylum-seekers from relatively safe regions like the Balkans and north Africa, who almost invariably have their asylum applications rejected. Pekelders had also complained about asylum-seekers hanging around the local park, whistling at women. Kuin says: “It wasn’t accepted that others took over the village and decided what norms and values applied.”

In September a regional group called Kameraadschap Noord-Nederland (“Comradeship Northern Netherlands”) appealed on Facebook for a demonstration against Oude Pekela’s asylum centre. This was the protest reported by the Volkskrant. The photographs of angry, flag-waving, shaven-headed men seemed to confirm the national stereotype of a savage, backward Oude Pekela. 

In fact, the majority of demonstrators that day weren’t Pekelders at all, but out-of-town supporters of the Kameraadschap – which the Dutch interior minister has described as “an extreme-right group”. Mayor Kuin says: “I won’t communicate with them, I want nothing to do with the Kameraadschap.”

Still, the protesters were playing on genuine discontent. During the demonstration a police vehicle keeping watch had to race over to the Jumbo supermarket, where there had been another theft. Siegers says: “Then you think, ‘Guys, we can’t keep on like this for much longer.’ Local people who would love to take in a Syrian child, preferably in their own living room, were saying, ‘We don’t want them any more.’” 

Around the same time as the Kameraadschap demo, there was a more spontaneous protest by locals fed up with the crime wave. These people were what are now known in Dutch political discourse as “boze burgers” – “angry citizens”. 

“That’s the reason I began taking strong measures,” says Kuin. “It really was a reflection of the Oude Pekela population.” He asked the COA, the government agency responsible for asylum-seekers, to remove the troublemakers who had come from so-called safe countries. The COA refused. It didn’t want towns across the country picking and choosing who to host. 

So Kuin insisted that the COA let him move 130 of the approximately 330 people in Oude Pekela’s centre (including the small group of troublemakers) to other Dutch asylum centres. He felt he had to act, because the misbehaving group was undermining sympathy for real refugees.

It’s noteworthy that Kuin was under pressure only from “angry citizens”, and not from the local PVV. That’s because there is no organised local PVV. In almost all Dutch towns, including Oude Pekela, the PVV hasn’t yet stood in council elections, although it plans to enter the fray next year. So far Wilders has preferred to keep personal control of his party rather than turn it into a mass movement. That’s why he has chosen to remain the PVV’s only member. Like Trump during the US campaign, he controls a Twitter account rather than a party machine.

The awkward facts

Last year’s events in Oude Pekela can read like a standard story of our time: a poor white village tells an out-of-touch elite that (to use the Volkskrant’s phrase) asylum-seekers “are no good”. In this narrative, Wilders replaces the communist Fré Meis as the voice of “the people”. 

But this story doesn’t quite fit the facts. When a group of Kameraadschap demonstrators in Oude Pekela became national news, something got lost in translation. The awkward fact is – as the Volkskrant’s ombudswoman acknowledged after complaints about the original article – many Pekelders think that helping asylum-seekers is a good thing. 

Kuin’s decision to move the 130 people prompted a counter-demonstration: a protest by angry citizens in support of the asylum centre. A couple of dozen locals gathered outside the town hall holding signs that said: “I am ashamed”, “Asylum-seekers are welcome” and “Get the culprit, not the whole group”. 

National media didn’t report this protest. Many of the pro-asylum protesters were churchgoers who volunteer at the asylum centre. Jakob Zwinderman, a business coach, told me the Bible was clear: “You receive a guest, and you offer him bed, brood en bad [bed, bread and bath] so that he can go on again.” He continues: “Our church held an ecumenical service with 200 people to raise money for toys for the asylum centre. This got no attention in the press. The same day, 15 blackshirts with tattoos and caps got all the attention for their outrage over the centre.”

Standing up for refugees can be risky. Maurits Langeler, a churchgoer and businessman who lives in the adjoining, slightly wealthier village of Nieuwe Pekela, says that when he began speaking out for asylum-seekers, he got threats. 

Langeler once told anti-asylum demonstrators outside the asylum centre: “There’s a 12-year-old boy from Syria inside who walked here alone, without his parents. Do you want to come in and meet him?” To which, he says, the response was: “Get out, man!” But Langeler says he can imagine how his opponents felt: “You don’t look inside my house... I have misery too.” 

Ria Grijze, who helps at the asylum centre, was upset by the anti-immigrant protests in the village

The churches try to do their bit for Pekelders who are struggling, though a woman named Ria Grijze admits it is sometimes harder to help them than to help asylum-seekers. Local people in need, Grijze says, “often blame someone else. And they keep you at a distance, a bit. Maybe they are very embittered and can’t accept something from you. Maybe a Syrian woman can.”

Grijze was upset by the anti-asylum demonstrations. But her Syrian “buddy” told her: “Don’t get worked up about it. In our country and in the asylum centre there are also people who aren’t nice.” Some of Pekela’s asylum-seekers were relieved when the misbehaving “safe-country” youths were moved away. 

For many Pekelder churchgoers, the asylum centre has become a central part of their lives. One woman I meet had felt useless after her children grew up and left home, and had become depressed. Volunteering to help asylum-seekers gave her a purpose, she says. Another volunteer, Lenie Cannegieter, is grateful that the asylum-seekers “were placed in our path”. Muslim women, she adds, “hug you till you’re blue”.

Some asylum-seekers, in turn, try to help local people. When a church collected clothes for poor Pekelders, asylum-seekers helped sort the donations. Most of them are bored out of their minds, and keen to do something other than dwell on their own trauma. A number of Muslim asylum-seekers even attend Bible study groups. One refugee who came along to church was amazed to see female worshippers wearing short dresses, says Langeler, who thinks this kind of cultural immersion can help asylum-seekers integrate in the Netherlands.

Many Pekelders are quietly accepting of the asylum-seekers. Geert Begeman, a 91-year-old former farmer turned poet and memoirist, tells me: “It’s just the development of our time, the multicultural society. It’s simply part of everything.” 

Zwinderman, who chairs the village’s entrepreneurs’ society, emailed Pekelder shopkeepers to ask whether they had experienced problems with asylum-seekers. He showed me the responses of the three who replied:

Shopkeeper 1: “Some are nice and some not nice. You must treat them as you would want to be treated yourself… One thing is sure, they have all experienced something bad: war, dangerous surroundings, death. Traumatised – nobody wants that.”

Shopkeeper 2: “If asylum-seekers come in, they usually look around, sometimes ask prices and then leave again… They were often in the park but that didn’t give us trouble. Usually it’s Pekelder youth that leave behind lots of rubbish, especially at the windmill.”

Shopkeeper 3: “I have no troubles either from the asylum centre or from its inhabitants. As regards the ‘proletarian shopping’ [theft] by asylum-seekers in the supermarket, I don’t think it’s worse than that by some Pekelders.” (The point that some Pekelders cause trouble was made to me by many in the village.) 

Geert Begeman, 91, pictured at his home: “It’s just the development of our time, the multicultural society”

Yet Zwinderman also knows even well-off locals who are fed up with refugees. He tries to describe their feelings: “We work ourselves sick, and look at what the state does with our money!” 

‘Deserving’ and ‘undeserving’

There are undoubtedly Pekelders who believe refugees should be barred from the Netherlands. I looked for these people, hoping to give them a voice in this article, but I couldn’t find any. Almost everyone I spoke to, including three PVV supporters, drew a distinction between undeserving “gelukszoekers” (“seekers of luck, happiness”) who ought to be sent back home, and “real” asylum-seekers who should be helped.

Kapteijn, the unemployed single mother, worries that immigrant cities like Rotterdam “feel like abroad”. She says her hometown in the central Netherlands now has so many “foreigners” that she wouldn’t want to live there. She remarks that the Syrian city of Aleppo wasn’t entirely flattened, only eastern Aleppo. “So you do ask yourself why all these people are here. I certainly have an opinion about gold-diggers.” 

However, Kapteijn also volunteers at Pekela’s asylum centre, and has taken children from the centre to play at her house. She herself had to flee a relationship in South Africa. “Then you see that you need that [help], and it’s nice that we can offer that.” 

Even Akkerman, the Wilders admirer who thinks the Netherlands lets in too many people, says: “If someone has to flee for political reasons, that for me is a reason to let them in. If something happens to you yourself, you also want to be able to go somewhere.” 

Lenie Cannegieter and Maurits Langeler, photographed in front of the Christian Reformed Church, are among the residents who support Oude Pekela’s asylum centre

The local distinction between deserving and undeserving asylum-seekers differs from Wilders’ hard line. The Pekelder consensus seems closer to the view of prime minister Mark Rutte, of the centre-right VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie ) party: “Act normally, or get out.” 

Most Dutch people seem to have some degree of willingness to take in refugees. In a poll carried out by I&O Research and Twente University in 2015, 71 per cent of respondents said they would consider an asylum centre in their town “acceptable”. (Of that group, 42 per cent said it would be unconditionally acceptable, and 29 per cent under certain conditions.) 

A trope of populism is that out-of-touch elites ignore the anger of “ordinary people” until it boils over. That doesn’t seem to be what has happened in Oude Pekela. Kuin spends much of his time trying to find out what local concerns are. 

When Akkerman complains that the council doesn’t listen to Pekelders, I remind him that after Kuin became mayor he organised “coffee hours” at which anyone could drop in without an appointment. Hardly anyone showed up. Kuin still offers to meet any Pekelder wanting to talk to him. Akkerman replies: “That’s true. But I have the feeling that it would be more use talking to a wall.” I ask: “Why don’t you try?”, to which Akkerman responds: “Why does he need me to tell him what he should do?” 

When locals protested against the asylum centre in September, the Socialistische Partij – attuned to local feeling – backed Kuin’s decision to relocate the troublemakers. Afterwards, anger decreased. Freddie Boon of Pekela’s so-called citizen guard told Dutch TV he supported the move, adding: “Some would rather they had all left, but you shouldn’t do that either.” 

When I visited Pekela in January, nobody mentioned any recent incidents with asylum-seekers. Akkerman says: “The last few months it’s really quiet.” The citizen guard, which had organised on Facebook, and “walked around a bit” in the autumn, according to Kuin, seems to have melted away since. (I tried several times to contact its founder Röbbecke for an interview, but he didn’t reply.)

Since the asylum centre opened here in 2001, local anger seems to have gone in cycles. It peaks when there is an incident of violence or misbehaviour and then dissipates, whereupon the village gets on with life until the next incident. Most Dutch towns with asylum centres seem to cope. In the I&O poll, only 15 per cent of people who lived near one of the centres said they had experienced nuisance or difficulties. By contrast, 49 per cent of people who didn’t live near a centre expected that if they did, they would experience problems.

Things are currently so quiet in Oude Pekela that Kuin says he could do with more asylum-seekers. The centre now houses about 200 people but he thinks Pekela could handle 400 – preferably families, he adds, as there isn’t enough for single youths to do in the village. 

Half-empty asylum centres are now an issue across the Netherlands. Anxiety over asylum-seekers peaked in autumn 2015. There were warnings that the country would be flooded. Angry demonstrations against centres took place across the country. When the state’s Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (SCP) polled the Dutch about their greatest concern in late 2015, 65 per cent replied: “The refugees.” It was the first time since the survey began in 2008 that any single concern was shared by more than 30 per cent of the population. But the flood never came, because Turkey did a deal with the EU to stop refugees at its border. 

Last year about 31,200 asylum-seekers and their relatives registered in the Netherlands. Now many of the country’s plans for new asylum centres are being scrapped. In the SCP’s most recent poll, concern over refugees had declined, though it remained high. Refugees are an issue in the March elections, but probably less than Wilders would have wanted.

Wilders’ nativist movement is often likened to Brexit and Trump. But proportionately it’s much smaller. Britain’s Leave movement and the Trump campaign each persuaded about half the electorate, whereas Wilders is polling at 20 per cent or under. 


The Dutch elections in six charts


Even if his becomes the largest party as forecast, that might not get him very far. Because of the Netherlands’ system of proportional representation, Dutch governments are always coalitions, which can only rule effectively if they have more than half the seats in parliament. 

But it’s hard to see who the PVV could go into coalition with. Rutte’s VVD – the most rightwing of the mainstream parties – has ruled out a deal. In addition, Dutch parties usually need to make compromises in order to form coalitions – and Wilders has never shown much interest in compromising. It looks more likely that the mainstream parties, whose differences are relatively small, will patch together a new coalition. Akkerman, for one, says he won’t be voting for Wilders in March because he doubts the PVV can get into government. 

Nor is Wilders a thrilling novelty the way Trump and Brexit were. He has been an MP for 19 years, first for the VVD and then for the PVV, which he founded in 2006. The PVV represents the “middle-finger vote” for Pekelders who are fed up with The Hague, says Siegers, but he adds that the bigger threat to his own SP party is abstention.

Wilders claims to speak for excluded Dutch people – in his phrase, for “Henk and Ingrid”. But the truth is that even in poor Oude Pekela he represents a minority. Some Pekelders do think asylum-seekers are “no good” but most hold more positive and nuanced views. The new international cliché is that the elite needs to go to places like Oude Pekela to listen to “ordinary people”. If it did, it might be surprised by what it heard. 

Additional research by Milo van Bokkum

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.