ORANJE, Netherlands (AP) — In this tiny Dutch village, Jan Voortman’s garden center has added some new products to its lineup of plants, seeds and wooden clogs: falafel, couscous and water pipes.
The enterprising store owner is capitalizing on the newest residents of rural Oranje, until recently population 130: Hundreds of asylum seekers from as far away as Syria, Sudan and Eritrea who are being housed in a disused vacation camp. But the resolutely cheerful Voortman sees his fellow townspeople adopting a starkly different attitude.
Villagers who a year ago grudgingly accepted the arrival of 700 migrants reacted furiously last week when the government announced it was sending up to 700 more, turning Oranje into the latest flashpoint in an increasingly polarized debate about how this densely populated nation of 17 million can accommodate thousands of migrants pouring into the country.
Similar frictions are emerging elsewhere in Europe as the continent struggles to absorb hundreds of thousands of people. Villagers and townsfolk in some parts of Germany also have protested against the arrival of asylum seeker centers, though many others in the country also do plenty to help migrants.
In the end, 103 new migrants were bused into Oranje, bringing the total to 803. The agency responsible for housing asylum seekers called the decision to send more people to Oranje “difficult but unavoidable” given the lack of suitable housing elsewhere.
Oranje was chosen because of its 1,400-bed vacation village, but villagers saw the decision as a betrayal by the central government based more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) away in The Hague, which after sending 700 people last year had pledged not to send any more.
“It was going well. Everybody was satisfied,” Voortman said. When junior Justice Minister Klaas Dijkhoff broke the news to villagers on Tuesday that hundreds more could be on their way, he said, “everybody flipped.”
One woman stood in front of Dijkhoff’s car as he tried to leave the meeting. When she was pulled, screaming, to the side of the road, she fell and injured her arm. A man kicked the car as it drove away.
“I’ve had better evenings,” Dijkhoff told reporters at the Dutch Parliament the following day. “But I understand that people were shocked.”
Two days after the confrontation, the only trace of anger left in the cluster of houses lining the banks of the local canal was the village sign: The name Oranje had been covered in black spray paint and “Syria” scrawled underneath. It was not clear when the sign was defaced.
Many Dutch people are welcoming migrants with open arms, but plenty of others are opposing moves to set up centers for asylum seekers in their towns and villages.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte has faced criticism for his handling of the crisis, while anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders has seen his Freedom Party rise in recent polls as he campaigns against new migrant centers. He argues that the Netherlands should simply close its borders.
But the asylum seekers keep coming. Some 3,000 arrived last week alone; the previous week saw 2,400 and the week before that 4,200.
That has left authorities scrambling for places to put them all. Vacation parks and sports halls are being pressed into service as emergency accommodation centers and local municipalities are being asked to look for other suitable locations.
So far, according to locals, problems caused by the massive influx in Oranje are confined to asylum seekers riding bicycles on the wrong side of the road or walking in the middle of streets at night, posing a risk to themselves and local motorists. But Mayor Ton Baas acknowledged that their arrival has radically changed the sleepy rural village.
“The people, refugees, come from another culture. They walk on the street more, they are outside. They have nothing to do. There’s nothing to do,” he said. “So they are on the street and that gives (the village) a totally different appearance.”
One of this week’s arrivals was Mohamad Ziad, a 28-year-old from Homs in Syria, who crossed Europe in a people-smuggler’s truck after making the risky boat journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Rhodes.
As he shopped in Voortman’s store, Ziad had kind words for the village of Oranje.
“I really like it. You know, we are having our own room — especially your own bathroom — not sharing with each other,” he said. “It’s quiet and people like each other because, you know, we are all in the same situation.”