Moving Forward When Life is on Hold: Personal Development in Asylum Seeker Centers in Dutch Shrinking Areas

By Eline Heirman (Master in International Development Studies)

How do you develop personally, when you are living in a rural, shrinking area in the Netherlands? In the research, I conducted for my Master Thesis, I focused on the personal development of asylum-seekers in rural, shrinking areas in the Netherlands. Talking with asylum-seekers, I have stumbled upon many interesting practices and aspirations of asylum-seekers in rural, shrinking areas that are attributed to the time they are spending in reception centers. However, one conclusion was always evident: asylum-seekers are eager to grow personally and want to start integrating in the Dutch society proactively, but they are unable to do so due to their lack of legal status. So, how can they develop personally?

Liminality and Personal Development

“When they say ‘you need to wait’ but you have no idea how long you need to wait. That is the most horrible part of the situation (…) it is just like someone is pushing the pause button in your life”. (Mia, 28 years old from Armenia) – all names mentioned are pseudonyms.

Due to the absence of a legal status, asylum-seekers are generally in-between their ‘former life’ and their ‘future life’ in the reception country. This period in-between can  be called liminality (see also see the work of Ghorashi (2005), Ghorashi, De Boer and Ten Holder (2018), Stenner (2017) and O’Reilly (2018)). Asylum-seekers in general are subject to liminality, for example because reception centers, which are called AZCs in Dutch, are mostly places located outside of towns and separated spatially and socially from the rest of  Dutch society. The AZC is also a place where asylum-seekers have to wait long periods until they receive a reply on their asylum-application; this can take months, or sometimes even years.

Staying in the AZC feels like someone has pressed the “pause-button” of life

During this ‘pause’ or waiting-time asylum-seekers have limited autonomy to develop themselves as they have little rights to work or study. This is something that leads to great frustration, as one of the research participants pointed out to me: “Where do you meet new people? Mostly in study, in the work, because of work, because of all that connections going. So when there is no such opportunity it is really hard to meet new people”. Not only does the inability to work or study impact one’s autonomous decision to develop oneself through labour or education, it also negatively impacts network building. As research has shown, it is precisely networking that is needed to integrate in the local community.


Often you see people going from AZC to AZC. Each time they have to make new friends. There is so much loss. Some much grief comes with it and there is no time passing during the day. Yes, somewhere they lose themselves. This programme offers new skills on how to sustain oneself in such a period. (Maya, GZA Nurse)

Luckily, there are several organizations that contribute to personal development of asylum-seekers. For example, the ‘BAMBOO’-programme of the healthcare organization ‘Gezondheidszorg Asielzoekers’(GZA), lets asylum-seekers work on their personal development, goals, skills and resilience during their liminal period in the AZC. The programme is meant for day to day struggles of asylum-seekers. ‘Stichting de Vrolijkheid’ (a name that roughly translates as ‘Foundation Happiness’) is an organization that arranges art projects for young AZC-residents. They are present in several AZCs, but unfortunately not in all. Their projects contribute to self-expression and personal development of refugees staying in AZCs, with the main goal: let children be children!

Outside of the AZC there may be Buddy programmes. Through buddy projects, refugees pair up with locals, which is an effective and inclusive contribution to integration. It may also lead to bridging the gap in networking as one employee of Buddy to Buddy mentioned:

What I have noticed is that it is so really easy to close your front door and stay in your own home. Most refugees have a full mind and their own life. But buddies quite literally open their front door and let others in. This way you will become part of society”.

Becoming part of society, or engaging in activities that may contribute to personal development is actually quite hard while residing in rural, shrinking areas. Though there are several organizations that contribute to personal development of asylum-seekers, these organizations or project are not  available in or near AZCs, meaning that it completely depends on the location of the AZC where you are placed whether you can join arranged activities or not. What became clear in my research, is that the state of liminality of asylum-seekers may be enlarged due to being located in a rural, shrinking region. For instance because available activities nearby are dispersed over a large area.  In such case, asylum-seekers do not always have the means to transport themselves easily to the nearest town or activity due to the inability to ride a bike,  or because they do not have money for public transport. It may also be because there simply are no activities or facilities available. An employee of buddy to buddy vividly told me:

“By car it [going to another town] might take you 20 minutes. But by public transport you will be on the road for an hour and a half. When you are in a very small town, like Keppel, you have to be lucky if there is a local ‘neighbourhood’ bus, but other than that, there is hardly anything”.

As some local communities can be conservative and reserved, networking with natives becomes extra hard. This leads to isolation amongst asylum-seekers and refugees, consequently negatively impacting their personal development and integration. Yet, there also seem to be local inhabitants who are active in engaging with people residing in nearby AZCs, some of them being engaged as volunteers for organizations like Stichting de Vrolijkheid and the Dutch Council for Refugees (Vluchtelingenwerk).

Personal development

Some people, they try to improve themselves. (…) it is not easy to handle these feelings, but finally you have to if you want to do something for yourself. You have to learn how to handle that situation, it is really important for your mental health. (Jeff , 28 years old from Venezuela)              

The asylum-seekers participating in my research, did not have any activities provided in, or near the AZC. A common phrase in every conversation with my research participants was ‘there’s nothing to do here’. However, they have found ways to develop themselves despite the restrictions that come with the liminal position and despite the fact that they are so remotely located.

In my research, I have used visual methods to co-create knowledge with participants. They took pictures of places they like to go, things they are proud of and goals for the future. Through photographs that research participants have taken, I will point out some of these activities that contribute to personal development.

Language learning

Well, I feel proud when I apply knowledge on the street or with someone. My computer and my book have helped me explain myself and for that I feel grateful. (Manuel 18 Venezuela)

It may seem obvious to start learning a the language of the host country, but for most asylum-seekers in the Netherlands, it really is not. As language learning is not officially allowed until a refugee status has been granted, many asylum-seekers learn Dutch by themselves by purchasing study books, going to taalcafés (language cafes) or actively reaching out to locals in order to study Dutch. Most of my research participants have found learning Dutch a must in order to be able to integrate. Besides them viewing it as a necessity, it also provided them with a sense of competence and success when they communicate in Dutch with locals.

Recreational activities

When I start the activity, the sport. I really don’t think that I am going to do that and it was the beginning of the new me. Because I started to feel a little bit confident on myself. And that encouraged me to apply to university. Because I thought ‘if I can do this, I can do whatever’. (Gloria, 23 years old from Peru)

What remains, when there are few organized activities, and little organizations nearby, are self-initiated recreational activities. One of my main findings was that recreational activities that are not necessarily intended to bring forth personal growth, often do lead to personal development. Activities that are meant as a time passing in liminality, contribute to reflection and sense of personality. They also help to build self-confidence and provide meaning during a period in which people may have lost it. Think for example of writing stories, drawing, dancing and doing sports.

Take for example mountain biking. It is outdoors, healthy and gives a true adrenaline rush. Several asylum-seekers in my research have mentioned working out in nature. Mostly, this started as a way to be outside the AZC, away from a place that is generally considered depressing. Soon, participants noticed personal development.  For example, one participant has explained the meaning of mountain biking as follows: ‘And I think the word will be freedom. Feel the freedom, that you could get riding a bike’. For him, mountain biking turned out to be synonymous to the freedom that does not exist in his country of origin. As mentioned in the quote above, biking has also led to self-confidence and decision-making that lead to personal growth, such as applying to college. Also other ways of being in nature have proven to be of importance to asylum-seekers in rural areas. These range from running, walking, reading or merely ‘being’ in nature. According to participants, they lead to a sense of peace, reflection and well-being.

Mindshift changes

Staying in the AZC, means living with people from all over the world. Everyone has a different background and a different story. And the realization of this, made my research participants describe themselves as having become more open-minded and humble. This is due to spending time with people from all over the world, and ‘making it work together’ as a multicultural community. As many of my research participants have mentioned, the stories of others, the habits of others; learning why others do what they do, have made them more tolerant and insightful and helped them to see the good in other people. One participant has mentioned: “The experience of being in exile and living in this type of community makes people humble and a lot of people should, how to say? Well, yeah. Experience it! Not in a bad way. It would be good for people. To see the good in other people”.

In the end, it turns out that in the liminality experienced in an AZC can undermine personal development. Partly because of all the rules and regulations that come with living in the AZC, such as not being allowed to learn Dutch officially. In rural shrinking areas specifically, such feelings of liminality can be reinforced by long distances and feelings of isolation. However, for most of the AZC residents I talked to, the center as a place and community can also  contribute to personal development, as asylum-seekers have noticed personal growth in how to handle intercultural communication and becoming more open-mined. Self-initiated activities that are used to pass the time waiting for a decision on the asylum application, may lead to spontaneous and self-led personal development.

* The pictures are made by the participants of the study and published in this blog with their consent.