Suze van Workum
Dutch trailer parks; a story of institutionalized discrimination
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
About two weeks ago, the Netherlands witnessed the largest housing protest since the 1980s with over 15.000 people traveling to our capital to express their discontent with the current housing crisis. This housing crisis is by no means a new phenomenon, and for one group of people, it has been their everyday reality as a result of conscious policy-making: the approximately 30.000 to 60.000 people who live in trailer parks in the Netherlands. For 15 years, the Netherlands enforced an uitsterfbeleid (‘extinction policy’) against mobile homes and trailer parks, which are mostly occupied by Roma and Sinti people. As a result, our country has constructed a major shortage in caravan sites and aided in the erasure of a historic culture. The policies regarding trailer parks serve as a striking example of how a historically marginalized group of people falls victim to discriminatory language, stereotypes and, eventually, laws. In other words: this is how discrimination becomes institutionalized.
For decades, trailer parks and the people that live there have been victims of the ‘criminal & maladjusted’ stereotype. As a result, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) labeled Roma, Sinti and other trailer park residents the most discriminated group of Europe.* In 2020, the FRA conducted research containing almost 5.000 interviews about the societal position of these people in six different European countries, with the most abominable position being in the Netherlands; 76 percent of those questioned indicated having experienced discrimination because of their cultural background.
To dive even further into the findings, 51 percent experienced discrimination within schools, whether as a parent or student; 67 percent experienced discrimination when looking for a job, and a whopping 83 percent experienced discrimination in the form of insults, threats or violence. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, 98 percent of those questioned believe there are not enough trailer parks/caravan pitches for them to live their lives according to their tradition.
This is the direct result of an uitsterfbeleid whereby municipalities were actively trying to reduce the number of trailer sites to zero for at least fifteen years. Did a trailer leave someplace, the site was quickly covered with blocks of concrete or transformed into a regular parking spot by civil servants. Moreover, new applications for trailer sites were unjustifiably denied or ignored, and existing trailer permits were revoked. While people were actively denied their preferred housing, they weren’t otherwise accommodated or aided with finding other residencies. As a result, thousands of Roma, Sinti and other trailer park residents have been forced to abandon their way of life and either live with relatives or move to a ‘regular house’. To add insult to injury, this active repression of trailers and trailer parks happened during a time where the concept of ‘tiny houses’ was gaining enormous popularity and status, even though the differences between tiny houses and trailers are quite minimal, except for the price tag and the socio-economic class of the people occupying them.
Although the specific uitsterfbeleid, which was terminated in 2018, ‘only’ lasted for fifteen years, many generations of Roma people, Sinti people, and other trailer park residents have had to suffer painfully discriminatory governance across Europe. We first see this manifest in Dutch policy in 1918, in the Wet op Woonwagens en Woonschepen (‘Law on Trailers and Houseboats’).** Though this law was justified by claiming it was supposed to protect trailer park residents from bullying and harassment, it came with a host of requirements for the residents that did not apply to other Dutch citizens. For example, trailer park residents had to apply for a residence permit (despite being regular Dutch citizens already), which expired automatically after a certain amount of time, thus requiring the residents to go through the whole process of prolonging that permit every so often, always with the chance of getting said permit denied. Recently, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies concluded in a report that the law was not meant to protect Roma & Sinti from discrimination or harassment, but that it was intended to aid in the eventual eradication of mobile homes and trailer parks.
Trailer park in 1930s Eindhoven. Source: Brabants Erfgoed.
The next generation was violently targeted by the nazis under the German occupation of World War II. Declared to be an ‘undesirable group’ by the nazi’s, Roma & Sinti were captivated and deported on a large scale. An estimated 500.000 Roma and Sinti people (then referred to as ‘gypsies’) were murdered in the Porajmos, the nazi genocide of Roma and Sinti people in Europe.
The following generation was the first to actively be denied a nomadic lifestyle; from 1968 onwards, people were required to settle and register in regional trailer parks.*** This new law was intended to better the living circumstances of trailer park residents and many received running water, electricity, and a toilet connected to a sewage system for the first time. Additionally, every trailer park received a social worker and an elementary school. But these mandatory settlements also meant that people could no longer live together, trade, and care for their communities as they historically had.
This second piece of legislation on trailers and trailer parks was terminated in 1999. Since then, any policy regarding trailer residents has been up to the discretion of municipalities and (profit-making) housing corporations. Quickly it becomes clear that municipalities are not equipped to deal with this way of living, its residents and their respective culture, and in 2003 they start executing an uitsterfbeleid.****
The last research on the number of trailer sites we have in the Netherlands dates back to 1999, when the number of trailer sites was put at 7.700 and a shortage of over 2.000 trailer sites was determined. Since then, and since the implementation of the uitsterfbeleid, an additional 3.000 trailer sites have disappeared. It took severe critiques from the European Court of Human Rights and from the national Ombudsman for this discriminatory policy to be terminated in 2018. But the shortage of trailer sites remains; the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) determined last year that since the termination of the uitsterfbeleid only around 100 new trailer sites had been established when the shortage had now been determined to be at least 6.000 sites.***** In other words: government institutions pursued policy that manufactured a housing shortage, later concluded that what they had done was discriminatory and thus a problem, but did not actually make any efforts to solve the problems they had created in the first place. Furthermore, trailer park residents often still can’t insure their accommodation at an insurance company and are frequently (and unjustifiably) denied mortgages by banks.
This all leads to the question of why; why are different government institutions so determined to wipe out this particular culture and way of living? The responsible policymakers and institutions claim they did it to combat and prevent crime, which is an interesting justification, to say the least. It plays into the ‘criminal’ stereotype that nomadic communities have been depicted as for generations when there seemingly is no data backing up this cliché. Simply put, there is no data comparing crime in ‘regular’ residential communities to that of mobile home/trailer communities, therefore no conclusions on the degree of crime in either one can be drawn. However, the Research and Documentation Center (WODC) of the Ministry of Justice and Security explained that trailer parks exhibit certain social, cultural, and physical characteristics that work favorably for those who do wish to commit criminal activities.****** Simply put: the culture of a close-knit community of loyal residents and the privacy of trailer sites are favorable conditions for crime. And so, without concrete evidence backing this claim up, it is deemed ‘worth it’ to actively demonize and persecute an entire community.
A swift Google search quickly conveys the precarious position that Roma and Sinti people occupy across Europe. In 1999 in Belgium, Roma and Sinti were requested to ‘complete’ their asylum applications at their respective city hall, only to be subsequently deported. In 2004 in Italy, a Roma trailer park was pelted with incendiary bombs. In 2009 in Hungary, fascist action groups went on a shooting spree at a trailer park, killing four people. In the Czech Republic, also in 2009, the National Party aired a commercial in which they called for a definitive solution to the ‘gypsy problem’. But in the Netherlands? No molotov cocktails or hoards of xenophobes committing hate crimes here (yet), just consciously constructed discrimination within our government institutions.
Residents of a trailer park in Nijmegen protest. Source: De Gelderlander.
*You can check out the FRA report here https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2020-roma-travellers-six-countries_en.pdf
**You can check out the 2018 Wet op de Woonwagens en Woonschepen here: https://docplayer.nl/50642143-De-wet-op-de-woonwagens-en-woonschepen-van-1918.htmlh
***You can check out the 1979 report of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies on the persecution of Roma and Sinti people and other nomadic communities here: http://publications.niod.knaw.nl/publications/Sijes_zigeuners.pdf
****You can check out the uitsterfbeleid of 2003 here https://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0014544/2003-01-10
*****You can check out the NOS article on the development of trailer sites after 2018 here https://nos.nl/artikel/2350797-woonwagenbewoners-moeten-lang-wachten-op-standplaats
****** You can check out the WODC report on crime in trailer parks here https://repository.wodc.nl/handle/20.500.12832/1256