Can we still deviate from the norm in the Netherlands? The question arises when listening to the story of the caravanners Mélanie and Bernadet Duister, last weekend in an article and a podcast by NRC. The sisters have lived all their lives in a family camp in Heesbeen, a village in the municipality of Heusden in North Brabant, where they now both want to move into their own caravan with their partners. For this, they have in mind two sites which remained empty after the departure of two cousins, but the municipality refuses to rent the sites.
The case fits into the picture that the National Mediator outlined again last March. In 2017, he already did In-depth research to the situation of caravanners in the Netherlands. He then noted that the decentralization of the caravan policy in 1999 had led to a worsening of the situation of caravanners. Since then, many municipalities have implemented a “fire-extinguishing policy”, which consisted in removing vacant sites. As a result, 750 of the 9,600 locations have disappeared, while the number of potential residents has increased. Since the report, the extinction policy has been officially ruled out, but hardly any new locations have been added since then. 26 to be precise, outgoing Minister Kajsa Ollongren (Home Affairs, D66) said last month in a letter to Parliament. Ollongren called the issue “disappointing” in the letter and promised to set up a support program with the Association of Dutch Municipalities.
Two months earlier, in March, the mediator in a letter recalled his research from 2017. The reality of paper has improved, according to the mediator, but not yet in practice. He mentions the reasons for this, among others, that land is scarce and that the municipalities consider the inhabitants of the caravans as “a difficult target group”. The main purpose of the policy is to enforce the law, especially as 400 police officers raided the Vinkenslag caravan center in Maastricht in 2004 and found all kinds of cannabis plantations there.
For fear of this kind of unsavory scenes, the municipalities like to resort to rules. The case of the Duister sisters proves that they can go too far. There, the town was first concerned with fire safety: the locations desired by Mélanie and Bernadet were said to be too close to each other and therefore did not meet safety standards. The municipality then spoke of new noise standards, according to which sites would be irresponsible near a busy road. It didn’t matter that the sisters lived there all their lives. It is also not unthinkable that the sisters live outside the camp.
Most Dutch like to live in a brick terraced house. They are supported, because the new identical subdivisions are currently succeeding to fight against the housing shortage. Some houses even come out of the factory ready-made, to the chagrin of architects who fear monotony, as reported last Monday. in by Volkskrant. And due to the continued rise in prices and gentrification, this monotony also affects city centers, where, according to essayist Arjen van Veelen, the “suburban spirit” is descending.
The fact that there are still people who want a different form of life must be seen as something beautiful. This is also diversity. But caravanners also deserve more leniency for another reason: quite simply because they have the right to live their lives in their own way. The key word here is the principle of equality. The Mediator underlined in 2017 that this had been misinterpreted. The municipalities treated caravanners in the same way as other citizens: places were therefore also offered to people outside their own group. But according to various human rights treaties, caravan dwellers have the right to protection of their cultural identity: in other words, unequal cases should be treated unequally. The Mediator did not qualify this preferential treatment, but as a “corollary of a human right”.
It was nicely said, but it gave too little. Many municipalities do not make enough efforts to help caravanners find accommodation. The Ombudsman’s repeated appeal was therefore a welcome signal to the municipalities and the national government. And it also contains a broader message: a multi-faceted society must guarantee the right to deviation.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on June 5, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of June 5, 2021