The refugee question in the Netherlands - What can we learn from the First World War?


The biggest monument in the Netherlands has stood squarely in the country's geographic centre, at the top of one of its few hills, the Amerfoortse Berg, since 1919. It marks the gratitude of our Belgian neighbours for the shelter we offered in the First World War. More than a million Belgians fled to the neutral Netherlands, and this at a time when the latter's population was a mere six million. This might be compared to the proportion of refugees now in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. A hundred and one years ago the Netherlands was really flooded with people fleeing war. How did we cope with this and what can we learn from it now?

Immediately after the German invasion of neutral Belgium on 1st August 1914, the first Belgian refugees arrived in the Netherlands, in the souther province of Limburg. At first reception was difficult, as the country was nowhere prepared. Local help was extended on the initiative of private individuals and a national Support Committee was established which collected 300,000 guilders (over 3 million euros in modern money) in a few months to aid the refugees. Local committees sprang up like mushrooms from the ground and supplied clothing, bedding, foodstuffs and children's toys to the Belgian neighbours. In the course of September the government became involved and established a national committee to guide the local committees, of which there were eventually five hundred. Two objectives were paramount: to offer accommodation to those who could afford to pay, and aid and shelter for people with no money. That was easier said than done. The enormous violence of the war, and in particular the malicious German terror against the resistant Belgian population, drove ever more people over the border in flight. After the German bombardment of Antwerp, panic grew to enormous proportions. In a few weeks more than a million people had fled to the Netherlands, whose population was a mere six times that number.


The Netherlands was totally unprepared, strapped for cash and balanced precariously on the neutrality agreement. Germany and Great Britain kept a very close watch on the Dutch in order to ascertain whether or not their country was maintaining its duties as a neutral state. Social legislation, social housing, social health care and democratic oversight were all still in the future, while the Belgian refugees simply kept coming, all of them needing to be accommodated.. Here and there grumbling was heard about these strange neighbours – overwhelmingly Catholic while the Netherlands was primarily protestant.

Yet all in all the readiness of Dutch people to help their Belgian neighbours exceptional. It was also very much needed. In a few weeks some 100,000 people entered the southern border province of Limburg, 100,000 crossed into Limburg, 450,000 into Zeeland and more than half a million into North Brabant. Bergen op Zoom alone, a seaside town with a population of 16,500, saw an influx in October 1914 of more than 100,000 Belgian refugees.

The situation of many refugees was deplorable. For fear of outbreaks of infectious diseases, they were transported as quickly as possible further into the country and, after as a rule an initial reception in the major cities, distributed throughout the whole of the Netherlands. Almost every local authority district then in existence participated in one way or another in accommodating the colossal stream of refugees.

Once the violence of war after a few months had subsided over most of Belgium and the fighting became concentrated in the country'ss extreme south-west below the River Yzer, most refugees decided to return to their own country. By December the number remaining had fallen to 124,000. Of those remaining beyond the winter of 1914-15, a considerable proportion were able to provide for themselves or make use of accommodation offered to them by friends, acquaintances or other Dutch citizens. The rest, however, were dependent for the duration of the war on Dutch subsidies.

One problem which arrived with the refugees was that amongst them could be found anti-social elements. When Antwerp fell, in the general panic the doors of the prisons and psychiatric facilities were opened. The result was that criminals, drunks and other less desirable folk came along with the refugees. This, together with the presence of large numbers of Dutch soldiers in border areas, led to a rapid growth in alcohol abuse, prostitution and other undesirable behaviour.

The government decided to house the remaining refugees in what were termed “rijksvluchtoorden” - literally, “national places of refuge” – though in the popular vernacular they continued to be known as “kampen” - simply “camps”. The Belgians defined as antisocial were sent north, to Veenhuizen, while others were distributed between Nunspeet, Ede, Uden and Gouda, in different regions of the country. These camps were headed by a government-appointed commissioner. The biggest of them, in Nunspeet to the north-west of Amsterdam, was built to house 50,000 in a rural location, though that number was never reached. As historian Paul Moeyes notes in Buiten Schot, his 2011 study of the refugees, “the camp was divided into four 'villages', each with its own sleeping- and eating sheds, a school, kitchens and washrooms with hot and cold water. There was also a church, crèche, post office, theatre and workplaces where refugees were given employment.”


Nevertheless, and though the authorities did their best, there was a great deal wrong with the camps. There was little or nothing to do, one refugee complained to a visiting British war correspondent, and they had to “sleep like pigs on straw” and “cough up our lungs between damp sheets.”

Accommodating refugees put the Netherlands to great and unanticipated expense. Aid from other countries was only accepted from countries which were taking no part in the world war,which continued to rage. Money from the United States, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark was welcomed, but an offer from Great Britain to contribute was rejected, with a reference to the Netherlands' obligations as a neutral country. As well as civilian refugees, more than 30,000 fleeing Belgian soldiers had to be interned for the whole duration of the war, as well as a few thousand British and German combatants who crossed into the country in the course of the hostilities. Internment camps were hurriedly established in a number of towns. In the northern seaport of Harderwijk alone, 13,000 Belgian soldiers arrived in the first half of October, 1914. They were domiciled in barracks and in a large church, as well as in tents outside the town, replaced for the winter by temporary barracks, each housing 250 men. This brought advantages for the local economy, with building firms profiting from the construction work and small businesses also doing well. For the population in general, on the other hand, life was harder. Rents rose as families of the interned soldiers sought rooms in the vicinity in order to be closer to their sons and husbands. The government attempted to slow this additional influx by ruling that family reunification was permitted only for those who could provide for themselves, but “vrouwendorpen” - “villages of women” or “villages of wives”, the word for woman and wife being the same in Dutch – arose around the camps. Harderwijk landlords weren't at all happy about this, and God-fearing churchgoers, a large slice of the population in the Netherlands of a century ago, fearing for the moral implications.


In the end some 100,000 Belgians spent the whole of the war in our country. A tenth of the original influx, but all in all a colossal burden for the Netherlands of six million inhabitants to bear for four entire years. The Belgian Monument in Amersfoort, built by Belgian refugees during their sojourn here, expresses their gratitude for the efforts of the Dutch. That the Netherlands, unprepared and on a social level little developed, managed to accommodate all of these Belgian refugees is something for which we can be proud of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is also something which should inspire us to meet new challenges, to offer shelter to the refugees who are coming here now, for as long as that is needed. Not because we have been asked to do so, but because doing nothing is not an option.


Tiny Kox is chair of the Socialist Party (SP) group in the Dutch Senate, and of the United Left group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The SP is a radical, EU-critical left party and forms the largest element of the parliamentary opposition in the Netherlands. It is the only Dutch political party, and one of the few non-anglophone parties in Europe, which maintains an English-language website, updated several times a week. This article first appeared in November 2015 in the original Dutch the SP monthly journal Spanning.


Photograph by William