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‘It affects me most when children are involved’

It doesn’t take long before Tim van Lit has told us what interests him: problems that shake the nation. This 28-year-old Criminology alumnus heads a team of 25 at Royal Netherlands Marechaussee. Location: Schiphol Airport.

Tim has packed more into his young life than many will do in a lifetime. By the end of the interview it’s obvious we need a timeline to pinpoint when this young alumnus did what. Because he has done so much. He started a degree in Psychology in Leiden in 2010 but switched to Criminology a year later. Before starting his degree, he had already spent a few years working two nights a week at a bowling alley, where soon became a manager. He also worked one day a week for his mother’s communication agency during his studies as well as being chair of CoDe, the Criminology study association, and assessor for the Faculty Board at Leiden Law School. ‘I was a quick learner, so could do lots of other things alongside my studies.’

Alumnus Tim van Lit
Tim swears his oath at the end of his officer training in July 2019.

Abstract vs. concrete

During his studies, Tim did an internship with the police. Before he had officially graduated he had already started working for the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, one of the four armed forces under the Ministry of Defence, doing policy work. He enjoyed the work but wanted to get to know the practice too, which is why he signed up for a two-year officer training programme at the Royal Military Academy in Breda. This began with drilling in discipline and endurance, together with learning the mores of the military hierarchy. Then it was on to the town of Apeldoorn for the more ‘police-y’ part of the training, with lots of policing skills and leadership elements. He completed his training in July 2019, and was posted to Schiphol Airport as team leader of the Border Control Brigade. This brigade is responsible for guarding the borders of the Schengen Area. Tim lives in Leiden with his girlfriend.

Can you tell us a bit more about your job?

‘Travellers who want to enter the Schengen Area are checked by the members of the Marechaussee sitting at passport control, whereas my team is mobile. We focus on flights with lots of passengers making a stopover, flights from other airports in the Schengen Area and flights with a high risk of migration crime. We then do direct checks at the gate. Some flights require greater vigilance than others. We are good at a number of things, including determining whether documents are fake or not. We also have a basic knowledge of lots of languages. If someone says they have a certain nationality, but don’t understand a sentence in that country’s language, this can prompt some extra research. And lots of people arrive wanting to claim asylum when they should have done so elsewhere or have already started an asylum procedure in another country. And people arrive who have made the journey to the Schengen Area with the aid of criminals. They say that they are relatives, for instance, when this is in fact human trafficking.’

Alumnus Tim van Lit
Tim as chair of CoDe, the Criminology study association.


‘What affects me most are cases when children are involved. You don’t know who or where their parents are, and such children are sad and lonely. You also don’t know what has happened. Have the parents sent the child here in the hope of a better future? In 2019, my team discovered numerous fake documents and cases of human trafficking, including of a number of children.’

‘No, you can’t put people on a plane, and send them straight back to where they’ve come from. Forging or deliberately losing travel or identity documents, or bringing children with you whose identity is not clear is a punishable offence. But you have a right to claim asylum. If you do so with the aid of forged documents, your asylum claim will be handled first, but if you prove not to be eligible for asylum, the criminal offence will then be investigated further.’

‘I do check flights a few times per week, and also do things that all managers have to do, such as answering emails, doing admin and holding job interviews and performance reviews. The only difference is that I wear a uniform.’

Why did you switch from Psychology to Criminology?

‘I found Psychology too general. The programme covered biology, neuropsychology, social psychology, medicine... Criminology was specific and concrete from the very beginning, but you still look at crime from many different perspectives. How does society react, how does the victim react, how does the law treat crime…? I discovered that I’m most interested in crimes that shake the nation. My master’s specialisation was the English-taught specialisation in Criminal Justice. The international aspect appealed to me and I also wanted to improve my English. I was taught by Joanne van der Leun and Maartje van der Woude, among others. Fantastic lecturers. The topic of my master’s thesis was based on my internship with the police and was about investigating war crimes, and more specifically about how IS has destroyed and traded cultural property.’

Alumnus Tim van Lit
A week of hard graft in the woods during the ‘practical’ part of officer training.

How did it feel as a new graduate to be crawling through the mud at the Royal Military Academy?

‘I thought it was great. You’re absolutely knackered: crawling through the woods several times a week without being able to wash. It was important that you were assigned a buddy that you had a kind of duty of care for – and vice versa. And you were continually reminded to watch out for the person next to you. You really did everything together. I was really lucky with my buddy: he’s now one of my best friends. We’ve even been on holiday together, with our girlfriends. I changed in those two years at the academy. I did like the sound of my own voice, had to be head honcho. Now I’m a bit calmer. That’s because of the discipline that I was taught and the hierarchy there. The clarity that that brings has done me good, in my private life too.’

Why the fascination with crimes that shake the nation?

‘With the police I already saw things that made me wonder how people can do such things to one another. Why do they do it? And what can we do about this? And the pictures I saw for my research into the destruction of cultural property were riddled with bloody scenes. They induced the same questions. Terrible things happen, outside of war too. There were lots of dictators around the world in the 20th century. Some of them disappeared in the 1990s and beginning of this century after pressure from the West, but those kinds of leaders, who don’t shy away from anything, are on the rise again. And that once again piques my curiosity into the very same questions.’

Alumnus Tim
In uniform at the Kamerlingh Onnes Building.

Has the work changed your perspective?

‘No, not really. Like anyone else, I too have my prejudices and a brain that likes to stereotype. The only difference is that this should not have any bearing, which makes it important that you’re aware of your prejudices and don’t make any decisions based on half-truths. The basis of our work is that everyone is a person with their own story, and that every story is different. That’s what I keep on saying to my people. Of course, the work colours your viewpoint, how you see Schiphol, for instance. For many people this is where their holiday begins, but Schiphol also has a dark side. The big criminals also travel by plane, drugs are smuggled, women are trafficked for forced prostitution and of course there are all the difficult cases involving refugees and human trafficking.’

What next?

‘In your first two roles you have to go where you’re told; you don’t have a say: you can be sent to Zuid-Limburg or Den Helder. The Marechaussee decides what will suit you best. After that, you get more of a say in which direction you want to take. My team at Schiphol is growing because of the increasing amount of work. My first job placement ends in two years’ time; I don’t know if I’ll continue as a manager after that. I’ll just wait to see what the Marechaussee wants and how I have developed by that time. I want to continue to grow, once I’ve gained enough practical experience.’

What does a university graduate bring to the Ministry of Defence?

‘The Ministry of Defence is looking for graduates because they can work at all sorts of levels: the operational, policy and strategic levels. What also helps me is that I did lots of legal courses in my degree programme. That has helped me understand what is at play at a ministry and in politics. I can then explain this to my people, which helps them understand why things are as they are. That’s a definite advantage.’

Royal Netherlands Marechaussee
People in the Netherlands mainly associate the Marechaussee with men on motorbikes escorting dignitaries around. But the Marechaussee, which is part of the Ministry of Defence, does much more than that alone: it is responsible for border controls, for instance, not just at Schiphol Airport and other Dutch airports, but also at the ports. It also carries out ‘Mobile Security Monitoring’ at the German and Belgian borders. It also functions as the military police, which means it investigates crimes that are committed in the army, navy or air force. Including its supporting services, the Ministry of Defence has 60,000 employees, 7,000 of whom work for the Marechaussee.

The service has its own commander and staff, and 23 operational brigades spread across eight provinces. One brigade has a permanent presence in the Caribbean. Alongside Tim’s brigade, four other Marechaussee brigades work at Schiphol Airport. These brigades are responsible for, among others, security and surveillance, ‘basic policing’ and the deportation of foreign nationals.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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