The Mosquito's Bite Dutch Debate Use of 'Teen Repellent'

The mosquito, or "teen repellent," is intended to discourage groups of kids from loitering in the streets, making a nuisance of themselves or engaging in anti-social behavior. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, its use has sparked a debate about the constitutionality of the controversial device.
Von Arjen Schreuder

"It sucks! It gives me a headache," 10-year-old Mohammed says, describing the "mosquito," a device that emits an annoying sound with a frequency that can generally be heard only by people under the age of 25. His friends Ercan, Anass and Nordin agree. "It's like when you've been listening to loud music for a long time and then you stop," he says. "This buzzing sound."

The kids all live in Oud Charlois, a neighborhood in the Dutch city of Rotterdam where mosquitoes first appeared a year ago. We take a walk from the Wolphaertsbocht to an interior court off Clemens Street. Within this small perimeter there are no less than six mosquitoes: they're installed above snack bar Marlena, the clothing shop Hans, a bakery and a supermarket as well as in the courtyard itself.

The mosquito, or "teen repellent," is meant to discourage groups of kids from loitering in the streets and making a nuisance of themselves. Opinions about its efficiency differ. "It hurts my ears, but I've grown used to it. We're still here," says one person who is part of a group of older kids willing to comment on the issue. "It's like swimming underwater, but we're used to it," says another.

There is just as little enthusiasm among local shop owners. "It hasn't changed anything," says Ingrid Rotermundt, a sales clerk at Hans' clothing shop. "I never saw why we needed it in the first place. Things are not that bad over here. Sure, someone threw a brick through the window the other day, but I don't know who did it."

Reducing the Police Workload

At Marlene's snack bar, they've noticed that since last winter more and more kids prefer to hang out inside the premises. But is it because of the mosquitoes buzzing outside? "I don't know," Marlene says. "All I know is they can be very annoying. They throw food around."

For their part, the local authorities in Oud Charlois are extremely pleased with the mosquitoes. "We were getting complaints about intimidation and vandalism," says neighborhood council president Dick Lockhorst. "The nuisance has diminished by 70-80 percent. That means less work for the police."

Donald van der Laan, the general manager of the Rhine Consulting Group, a company that imports the mosquitoes for sale the Netherlands, says he has installed some 500 devices in 120 municipalities and that incidents of nuisance have diminished in nearly every location. He knows the Woplhaertsbocht area in Rotterdam. "It used to not be the kind of place I would go after dark," he says. "But it has improved a lot."

Still, use of the mosquito is controversial -- not only in the Netherlands, but also in Britain and other countries in Europe where it has been deployed. An often-heard criticism is that the device affects everyone within a 20-meter (66-foot) radius, including people who are not creating a nuisance, such as sisters Saloua and Keltoum Azerkane and their friend Marwa Massali. "Whenever we pass by here, we get a headache," one says as the others express their agreement.

Same Problem, Different Place

At our request, school principal Henny de Koning asks 80 kids on the second floor of a grade school in Charlois if the mosquito outside the school premises bothers them. Twenty kids say they have heard it on occasion, but it doesn't bother them much, except for a girl who lives above the bakery, who can sometimes hear it inside her house.

Social workers in Charlois are extremely critical of the device. Jan Schellekens says: "It makes the kids irritable and aggressive. It makes them want to tear the device off the wall." Schellekens feels the mosquito is the wrong tool. "All it does is move the problem," she says. "Young offenders are forced even more underground so that they are even harder to reach. And there is so little for the kids to do anyway. They don't have a place to go except the street. And now they are being chased off the street."

The kids agree. "Where are we supposed to hang out?" asks one. "People say we are a menace. But we don''t do anything. It's a free country isn't it?"

Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst is not a fan of the mosquito. Her department's lawyers fear it might even be unconstitutional. But since nobody has sued to test the legality of the mosquito, she can't stop local authorities from installing the device. At the request of the Dutch parliament, ter Horst has started negotiations with the association of local authorities to establish ground rules for the use of the mosquito.

No-Go Area

The Netherlands' left-wing Socialist Party is dead set against the mosquito. It has adopted a party motion prohibiting individuals from installing them. Meanwhile, the party's youth organization is lobbying for a national ban. "To declare the street a no-go area is simply unacceptable," says party official Leon Botter.

The city of Rotterdam has asked for guidance from a government legal adviser. In response, the legal adviser wrote back to Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb that he sees no legal obstacles to using the mosquito. But he added that that doesn't mean that the country should be flooded with the devices.

"We should see it as a last resort," the adviser wrote. Rotterdam is now working on an action plan. A moratorium on installation of new mosquitos has been put in place until work on the plan has been completed.

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