The Dutch parliament has approved a hard-line anti-immigration measure under which tens of thousands of failed asylum-seekers are likely to be expelled. The bill affects even those who have been living in the country for years. Considering that the Netherlands has long been considered one of the most liberal countries in Europe on social issues, the new law seems particularly harsh. Is this a taste of things to come in Western Europe?
Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Criticism is growing over a measure adopted in the Dutch Parliament that will allow the forcible expulsion of tens of thousands of failed asylum-seekers.
The controversial bill, presented by Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, passed the lower house of parliament yesterday and now goes to the upper house for final approval.
The bill foresees the expulsion of up to 26,000 failed asylum-seekers. Many have lived in the Netherlands for years and have even raised families there, despite having had their applications turned down.
Shock waves are today spreading through the country's immigrant community. One typical reaction came from a 26-year-old Kurd from Turkey, whose asylum request had previously been rejected but who has lived in the Netherlands for six years. She gave her name as Zynep.
"I have two children, and they were both born in Holland. But I have a lot of problems, I do not want to go back to that country, I do not want to go back to Turkey because I have a lot of problems there. I want to stay in Holland, but Holland is saying you have to leave, leave. It is easy for them, but for us it is very, very difficult," Zynep said.
Under the new legislation, Zynep and her two children would be given eight weeks to leave the Netherlands voluntarily. If they do not do so, they would be granted a second eight-week period during which they would be taken to a special departure center, where they would be given help to leave. After that time, they would be forcibly sent home.
Organizations that help refugees in the Netherlands are stunned by the severity of the new legislation. Ahmed Pouri is a spokesman for the refugee assistance organization Prime.
"I think the Dutch policy is unfair, negligent, and merciless. Human beings are the victims of this policy, but there is no correction for the policy. The Dutch government sticks to the policy while they know that people have been put in jail after returning [home], or even have been killed," Pouri said.
The Dutch government says all asylum applications are carefully vetted before being rejected. Some 2,300 applicants whose cases have been judged to be especially serious will be allowed to remain in Holland and will be granted residency.
Asylum-seekers affected by the new measure have been staging protests. One Iranian refugee has sewn his mouth and eyes shut in opposition to the measure.
The new law will cover asylum-seekers who arrived in the Netherlands before 1 April, 2001. At that time, refugees from Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan were most numerous, but Iranian and Chechen refugees are also in the group.
So what has happened to the famous Dutch tradition of ultra-liberalism in social matters?
Political analyst Rinus van Schendelen of Rotterdam University says it is not a question of closing the door to outsiders but of regaining control of the situation. He notes, for instance, that 45 percent of the population of the southern port city of Rotterdam is composed of immigrants.
"There is not an attitude of anti-immigration. I would say almost on the contrary, given the high numbers of immigrants we still accept every year. But this country, as approved last night by the parliament, wants to set a limit to that, to get it better under control," van Schendelen said.
Schendelen notes that the Netherlands -- as a matter of policy -- accepts all settlers from former Dutch possessions in the Caribbean, such as Surinam and the Dutch Antilles.
However, the government's move to repatriate failed asylum-seekers undoubtedly draws its inspiration from the events of 2002, when anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn was gunned down.
After he was assassinated, a new political party called the Pim Fortuyn List was hastily put together by his supporters, and it became the second-biggest party in parliament. It entered a ruling coalition with the Christian Democrats, but the alliance proved stormy, and the coalition lasted only eight months before disintegrating.
Fortuyn's meteoric rise was ascribed to his willingness to break political taboos, such as talking about tensions in Dutch society caused by immigration. He accused the country's mainstream political parties of being out of touch with the concerns of the average man and woman.
But in the shadow world inhabited by many refugees, the new law looks to make a difficult situation worse. As spokesman Ahmed Pouri of the Prime organization puts it.
"We are confronted with the results of this law. We are getting a lot of reactions from the street. One example is the story of a woman who ended up on the street and was offered housing by a man. But at night, he came to her bed. There are so many people that are being raped or end up on the street. These people are very helpless and very vulnerable. And nobody is looking at these aspects of the policy. Who pays the price for that?" Pouri said.
Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has promised parliamentarians that officials will be on the watch for cases in which asylum-seekers are encountering "harrowing circumstances" because of the new law. She has discretionary powers to grant amnesties in such cases.
The Dutch crackdown comes at a time when migration -- legal and illegal -- is a hot topic throughout Europe. A number of Western European states, including such liberal bastions as Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, have erected temporary barriers to the free movement of labor from the 10 states joining the European Union in May.
Given the familiarity and proximity between the new and old members of the EU, the outlook for refugees from countries farther away must be considered dim.