Netherlands takes action on migrants after baby's death

Dutch government faces court challenge as roots of crisis remain unresolved

Migrants camp out near an asylum application centre in Ter Apel, close to the northern Dutch city of Groningen. AFP
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The Dutch government has claimed to have temporarily resolved its acute shelter crisis after a move to relocate hundreds of migrants who were forced to sleep outside the country’s main asylum reception centre.

Finding space to house asylum seekers became imperative for the government after a baby died last month outside the Ter Apel centre, near the German border. The government this week faces a court showdown over the poor quality of shelter granted to asylum seekers after a lawsuit filed by the Dutch Council for Refugees (DCR).

The aim of the court case, scheduled for Thursday, is to break the “administrative impasse” between municipalities, which has led migrant reception to fall “below the humanitarian lower limit for almost a year”, a DCR statement said.

In contrast to previous reception crises, this time there is no question of force majeure
Dutch Council for Refugees

“Our requirement is that as of October 1, the reception standards and facilities again meet the minimum legal requirements,” said the DCR, as it set out the objectives of the litigation.

As the poor treatment of asylum seekers at Ter Apel sparked a national outcry, a visit from King Willem-Alexander late last month put the issue in the spotlight, after which Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted to feeling "ashamed".

In the following weeks, officials struggled to find beds for asylum seekers, who were distributed across the country. The government also opened another temporary centre at the weekend in the northern city of Zoutkamp, but the registration process must still take place more than an hour’s drive away in Ter Apel, Dutch media reported.

Ter Apel is still the only application and registration centre for asylum seekers in the Netherlands.

Additionally, the municipalities of Amsterdam and Velsen agreed to house 1,000 asylum seekers each on cruise ships for a maximum of six months starting on October 1. They are to be paid for and managed by COA, the government agency responsible for the reception of asylum seekers.

As of Saturday, there were no more asylum seekers sleeping outside Ter Apel, a COA representative told reporters.

International NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which this summer had to intervene on Dutch territory for the first time to deliver basic health care outside Ter Apel, announced on Monday that it had ended its operations in the area.

The NGO said in a statement that shelter and sanitary provision outside the camp had “improved significantly”.

“Several weeks ago, the situation in Ter Apel was increasingly inhumane and unacceptable,” said MSF, which observed asylum seekers suffering from skin conditions due to lack of hygiene and chronically ill patients without access to medication.

But Dutch humanitarians, activists and academics told The National they remain unconvinced that the long-term issues behind the crisis, including a national housing shortage, have been resolved.

'Political choice'

DCR press officer Nienke Toren blamed the situation on “political choices” that “could have been prevented”.

“In contrast to previous reception crises, this time there is no question of force majeure. The number of asylum applications has been relatively low and stable in recent years,” she said.

The main issue is that municipalities can ignore government requests to provide shelter for asylum seekers, even when there is sufficient space available, said Ms Toren.

"There is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what and that is why the current reception crisis is mainly an administrative crisis," she said.

"The government is not currently authorised to designate suitable reception locations within municipalities. As a result, it's not possible to find sufficient shelter places."

Ms Toren highlighted cutbacks at the state-run Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) and the closing of asylum centres, causing a “permanent state of crisis for years”.

The State Secretary for Justice and Security said in a letter sent to Parliament in July that the IND was struggling with staff shortages.

Consequently, the "processing time of asylum applications will increase as a result" and may exceed legal deadlines, read the letter.

Red Cross spokeswoman Alberta Opoku told The National that the organisation had informed the Dutch government that a second reception centre similar to Ter Apel was urgently needed.

“We know they are working on it but it’s not going very fast,” she said.

This procedure excludes Ukrainian refugees. The government came under fire this year for letting asylum seekers sleep rough while shelters for Ukrainian refugees with hundreds of spaces remained empty.

Statistics available on the IND website show that most asylum seekers in July came from Syria, followed by Turkey and Afghanistan.

The COA did not answer questions from The National regarding Ter Apel and Zoutkamp. The Ministry of Justice and Security had not responded to a question about the difference of treatment between Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian asylum seekers by the time this article was published.

'Yo-yo' policy

The government has been applying a “yo-yo” policy towards asylum seekers’ shelters — opening new facilities when numbers increase and then closing them down when they decrease, leaving the Netherlands unprepared once the situation changes again, said Saskia Bonjour, associate professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam.

“Because people were unable to travel when Covid restrictions were in place, there is a predictable post-pandemic catching-up wave,” she told The National.

“Figures are not as high as they were in the 1990s or during the peak arrivals in 2015, and at the time no one was sleeping in the streets. The Netherlands is capable of managing inflows."

Another underlying issue is the country’s “huge” housing problem, which has created a backlog in temporary shelters for asylum seekers, said Ms Opoku.

“Asylum seekers who have gone through the procedure and have documents in order should not be staying in shelters meant for people who are still completing the procedure,” she said.

"People who have come to the Netherlands seeking refuge should not be sleeping outside. They must have shelter that meets basic humanitarian standards."

The government announced an asylum deal late last month. The plan was to increase the number of homes available for migrants whose asylum requests were accepted and, more controversially, to delay their rights to family reunification for a maximum of 15 months until proper housing had been found.

This goes against the European Union’s family reunion directive for refugees, said Ms Bonjour, who specialises in politics of migration and citizenship in the Netherlands. “This is shocking,” she said. “I hope that Dutch courts will make clear decisions soon that this is wrong.”

About 90 per cent of asylum seekers apply for family reunification, said the State Secretary for Justice and Security in its letter in July.

Consequences of the mismanagement of the crisis were still visible this week.

Dutch media reported on Monday that eight people who had been moved from Ter Apel to the eastern town of Zeelandhallen had not been allowed into an emergency shelter because they came from a list of so-called safe countries.

This means the Dutch government does not deem them at risk of torture or inhumane treatment in their home country.

They were offered a taxi back to Ter Apel. Four of them refused.

They slept outside on a roundabout.

Updated: September 14, 2022, 8:27 AM