Refugee Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius takes hard line on migration in bid to be Dutch PM

Minister who migrated from Turkey as a child calls for focus on 'real refugees'

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius launched her election campaign at a VVD party congress in Rotterdam. EPA
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A woman who was a child refugee from Turkey has promised to address voter fears over excessive migration if she is elected prime minister of the Netherlands.

Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius has a realistic shot at power after winning the leadership of departing premier Mark Rutte’s centre-right party.

The 46 year old set out her pitch at a party congress in Rotterdam where she said it was not racist to worry whether “the Netherlands will remain the Netherlands”.

She promised a “fair asylum policy” that recognises limited capacity and prioritises “real refugees”, after tension over how to tackle migration brought down Mr Rutte’s four-party coalition.

“People are concerned about the high influx of migrants” Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius said. "Can we handle them while there are so many problems in the Netherlands?

“Is it fair to people who have been on a waiting list for years to get a home? Is it fair to real refugees for whom there will soon be no space or support? And is it realistic as a small country to accommodate everyone?

“These are real concerns to which politics should not be blind. We cannot continue as we have done in recent years.”

Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius, who has served as justice minister in Mr Rutte’s cabinet, also highlighted concerns over housing, the cost of living and climate change during her speech.

She was applauded by members of the VVD party who also gave a standing ovation to Mr Rutte, who is stepping down after a 13-year term that made him one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders.

Child of activists

Born in Ankara in 1977, Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius is the daughter of lawyer Yucel Yesilgoz and activist Fatma Ozgumus. She says their support for minority rights made them unwelcome in Turkey and led her father to flee.

Her mother went into hiding but the family was granted refugee status in the Netherlands and reunited when the young Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius was eight, she says.

But “if I came to the Netherlands today as a refugee, there is no way that eight-year-old girl would have had the same opportunity to become a minister as I did”, she recently told Bloomberg, citing an overcrowded asylum system.

Her campaign comes as politicians across Europe grapple with discontent over migration. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made tackling illegal English Channel crossings a key election issue, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is on the back foot over a rise in asylum claims.

In the Netherlands, ministers have blamed rising crime and budget pressure on the number of asylum seekers. A scandal erupted last year over conditions at reception centres where people were left sleeping outside.

Mr Rutte proposed capping numbers of refugees and limiting family reunions but his coalition could not find common ground and he called for new elections – before his shock announcement he would retire after November’s vote.

Race to replace Rutte

Rival candidates in the running include former EU climate chief Frans Timmermans, who swapped his Brussels job to return to domestic politics as head of a left-wing coalition.

Popular conservative MP Pieter Omtzigt formed a party last month called New Social Contract that has taken the lead in polls, although he has said he does not want to lead the country.

Another factor is a movement of angry farmers called BBB that grew out of protests at environmental policies and topped the poll in elections to the Dutch senate in May.

Ms Yesilgoz-Zegerius has distanced herself from broadsides at Moroccan migrants by long-time, far-right standard-bearer Geert Wilders. But she has not ruled out co-operating with him in the event of a messy election result.

“I don’t want to exclude any voters,” she said. “So, I am not starting by excluding parties.”

Updated: September 25, 2023, 7:48 PM