‘Coalition partners leant so far they almost tipped the balance’

Nic at vuurtoreneilandThe coalition partners agreed to disagree when Labour leader Diederik Samsom told a party conference his party would be leaning as far as it could to the left. At the same time, comments by VVD parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra showed the Dutch liberals are leaning as far as possible to the right. In doing so they almost tipped the balance, writes commentator Nicola Chadwick.

The position of the current cabinet became extremely precarious this week as the two parties took 10 days to reach agreement about what to do with failed asylum seekers.

So far the authorities have consistently failed to remove this group from the country in spite of all the tough talk. Many are unable to leave the country, as their own country will not have them or they cannot prove where they come from and others are still going though asylum procedures.

A recent Council of Europe ruling stipulated that this group of people living in a judicial no man’s land should have access to basic amenities. The problem is that the two coalition partners disagreed on what the ruling meant exactly. For Labour it was clear: people should at least be given a bed, a bath and bread. The VVD feared such generosity would only attract more asylum seekers to the Netherlands.

So it is not surprising that the solution is unsatisfactory. Bed and board will be provided, but only for those who cooperate with deportation – and that is to be realised within a matter of weeks. Criticism has come from municipalities and international organisations alike. Not least from UN human rights rapporteur Philip Aston, who called the agreement ‘illegal’ and ‘a violation of human rights’.

The VVD’s hardline was set out recently by Zijlstra, when he suggested Europe should be closed to non-European refugees. However, if crossing the Mediterranean at the mercy of ruthless traffickers in unseaworthy vessels hasn’t put hundreds of thousands of refugees off, the outcome of this latest dilemma is hardly going to make a difference.

The tragic drowning of an estimated 800 refugees in the Mediterranean showed all too poignantly the dangers refugees fleeing war-torn countries are willing to face.

Titanic tragedy

Monday’s tragedy is the largest number of refugees ever to drown from a single boat. And in all, the human equivalent of two Titanics has been lost at sea since the Arab Spring destablised the Middle East and North Africa. In an interview in the Volkskrant last month, Zijlstra said the VVD should be more willing to talk to dictators, thus putting stability before freedom and democracy.

The endless discussions brought this cabinet the closest it has ever been to break-up. What to do with people who are rejected by the asylum procedure has dogged Rutte’s second cabinet since it came into office in 2012.

First, the two parties argued over a new general pardon for children who had become rooted into Dutch society, but had missed the initial amnesty in 2007. Then the criminalisation of illegal immigrants brought criticism of Labour. Eventually, this measure was withdrawn. The prison cell suicide of Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov, who should never have been in detention, seriously damaged former junior justice minister Fred Teeven. Just over a week ago, a group of failed asylum seekers #wearehere were evicted from the so-called refugee garage. They are protesting against the bed and board system as they say it gives them no prospect of a future

Mafia boss

The VVD came out of the provincial elections with fewer losses than expected. But to keep the support of right-wingers they have to play tough on immigration. Zijlstra even compared failed asylum seekers to top criminal Willem Holleeder. ‘If Willem Holleeder listened to judges like these people, he would never have served a prison sentence,’ he said.

That being said, quite often it is the Dutch immigration service that does not listen to judges, thus prolonging procedures before individuals are eventually granted asylum.

Municipalities faced with the problem of people living on the streets as a result of the Netherlands’ failed asylum policies are far more pragmatic. Utrecht offers far more than a place to sleep, wash and eat. It recognises the need to give people perspective with daytime facilities and training courses. Even the VVD mayor of The Hague Jozias van Aartsen wants basic provisions to remain in place.

The reason the talks took so long was because the two parties disagree fundamentally on this issue. Each had to make its mark on the new legislation, which makes this a political compromise, not a practical solution.

It’s a shameful situation; two parties thinking more about their prospects in the next election rather than a serious solution. It damages The Hague’s image as the seat of international justice and the Netherlands’ reputation as a leader on human rights issues.

Now European ministers have agreed to increase funds for the EU Frontex operation, in an attempt to prevent the Mediterranean from turning into a watery graveyard. However, there is no deal on how to accommodate them once they set foot on European soil. Asylum and the refugee crisis are set to become a hot potato this summer, which could tip the balance of more than just the Dutch government.

Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics.