Back in April, the Dutch government almost split over the matter of what to do with failed asylum seekers who are unable or unwilling to leave the country. As tens of thousands of refugees advance towards the heart of Europe, the coalition has now been forced to find common ground on how to tackle the crisis, writes Nicola Chadwick.
It wasn’t long ago that the VVD called for Europe’s borders to be closed completely to boat refugees. Parliamentary party leader Halbe Zijlstra saw this as the only humane answer to the tragic drownings in the Mediterranean.
It was only when 800 people drowned in one night in April that the international community was prompted into sending ships to prevent more tragedies at sea. Up to then the downsized Frontex mission focused on preventing the boats from entering European waters. Then European leaders approved a plan to bomb boats that might be used to traffic refugees to prevent them from leaving port. However, European naval ships cannot ‘simply bomb boats in Libyan waters’ without a UN mandate writes migrantreport.org.
Last year, the former junior justice minister Fred Teeven warned several times of ‘shocking’ increases in the numbers of asylum seekers. These migrants never materialised. In May last year, 1,000 people were reportedly applying for asylum every week, only the junior minister forgot to mention the figures included people reapplying who were already here.
In November, Teeven reiterated his warning that as many as 40,000 migrants were on their way to the Netherlands and municipalities would struggle to accommodate them. It’s only now that we are seeing what it looks like when tens of thousands of migrants are on the move. So far an estimated 340,000 people have entered Europe this year from countries like Syria and Eritrea. That is still just a fraction (0.068%) of the European population. Compare that to Lebanon where 1 in 5 of the population is now Syrian.
Conspiracy of neglect
The world had almost become indifferent to a constant stream of images of people in unseaworthy vessels attempting to cross the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. However, the discovery of 71 bodies in the back of a lorry in Austria in August and last’s week’s photograph of the lifeless body of a little three-year-old boy changed that.
Finally, the seriousness of the situation is getting through to ordinary people, prompting them into action. As a result, collections for shoes, warm clothes, blankets and tents are being set up. And demonstrations and Facebook events organised to welcome refugees.
Amnesty International has called the current crisis ‘a conspiracy of neglect’. There are more than 50 million people fleeing wars worldwide, the highest figure since World War II.
The VVD consistently refer to this group at best as migrants, Labour looks upon them more sympathetically as asylum seekers. In truth, they are a mixture of economic migrants and refugees, but most are Syrians and Eritreans fleeing war.
The VVD wants Syrian refugees to be kept in camps in the region and European borders closed. It is a policy that plays into the hands of people traffickers as desperation drives people into the hands of criminal gangs. And besides, up to now millions of refugees have been kept in camps with inadequate facilities in neighbouring countries.
The Christian Democrats have called for safe havens to be created. Even though the Netherlands’ last attempt to guard a safe haven ended in the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.
D66 leader Alexander Pechtold has called for the Netherlands to be ‘magnanimous’ and take in more than the Dutch quota. The Christian Union wants to set up an Airbnb for refugees, so that people can open their own homes to welcome them.
The anti-immigration PVV just calls the people who have risked their lives to reach Europe ‘gelukszoekers’, (basically people looking for a better life) and says they should be sent back on arrival, preferably in the same boats they arrived in. PVV leader Geert Wilders even attended a council meeting in Zeewolde to speak against the municipality taking in asylum seekers. Like Nigel Farage of UKIP, he blames the current influx on Germany’s open door policy.
Labour leader Diederik Samsom says the Dublin agreement which stipulates refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter should be disregarded. In fact it already has been – albeit temporarily. He believes in six months’ time there will be EU camps in Italy and Greece where refugees will be registered and redistributed to the various EU countries. Samson is calling for European agreement to ‘harmonise’ asylum policies so that refugees do not shop for the country with the softest approach.
Just over a week ago, prime minister Mark Rutte warned the influx of refugees would undermine Dutch society. VVD parliamentary party leader Zijlstra felt that Italy was chucking the problem over the fence by allowing the people who washed up on its shores to pass through the country without registering them.
Earlier in the crisis, the government ignored a parliamentary motion to increase the number of vulnerable asylum seekers invited to take refuge in the Netherlands from 500 to 750, so that they could avoid the long and dangerous journey across the Mediterranean or via the Balkans.
Germany is planning to take in 800,000 refugees, as a result it has become a symbol of freedom and safety for the refugees. Ultimately the country will benefit from the newcomers. Three out of four Germans support the government’s policy and over 60% are willing to help refugees themselves.
The images we are currently witnessing remind us of the migration of East Germans via Hungary and Austria to West Germany at the end of the Cold War. In the Netherlands, less than half the population supports taking in refugees. But that is not surprising considering the harsh rhetoric in the immigration debate in recent years as even moderate politicians try to outsmart Wilders.
So far, the reaction and solidarity among European countries has been woefully inadequate. At an earlier EU conference, European countries failed to take up the gauntlet and agree to a distribution ratio when the EU target was to take in 40,000 refugees. Now the UN says EU countries will have to take in 200,000. If a redistribution key is agreed, the Netherlands will take in just over 7,200 refugees on top of the 2,000 agreed back in April, but it will only do so on the condition that African and Arab countries concede to the repatriation of economic migrants.
Public opinion and the sheer numbers of people on the move are forcing government leaders to shift position. Now foreign minister Bert Koenders says: ‘The Netherlands wants to be in the leading group’, and is drafting a plan with Germany, Italy and France on how to accommodate and distribute refugees in the EU. In January, prime minister Mark Rutte will take over the European Council presidency. As such, he may have to take the lead in the current crisis.
Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics. This column was first published on her blog Amsternic.