Dutch border policy is hurting people

‘Illegal immigrants aren’t locked away for our safety. They are in jail because they have to wait. They are waiting because we don’t know what to do with them,’ writes Henk van Houtum.

Everybody knows it: the so-called ‘illegals’ are here and, punished or not, they’re not going away anytime soon. Making illegality a criminal offence won’t reduce the number of immigrants. All it will do is strengthen the ongoing trend of stigmatising and criminalising refugees. This is a damaging instance of gesture politics, of party political posturing to save Samsom and Teeven’s political skins. Meanwhile there is little sign of any truly meaningful policy.

What we are witnessing is a battle between what Labour used to be – a party of left-wing progressive internationalists – and what the VVD would like its voters to believe it is – a party of right-wing repressive neo-liberals.


This internal ideological clash is diverting attention away from the fundamental question of why it is the Dutch state is proposing a law defining people as ‘illegal’ in the first place. And why, in spite of numerous protests from international human rights organisations, it even locks them up. Immigrants themselves are increasingly vocal about this detain-and-deport industry. Powerless and desperate, some self-harm, go on hunger strike or even kill themselves.


State terrorism


When does a border policy become state terrorism? Philosopher Hannah Ahrendt, who argued in favour of a global policy for stateless people after World War II, would turn in her grave at the banality of this much evil.


Perhaps the detention of ‘illegal’ immigrants is a result of fear: they are here to take advantage of our prosperity. Perhaps not. After an often perilous journey, a life of semi-darkness awaits, without work and with the threat of arrest ever present. It’s hardly taking advantage.


If anyone’s taking advantage, it’s us. Apart from people traffickers and pimps, many seemingly decent companies and households are perfectly happy to take advantage of the cheap labour immigrants have to offer. There is a demand for illegality. If Teeven is serious about making illegality a criminal offence detention centres would burst at the seams, not just with immigrants but first and foremost with the people taking advantage of them.


So maybe chasing and locking up ‘illegals’ stems from a feeling of insecurity. Immigrants lack a legal status and it’s unclear where they get their money from. This may be true but is that really enough to turn them into criminals? The real extent of insecurity caused by immigrants is not that great.


In his wonderful novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Coetzee had this to say about these societal bad dreams:  ‘These dreams are the consequence of too much ease. Show me a barbarian army and I will believe’.


Immigrants aren’t locked away for our safety alone. They are in jail because they have to wait. They are waiting because we don’t know what to do with them.




Immigrants without passports are not citizens but mere ‘humans’, stripped of everything that defines them in the eyes of the law. Our bureaucracy cannot categorise them. They can’t stay and often can’t leave. They are being locked up because of bureaucratic impotence.


This impotence is self-inflicted. The Netherlands, which is part of the Schengen area, differentiates between countries whose inhabitants don’t need a visa to enter the country (the positive list) and countries whose inhabitants can’t get a visa or only with great difficulty (the negative countries). The negative list is largely made up of muslim countries and poor countries. This is the crux of the problem.


If you were born in Mauritania, your chances of ever gaining entry into the EU and the Netherlands legally are many times smaller than those of an American. Article 1 of our constitution states that discrimination on the grounds of origin, i.e. nationality, is against the law. But this is exactly what the Netherlands is doing at its borders. From a global perspective the Dutch border policy is in fact an institutionalised apartheid system. If you happen to be born in the wrong place and are looking to escape from a bad economic or politically dangerous situation you don’t have much choice: the ‘illegal’ is born. 


Crossing the EU’s heavily guarded outer borders is extremely dangerous. From 1993 onwards, more than 16,000 people have lost their lives (see end note 1). For those who do make it, a long, uncertain procedure or prison awaits. The number of detention centres for migrants has grown exponentially over the last few years (see end note 2). In the Netherlands 6,000 to 8,000 people are being locked up because they still have to be ‘processed’ or can’t be deported. With this much repression and injustice the next suicide, strike or uprising is just a matter of time.




Samsom and Teeven are facing a crucial moment. They could force a breakthrough which would turn the Netherlands back into a state which safeguards not only civil rights but human rights, too.


They could begin by not branding people ‘illegal’. People without papers are not illegal, they are a-legal, without law. Illegality isn’t a trait, it’s a decision made by a state. And herein lies the crucial difference.


Next, they could put an end to discrimination based on someone’s country of birth. They should take the first article of the constitution seriously and help to make it a global one.


And finally, Teeven and Samsom could lead Europe into a discussion about global agreements on migration and border policy because the undocumented are here and their number will grow. The current border policy is hurting people and a new policy is long overdue.

But first these two gentlemen need to have the courage to step away from the shameful party political bartering that is going on. It’s a small step compared to the big strides that could be made in its wake.


Prof. dr. Henk van Houtum is Research Professor Geopolitics of Borders, University of Bergamo & Associate Professor Geopolitics and Political Geography of the Radboud University Nijmegen, Head of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research (NCBR).


End notes


1. See for a list of deceased ‘illegal’ migrants in Europe: http://www.unitedagainstracism.org/pages/underframeFatalRealitiesFortressEurope.htm


2. See for a map of the detention centres in Europe:





This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.

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