VVD MPs agree to refugee deal, averting cabinet crisis

Sophie Hermans talks to reporters after the meeting. Photo: Bart Maat ANP
Sophie Hermans talks to reporters after the meeting. Photo: Bart Maat ANP

MPs from prime minister Mark Rutte’s ruling VVD have agreed to support draft legislation to ensure refugees are spread more evenly around the country, parliamentary party leader Sophie Hermans told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

The party held a three-hour meeting earlier in the day to try to decide whether to back the proposal, which will give asylum minister Eric van der Berg more powers to force local councils to take in refugees, and which had threatened to cause a cabinet crisis.

The talks with Rutte were ‘very tough’, Hermans said. ‘This about the trust you have in a party between MPs and the leadership.’

The VVD wanted the cabinet to commit to reducing the number of refugees arriving in the Netherlands and the concessions he made were enough to win support, she said, but declined to go into details.

Ministers have limited options to stop refugees arriving in the Netherlands because of international and EU treaties.

MPs in the party have told NRC they object to local authorities being overruled by central government, even though they support the idea of distributing asylum seekers more evenly around the country.

The reception centre at Ter Apel, in Groningen, has suffered from chronic overcrowding all year, with new arrivals having to sleep on the grass verge outside the building with no access to sanitation or medicines.

The conditions were condemned as ‘inhumane’ by the emergency medical charity Artsen zonder Grenzen (Médicins sans Frontières), after it was called in to help at Ter Apel for the first time in its history at the end of August. MSF started work days after a three-month-old baby died in a sports hall being used as an overspill facility.

Van der Burg has also been ordered by the district court in The Hague to improve living conditions for asylum seekers across the country, in a case brought by refugee charity Vluchtelingenwerk.

Brick wall

But the minister’s attempts to negotiate with local authorities to provide more space have run into a brick wall. Just one out of the 344 municipal councils has agreed to arrange extra places for unaccompanied child refugees currently in Ter Apel, where 300 children are living alone even though the centre only has capacity for 55.

Van der Burg had hoped to present a new law to parliament this week giving him more direct control of accommodation of new asylum seekers and people who have been granted refugee status (‘statushouders’) from January 1.

Asylum spokesman Ruben Brekelmans said during a debate in parliament on Monday that ‘the problem of large numbers of arrivals remains’. The justice ministry expects between 50,000 and 77,000 people to claim asylum in the Netherlands next year.

CU discontent

While the Christian Democrats (CDA) support a stronger line on asylum, the other two government parties, D66 and the ChristenUnie (CU) have already made concessions to the VVD when they agreed in the summer to put further restrictions on family reunions.

Members of the CU have submitted a motion at the party’s autumn conference later this month calling for it to withdraw its confidence in the VVD over the asylum issue.

Party leader Gert-Jan Segers reluctantly agreed to the autumn deal, calling it ‘just bearable’, but rank and file members say the VVD has failed to keep its side of the bargain by blocking Van der Burg’s bill.

The issue is also expected to dominate the VVD’s conference on November 19, where local activists have tabled a motion calling the propsed law a ‘magnet for asylum seekers’.

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