Rutte under pressure from VVD and partners to fix asylum impasse

Mark Rutte addressing the VVD conference in Apeldoorn. Photo: ANP/Robin Utrecht

Prime minister Mark Rutte is under growing pressure from his own party to take steps to reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving in the Netherlands this year or face a cabinet crisis.

Delegates at the VVD party conference in Apeldoorn at the weekend accused Rutte of failing to honour his promise last autumn to take “substantial” measures to stop refugees crossing the border, one of the main concerns for the right-wing liberal party.

Sophie Hermans, leader of the VVD’s parliamentary group, urged Rutte to “hurry up” and warned that the patience of members was not “endless”. She even warned that the largest party in the cabinet could pull out of the coalition, saying: “If we don’t see a way forward, we’ll pull out.”

Last November Rutte had to fend off a potential rebellion by VVD MPs against a law proposed by his party colleague, asylum minister Eric van der Burg, allowing him to force local councils to accommodate refugees so they can be dispersed more evenly around the country.

The law was a response to the scenes of overcrowding at the refugee reception centre in Ter Apel, Groningen, last summer, which were branded “degrading” and “inhumane” by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Rutte also faces resistance from his partners in the coalition, D66 and the ChristenUnie (CU), who want the Netherlands to take a more humane approach to asylum.

CU leader Mirjam Bikker raised VVD hackles when she told her own party’s spring conference – also held in Apeldoorn on Saturday – that the Netherlands could cope with the estimated 70,000 refugees who are expected to arrive this year.

In an interview with AD last week, Bikker also called on the VVD to acknowledge that “every migrant is a human being” and said any measures taken on asylum needed to be “legally viable”.

Legal challenges

The VVD’s efforts to cut numbers have also run aground in the courts, which ruled in several cases that a temporary ban on allowing refugees without settled status to be joined by their families breached Dutch and European law.

Rutte rejected accusations of broken promises from the conference floor. “We don’t have a deal as a cabinet, but I still see the potential to do a deal with other parties,” he said.

The prime minister is pinning his hopes on the European Union concluding a deal with Tunisia to cut the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean by boat by allowing their claims to be processed in the north African country.

Rutte also said that measures to align the visa rules in the western Balkan nations with the EU was bearing fruit. “In Austria they’re already seeing the inward flow diminish,” he said.

VVD delegates eventually agreed to back the cabinet, provided that the issue is settled before the summer. “I think our ministers shouldn’t go on holiday until they’ve come up with a serious package of measures,” Hermans said.

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