Saturday 26 September 2020

Teeven must keep promise to asylum seekers

It has been a year since junior justice minister Fred Teeven vowed he would do something about the conditions for asylum seekers. Nothing much has been happening since, write Dorine Manson and Eduard Nazarki.

Over a year ago, on April 8 2013, junior justice minister Fred Teeven had to face parliament in connection with the ‘Dolmatov case’. The Russion asylum seeker had taken his life some months earlier after he had been detained – unjustifiably as it turned out – as a foreign national.

The position of the junior minister suffered a little tremor but he managed to steady himself by promising a more humane immigration policy, raising expectations for asylum seekers and people who have unsuccessfully applied for asylum and are being held in detention centres too often and under strict conditions. A year on nothing has come of Teeven’s promise.

If you read the headlines on the ministerial website’s news section, you can’t but think Teeven is doing his best: ‘Families with children will only be detained in exceptional circumstances’ (September 2013), ‘More freedom for foreign detainees’ (December 2013), ‘Detention centres improve medical care’ (February 2014). And at the beginning of this month: ‘Fewer foreign detainees.’ The image is one of a junior minister doing his utmost to put in place a policy which will result in fewer foreign nationals being locked up.

Small steps

The reality is different. By the justice ministry’s own admission, the number of foreign nationals in detention is not going down because of any leniency on its part, but because the police are tracking down fewer people without documents.

The improvements which were announced with such verve turn out to be only small steps. It’s an extra hour of sports activities here and a few hours more spent outside the cell there. The detention locations still function as prisons. And although the humiliating full body search has been abandoned in Rotterdam, it is still being used in other locations.

A draft proposal regarding the changes will only be presented to parliament after the summer recess. We might be far into 2015 before even the smallest changes are implemented. Meanwhile detention is the reality for many, including vulnerable groups.

And then there is the detention at the borders. Asylum seekers arriving at Schiphol are put in border detention, while asylum seekers travelling over land are put in an open centre. A number of these asylum seekers are kept in detention for months, waiting for a decision on their request for asylum. Although parliament has frequently asked for improvements, the junior minister has yet to respond. Even children are not exempt from border detention.


After Malta, the Netherlands has the severest policy where the detention of children is concerned. Although most MPs agree children should not be detained, a ban on detention in favour of other means of supervision is not forthcoming.

Asylum seekers whose request for asylum is being dealt with in another EU country, according to the Dublin convention, are being detained. The convention stipulates that these asylum seekers can only be locked up if there is a risk they will escape supervision. The Netherlands is not consistent in its use of this criterion.


Other vulnerable groups, such as people with serious physical or mental problems, don’t have much to look forward to either. The junior minister is saying he wants to ‘look at’ their situation in detention, but what is needed are plans to prevent them from being put there in the first place. Research has shown that detention only causes further health problems and so these people become even more vulnerable before being sent back, if that is what happens.

There is no mention of the necessary policy changes regarding the detention of foreign nationals and people without documents in the plans. The proposed changes are marginal and don’t look to be implemented any time soon. Teeven seems to regard the reform to the detention policy mostly as a way to save money. Detention is the most costly measure in the government’s repatriation policy. The parliamentary majority is not pressing matters, reassured by the junior minister’s occasional references to a more humane approach.

A year after his political Houdini act during the Dolmatov debate, the time has come for Teeven to keep his promise, not only to keep his own credibility intact but that of parliament. But mostly he should keep his promise to help those who are being held needlessly and in mind numbing circumstances.

Dorine Manson is director of Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland

Eduard Nazarki is director of Amnesty International

This column was published earlier by the Volkskrant
















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