Two Armenian children who were given a last-minute reprieve from deportation by junior justice minister Mark Harbers at the weekend say they hope their mother will be allowed to rejoin them in the Netherlands.
The disappearance of Howick, 13, and his 12-year-old sister Lily sparked a public outcry and a frantic round of behind-the-scenes lobbying in The Hague. The pair fled their grandparents’ home on Friday night, hours before they were due to be put on a plane to Jerevan, after lawyers failed to persuade a court to halt their departure.
The children told AD.nl they were grateful to Harbers for his change of heart and were looking forward to going back to school. ‘I know now that I can go there with no stress and I can stay there,’ said Howick.
Lili added: ‘Every time I went I felt like we’re learning now, but it might all soon be for nothing. Now at least we have a future.’
Dutch media reported that Harbers himself had spent time in a safe house last week after receiving threats. The national security co-ordinator (NCTV) confirmed that ‘appropriate measures’ had been taken to ensure the minister’s safety.
The Council of State ruled last month that Harbers was not obliged to give the children residency visas, despite claims that their mother, who was deported to Armenia last year, was unfit to care for them. The children have grown up in the Netherlands after arriving from Russia 10 years ago.
Harbers resisted growing calls last week to use his discretionary power as a minister to allow Howick and Lili to stay. ‘The case has been reviewed eight times in the courts and in each case the decision was that they have no right to stay because Armenia is a safe country,’ he said.
Prime minister Mark Rutte backed the minister’s stance, arguing that ‘you have to be tough sometimes’ to maintain the credibility of the asylum system.
But other voices, ranging from children’s ombudsman Margrite Kalverboer to right-wing shock blog GeenStijl, argued that Howick and Lili should be allowed to stay. Princess Laurentien, sister-in-law of king Willem-Alexander, pleaded on a radio show for a ‘creative solution’ to be found.
The children had never lived in Armenia, barely speak the language and Dutch officials had been unable to find them a place to stay or a suitable school in Jerevan.
On Saturday morning a police appeal for help to find the children prompted a storm of protest on social media. Under the hashtag #ikwerknietmee – ‘I will not co-operate’ users vowed to shelter the children if they found them rather than hand them over to the authorities. Crime reporter Peter R. de Vries tweeted: ‘Anyone who gives them up is an NSB’er’, referring to the wartime Dutch Nazi party.
Ha… de politie roept de hulp in van burgers omdat ze zich zorgen maken over de veiligheid van Howick en Lili… pfff… alsof ze in handen van justitie beter af zijn. Wat een gotspe!! Ze mogen bij mij onderduiken iedereen die hen aangeeft is een NSB’er… #howickenlili pic.twitter.com/epFsh4w7fQ
— Peter R. de Vries (@PeterRdeV) September 8, 2018
The issue also placed severe strain on the coalition. Joël Voordewind, an MP with the ChristenUnie, the smallest of the four parties in the cabinet, said on Twitter there could be ‘no question of deporting’ the children until proper arrangements had been made to house and educate them in Armenia.
Voordewind, the CU’s spokesman on asylum issues, said the party wanted to extend the amnesty for asylum seeker children who had settled long-term in the Netherlands. Howick and Lili were ineligible because their mother was deemed to have obstructed efforts to repatriate the family.
MPs from the progressive liberal party D66 also voiced its concern after coming under pressure from members to oppose the decision. Little over an hour later Harbers announced he had granted the children permission to stay. ‘Developments in the past few hours have shown that the welfare and the safety of the children could no longer be guaranteed,’ he said.
Shortly afterwards the children’s lawyer said they had returned to their grandparents’ home and had made contact with their mother.
Lili said she and her brother feared the worst when judges rejected their plea late on Friday night to be allowed to stay in the country. Lawyers argued that their mother was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and was unable to care for her children.
‘The idea that we should have been in Armenia right now was unbelievable,’ said Lili. ‘At moments like that you feel terrible. But when something happens at the last minute, you think, see? You should always keep fighting.’
Howick said he hoped his mother would now be allowed to rejoin her family in the Netherlands. ‘The big question for us is how long it will take. But it’s our dream ultimately for the three of us to be able to live here together.’
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