The Dutch plans with refugees

Searchlight, April 2004

Dutch politics smashed its way into sensational international headlines on 9 February when the Dutch parliament agreed, by 83 votes to 57, to return some 26,000 refugees to unstable countries Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

While the MPs were casting their vote in favour of the most repressive asylum policy in Dutch history, 2,000 people gathered, in freezing cold, outside parliament to protest at the move.

Immigration minister Rita Verdonk, after giving another 2,300 refugees permission to stay, got down to the task of implementing the law essentially formulated by Job Cohen, who held the same post in the government coalition of two years ago between the Social Democrats (PvdA) and the rightist liberals (VVD).

At that time only a small group of hard-line activists fighting for refugees could see what could happen in The Netherlands, and protested against the Social Democrat Cohen's decision by handcuffing him during a debate in Parliament, to make him feel like an "illegalised" person for 15 minutes.

During the elections of 15 May 2002 when, despite - or perhaps because of - the death of Pim Fortuyn, the fever of populism was never far away and, in the following elections of January 2003, Cohen, still mayor of Amsterdam, was regarded as the personification of a humanist approach on problems of integration and immigration, a human face against the incumbent premier Jan Peter Balkenende, a thoroughbred technocrat.

Despite the totally unexpected emergence of Fortuyn in 2001 and the swing to the right in the whole political atmosphere, it is not Fortuyn's legacy that has triggered Verdonk's latest plan. Fortuyn was, in fact, in favour of a general pardon for the very same group of refugees, now in danger of being extradited.

While this might have been a smart tactical switch to make Fortuyn look suitable for a place in government had he not been murdered, the fact of the matter is that even his disciples, in the shape of List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) leader Mat Herben and minister for some months Hilbrand Nawijn were exactly of the same opinion.

The aim, in the parlance of the right-wing populists, was to "clean the house and then introduce a tough new immigration law.

What exactly does Verdonk plan to do? At the very least, she will try to extradite 3,000 refugees who have run out of all further legal options this year. Running out of options is hardly difficult since previous governments long ago abandoned the right to file new evidence to back up an appeal for the right to claim asylum during the hearing of a case.

Many of the people targeted for extradition by Verdonk have been in the Netherlands for years, most of their children having been born there. They frequently live in small villages, mainly in the north of the Netherlands and are role models of integration. Of course, the threat to remove them has triggered much protest from their neighbours, friends and people in the villages where they live with local people offering the refugees a hiding place and, as distinct from countries like the UK, promising resistance if the police come to collect their friends.

This was not exactly what Verdonk expected. Indeed, she thought her scheme to evict these people from their refugee hostels to make room for "real" refugees and to bring them to a special centre to prepare them for their return "home" would appeal to certain sentiments in the Dutch population. It didn't.

Although, according to surveys, the majority of Dutch people favour the new law, most people think it inhumane to separate families by sending only the father back, or to return them to war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan.

The first "special centre" for refugees is scheduled to be opened by this coming summer and Verdonk she should already have known that these "centres" would not work.

Her plan, nevertheless, is to hold people there for eight weeks and, if it then proves impossible to extradite them, to detain them for as long as fourteen months. According to researchers at the University of Tilburg, only 35#37; of such detainees are ever actually extradited.

Next, when it is still not possible to extradite a refugee because it has been impossible to determine where the person is from or because the embassy at which the refugee is presented refuses to provide the requisite travel documents, the refugee ends up on the street. And that is what has been happening for more than four years now.

Then there is yet another plan: extradition centres. In the Netherlands, there are now two: one at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and one at Rotterdam airport where "illegalised" people arrested during police raids are held before being flown out of the country within 28 days. Refugees who have run out of legal options can also be dumped there.

For those new refugees who actually manage to enter the Netherlands, there will also be centres, including an "orientation" centre and a "return" centre. People without papers or with "illegal" papers will be barred.

The last piece of Verdonk's system is the still-to-be built "return locations" where refugees whose applications are exhausted can apply to be housed. This accommodation will be more sober than the existing refugee centres and the regime that they live under has still to be decided.

The key point is that the spartan accommodation and a tight regime will be concentrated on scaring and intimidating refugees and on putting them in such a desperate plight that they will even accept extradition to a country they did not come from in the first place. Besides this panoply of restrictive facilities, there are also several special prisons or prison wings for refugees in the Netherlands.

Unlike some other European countries, the Netherlands does not have a system of periodical "regularisation" of so-called "illegals" like those existing in Spain, Italy, France or even a smaller country like Belgium.

Five years ago, the Dutch government, in the person of Job Cohen, gave a kind of "residence status" to thirteen "illegals", who had been working in the Netherlands and paying taxes for an average of twelve years. Last year again, a group of illegalised workers went on hunger strike, resulting in three permits to stay being handed out by Cohen again, this time as mayor of Amsterdam. But that does not amount to much.

Surveys prove that the Dutch people support such people, especially because they are workers contributing to the economy and paying their taxes and are totally integrated in society. The government sees it all differently, however.

The same is now happening in the case of refugees affected by Verdonk's measures. Large numbers of people, right up to the highest levels of society, are attacking the inhumanity of "Verdonk's law" and are contemplating civil disobedience.

At first, it seemed that even the city councils and mayors of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht were going to refuse to carry out evictions of refugees from hostels in their cities but, after talks with Verdonk herself, they now seem reassured that no refugees will be roaming their streets and embarrassing them with the sight of women and children begging on the squares of their cities.

One of the people most fiercely opposed to the law is the former minister and political veteran, Jan Pronk, nowadays chairman of the main refugees' organisation Vluchtelingenwerk in the Netherlands.

Pronk says that refugees are not being treated legally and are being discriminated against instead of being protected. Technical criteria, he says, are being implemented on people, without consideration of important aspects of their personal situation, like children, work, integration, and health.

Pronk, who called the extradition plans deportations, found himself thrown out of Verdonk's office and was threatened that the subsidies of the Refugee Councils for which he works will be withdrawn. Verdonk refused to talk with Pronk because the term "deportation" reminded her of the Second World War.

Another high-ranking critic of the government's plans is the Foreigners' Advisory Commission (ACVZ), which has lashed Verdonk's proposal that new asylum seeker should have a mere 48 hours to prove their identity, tell their story and secure the services of a lawyer.

This Commission has never really recommended anything before, but now says the new procedures are very dangerous for the rights of refugees and should be extended by at least a further 48 hours.

Human Rights Watch also complained, as long ago as April 2003, that the Netherlands were heading Europe's harshest anti- migration policies and took the Dutch government to task by calling its policies inhumane and unlawful.

Despite these official protests, the grassroots work that antiracists are doing to save refugees from being extradited is even more important because they are providing practical assistance like shelter, medical care, education and jobs.

In this activity, school students, churches and local residents' committees are working together to organise demonstrations at government buildings, picketing their city councils with appeals for solidarity and humanity.

Particularly astonishing, however, is to see that the Christian Democrats (CDA), who are hold absolute power in the government are not being criticised within their party, although the churches and local CDA mayors are backing the anti-Verdonk protests.

Under pressure, Verdonk has felt obliged to react to the adverse coverage in the European media by giving an interview to the Financial Times, explaining her policies in an open letter that has only given emphasised absurd isolation in which this Dutch government is operating, its severe lack of humanity and its naive belief that it can solve serious social problems with a package of severe measures dreamt up several years ago.

The removal of 26,000 mainly young and overwhelmingly integrated refugees will solve nothing. It will not enhance integration, it will cause "ghettoisation", it will deepen social inequality and will do little to halt administrative corruption.

Only popular resistance and widespread civil disobedience can make this Verdonk and the government see that their road leads only to a social cul-de-sac.

By Jeroen Bosch of Alert! and Antifa-Net in Utrecht