NETHERLANDS. Between 75.000 and 150.000 irregular migrants live in the Netherlands today. In the past two decades the country has strengthened its immigration policy, increasing the pressure on asylum-seekers and irregular migrants to leave the country.
Teenagers playing baseball and a few open shops and fast food restaurants. On this rainy Sunday afternoon, the streets of Zuidoost, a district located in South-East Amsterdam, are almost empty. No coffee shops, no fancy clothing shops and no tourists like in the trendy centre of the city, which is only twenty minutes away by metro. Here you will find African hairdressers, Caribbean food and Indian corner-shops. In Zuidoost, the population is mainly “allochtoon”, a Dutch term to refer to persons with at least one parent born outside the Netherlands.
Zuidoost is also a place where many migrants without residence permit or “illegal migrants” live. Finding this kind of migrants may however turn out to be a tough task. “Illegal migrants are very discrete and never say what they do nor where they go”, comments Humphrey, a 55-year old pensioner of the Dutch army, who was born in Curacao. “I don’t know any illegal migrants. I’m sure there are, but I don’t know them personally”, adds Pavel, a 20-year-old student who came to the Netherlands from Russia when he was five.
According to the Dutch Ministry of Immigration, about 75.000 illegal migrants live in the Netherlands. In its latest statistics dating from 2007, Amnesty International reports not less than 150.000, which would make about 10% of the general migrant population and 1% of the total population of the country.
After decades of laissez-faire policy, the Netherlands started to opt for a stronger immigration policy in the 1990s. The Aliens Act 2000, which came into force in April 2001, introduced several new provisions for immigration authorities, such as carrying out house searches and broadening the scope for stopping people in the street to ask for their identity and nationality.
A turning point for this situation was the murder of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, which led to a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in the country. The former secretary of state for immigration, Hilbrand Nawijn, who was on the list of Pim Fortuyn’s party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn, suggested that illegal migrants should be locked in army barracks pending deportation.
In December 2006, the Dutch government, under the pressure of the socialists in the coalition, agreed on an amnesty for all immigrants who had been rejected as asylum-seekers but refused to leave the Netherlands or could not do so because their embassy did not cooperate. 26.000 irregular migrants were therefore granted a residence permit. This action is known in Dutch as the ‘General pardon’, the general amnesty. Unfortunately, this did not solve the entire problem, since several thousand illegal migrants were left out of the legalization process.
Frank de Nederlander, columnist at the daily local newspaper ‘Het Parool’, was one of the participants at the “Nacht van de vervanging”, the night of replacement, celebrated in September 2009, a protest where famous Dutch people hosted migrants for one night in order to denounce the possible closing down of the shelters where many of the irregular migrants live. He received Mohamed, a young man from Chad, whose several applications for the refugee status had been rejected, leaving him in an irregular situation for years. “Now he wants to go back to his home country. But since his father is an enemy of the Chadian regime, the Chadian government does not allow him to enter. Now he is stuck here between two chairs, without status, work nor money. He has to leave but he cannot”, the journalist says.
According to de Nederlander, parts of the Dutch population is getting reluctant towards the issue of irregular migrants, assuming that this issue was solved through the ‘General pardon’. “In the Netherlands as well as in the rest of Europe, the growing tendency is to show irregular migrants as trouble-makers”, explains de Nederlander.
Last stop: Schiphol
In order to avoid new massive regulations, the Dutch government is putting great effort into encouraging irregular migrants or rejected asylum-seekers to go back to their home countries on a voluntary basis, providing them with a plane ticket and a small amount of money to take with them. For Moriska Cheret, press officer of the Dutch Refugees Council, returning voluntarily is the best way out for people who will not be legalized in the Netherlands. “But one has to keep in mind that people who flew away will do everything to stay”, she explains.
For most irregular migrants not willing to go back to their country, the experience in the Netherlands often ends up at a detention centre. Around 20.000 of them go through the five Dutch centres every year.
In the Netherlands irregular migrants are considered as having committed only an “administrative offence”, to which the penalty is to leave the country and be deported. “If a migrant enters the country with fake documents, he can be considered as a criminal suspect”, explains Gerald Roethof, a lawyer working at the court based in the detention centre of Schiphol. Ironically, in these detention centres, hundreds of cocaine smugglers are detained every year together with irregular migrants. Even though they do not share the same rooms, they are treated in the same way.
The centre of Schiphol airport became the most infamous after a fire took place in October 2005, killing eleven detainees. A Lebanese detainee was accused of having caused the fire after having thrown a burning cigarette on a blanket, but his intention could not be proved, so he was finally released. Months after the fire, survivors claimed that the guards had been very slow at reacting, ignoring the screams of the people.
Schiphol Detention centre allows detainees to be visited between 10 am and 1 pm. It is already late in the afternoon, but a young man, armed with a big suitcase, is still waiting in front of the reception. “It’s for my brother, he needs some clothes”, says Luis, a twenty-one-year-old visitor that came to the Netherlands with three of his brothers from the Dominican Republic. The eldest brother is going to be deported the next day, but as Luis arrived too late today, he will not be able to see him. “I don’t know what he is going to do there in the Dominican Republic. He left so long ago, he doesn’t know the country at all”, confides the young man with tears in his eyes.
“The Netherlands pursue a strict but fair alien’s policy” quotes the website of the Repatriation and Departure Service, which is ruled by the Ministry of Justice. But for Moriska Cheret from the Dutch Refugee Council “the government is actually pursuing a discouraging policy to put migrants under pressure and make them go back.”
Until the adoption of the Return Directive by the European Parliament, limiting the duration of detention to eighteen months, the Netherlands was one of the European countries without a legal limit of time. Despite this, Luis’s brother decided to go back to the Dominican Republic. “He was afraid of staying for months at the centre”, explains Luis. This “discouragement policy” however does not seem to work out well. In less than twenty years the number of illegal migrants living in the Netherlands tripled.