From Tolerance to Detachment: How the Dutch Policy is Failing Asylum Seekers


We continues our series of articles on refugees, this time looking at concrete countries’ cases, starting with the Netherlands.

The Dutch treatment of asylum seekers has come under fire. A German court in Darmstadt decided against the deportation of a Somali asylum seeker to the Netherlands, as the risk of inhumane treatment is too high.

The man saw his application for asylum rejected in the Netherlands, and then went to Germany. There the authorities tried to deport him under the Dublin III Regulation, which states refugees have to apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive, and should be sent back to that country if they try applying elsewhere. The German court decided against deportation claiming that the Netherlands cannot provide basic necessities such as shelter and food.

Though the ruling is not very common, precedents exist. In 2012, a German court ruled against the deportation of a Palestinian family to Italy due to the poor conditions the refugees experienced, living without shelter or reliable access to food, water and electricity. Also in 2012, recognising the extremely difficult situation of refugees in Greece, German authorities imposed a moratorium on deportations, which have been halted by German courts on several occasions.

Yet, this is the first time such a ruling affects Germany’s neighbouring country, the champion of tolerance and respect for human rights the Netherlands prides itself to be. The State Secretary for Security and Justice Fred Teeven’s lack of action in facing the deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers in the country is hardly worth of this reputation.

The Dutch way

Dutch law states that immigrants seeking asylum should not be denied entry into the country; they can however be subject to lengthy detention while their asylum claims are processed.

Amnesty International describes these detention centers as similar to regular prisons. The organisation claims migrants and (rejected) asylum-seekers are held under a regime described as ‘harsh’ and even ‘inhumane,’ denouncing ineffective procedures for investigating ill treatment, as well as poor access to medical care and to lawyers, and humiliating routine procedures like invasive body searches.

Human rights are fundamentally guaranteed in the Netherlands, but the Dutch history of dealing with asylum seekers remains controversial. Until the 1970s, the Dutch immigration policies were considered lenient. However, when it became clear that the immigrants arriving in the country were going to stay permanently, the country’s migration policies became increasingly restrictive. At the same time, the number of detention centers increased. In 2005 a fire in the Schiphol Airport detention facility that killed several detainees sparked a public debate over the conditions of such structures. In the next few years, reforms were set to improve the asylum seekers’ conditions: main goal was to make detention centres safer, reduce the time of detention, and provide families with children with alternative facilities.

All talk little action

These measures feature prominently on the Justice ministry’s website. Yet, as of today, asylum seekers are still not allowed to work in the Netherlands during the first nine months of their arrival, and they receive no financial support by the government. Following the suicide of the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov in the beginning of 2013, Teeven promised the immigration service would adopt a more humane approach to asylum seekers: “What happened is extremely sad,” Teeven told Amnesty International in an extensive interview, “If you put someone in unjustified detention and don’t even take care of this person, then you have a big problem.” Despite Teeven’s recognition of the problem, the suicides have not stopped. The latest, in April, was an Armenian asylum seeker with a mental illness who was denied medical support. His lawyer Eva van den Hombergh told the Dutch newspaper NRC that not enough had been done to humanise the asylum seekers’ conditions: “IND [Immigration and Naturalisation Service] simply followed procedures, without any attention to his problems.”

She is not the only one concerned with the current state of asylum seekers’ conditions. Dorine Manson, director of Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, and Eduard Nazarski, director of Amnesty International, wrote a column in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last April reminding Teeven to keep his promises. They thought little improvement happened despite the positive headline on the ministerial website: “It’s an extra hour of sports activities here and a few hours more spent outside the cell there,” they claimed, adding that the detention centers still effectively work as prisons, the full body searches still occur, and that it will be at least another year before even the smallest changes will be implemented. “Meanwhile detention is the reality for many, including vulnerable groups like children or people with serious physical or mental problems,” they wrote.

Teeven admitted that detention centers could be better, yet according to him, the situation is not that bleak as the activists see it: “I don’t think [detention] is a hotel and it’s not even close to that. It is not a pleasure at all, but we do treat people well in detention.” In the detention centers, refugees are provided with food and shelter while their claim for asylum is being processed.

However, if their claim is rejected and they refuse to go home, they can be evicted from refugee centres and left to fend for themselves. In Summer 2012, asylum seekers from Iraq were denied staying in the Netherlands as the war was officially over and Iraq was considered ‘safe’. With the Dutch authorities denying documents, and Iraq not accepting forced returns, these people were left in a limbo. Many former refugees had nothing to go back to, so they staged protests all over the Netherlands, which ended that December when police in different municipalities forcefully dismantled the camps they had set up. Since then, they have been cared for by an organisation called Vluchtkerk, which survives thanks to the help of people’s donations of blankets, food supplies, and other basic necessities, but it is not a sustainable situation. In October last year, the European Committee of Social Rights ruled that the Netherlands had to provide shelter, food and clothing even to the rejected asylum seekers in the country. However, Teeven has so far refused to do so unless children are involved.

A better policy

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), the Dutch treatment of asylum seekers is outdated. They suggest that the Netherlands take an example from Sweden. The latter tries to avoid the detention of asylum seekers, as they are not serving a sentence. According the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, in 2012 only Sweden received almost 44.000 asylum requests, five times more than the Netherlands. However, Sweden detains a much lower number of people, for an average stay of 12 days, whereas in the Netherlands the average in 70 days. The Swedes also have a more “human” regime. In their detention, people have the key to their own room. They are not inspected and are allowed to receive visits daily. They can have their own mobile phone and have internet access. Also, they can order groceries from the local store and are free to move around the gardens at any time. “In Sweden they are very reluctant when it come to detention. The Netherlands and Sweden really differ on this point,”Teeven told Amnesty International, simply accepting the difference between the countries.

Improvements in asylum seekers’ conditions require strong political will and motivation. Teeven downplayed the German ruling to “an isolated case” from which one “could not derive general conclusions about the Dutch System.” The only concession he is willing to consider is unlikely to significantly change the current situation: “Asylum seekers could have unpaid jobs at asylum centers, like mowing the lawn. Then they would make a useful contribution to society, but giving them a work permit would be too excessive,” Teeven said. But as even the European Council’s High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the Dutch detention centers’ critics, Teeven may have to reconsider his priorities before other negative rulings decry the country’s human rights record.

By Sofia Lotto Persio and Lotte Kamphuis

Illustration: Tjebbe van Tijen –

2 responses to “From Tolerance to Detachment: How the Dutch Policy is Failing Asylum Seekers

  1. Pingback: Asylum seekers lost to the cracks in Greece – The Pandeia Network - Pan-European youth media

  2. Pingback: Looking the other way will not make the migrants disappear | Just Words

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