Europe: Lost in the forest of immigration

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TO SEE how far removed Europe’s asylum debate has been from its asylum problem, look to the Netherlands. For the past week, the Dutch coalition has been close to collapsing over the treatment of asylum-seekers—but not those trying to cross the Mediterranean. Rather, the ruling Liberal and Labour parties have clashed over a “bed-bath-bread” question: whether Dutch municipalities should offer food and shelter to asylum-seekers (like those pictured in The Hague, above) whose applications have been denied but who have not left the country. On April 22nd, after days of late-night negotiations, Liberal and Labour leaders unveiled a compromise that satisfied nobody. The number of shelters will be reduced, and to get into them rejected asylum-seekers must show they are trying to leave the country. Meanwhile, as this esoteric debate was under way, hundreds of refugees were drowning in the Mediterranean.

The Dutch are not really doing any worse than other European countries. Across Europe, political unwillingness to confront the scale of the continent’s refugee crisis has diverted the debate into marginal issues. As in other European countries, most Dutch voters, however horrified by the plight of refugees, do not want to accept many more of them. The rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment over the past decade, embodied in the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, has pulled all parties’ immigration policies to the right. Many Dutch have a strong ethical commitment to help refugees. But in the face of vast numbers of potential asylum-seekers, all sides have found it easier to fight over local shelter policy than to address the overwhelming problems in the Mediterranean and north Africa. “It’s hard to have the real discussion because of the politics,” says Dorine Manson, director of Vluchtelingenwerk, a Dutch refugee-aid organisation. “There is no political will to change.”The bed-bath-bread crisis was triggered on April 15th, when the Council of Europe reaffirmed a decision that the Netherlands must offer decent humanitarian conditions to rejected asylum applicants until they leave the country. Applications for asylum in the Netherlands jumped from 13,000 in 2012 to 24,000 in 2014, leaving a fair number of such rejected applicants hanging about—perhaps 5,000 according to Vluchtelingenwerk. Many refuse or are unable to leave. Returning them forcibly to their home countries is expensive and presents legal hurdles. Dutch municipalities do not like to have rejected asylum-seekers living on the streets, so many offer them food and shelter in city facilities, despite the fact that they have no right to be in the country. The practice is to some extent an example of Dutch gedoogbeleid, or “tolerance policy”, in which technically illegal approaches to complex social problems are quietly tolerated.

This situation is unacceptable to the Liberals, who were elected on a law-and-order, low-immigration platform and are anxious not to lose voters to Mr Wilders’s party. (Indeed, in late March, the Liberals proposed that the European Union close its borders entirely to asylum-seekers and instead facilitate their protection in their regions of origin, whatever that might mean. A poll found that 51% of Dutch supported the idea.) The Liberals have insisted that municipalities stop providing services to rejected asylum-seekers who are not even trying to leave the country. The centre-left Labour party, the Liberals’ coalition partners, disagrees. Many Labour voters come from immigrant backgrounds, and others are ideologically committed to protecting refugees. Labour says the Liberal proposal would violate the Council of Europe decision and dump rejected asylum-seekers on the streets. It seemed implausible that the issue could bring down the government, but it was also unclear how the two parties could come up with a policy.

Then the Liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the Labour party leader, Diederik Samsom, announced that they had reached a deal. The shelters for rejected asylum-seekers would be restricted to the Netherlands’ five largest cities. Asylum-seekers could stay as long as they showed they were co-operating in finding a way to leave the country; otherwise, they would be kicked out after two weeks. Within minutes of the announcement, reporters were subjecting the deal to withering critique. What were municipalities to do with those who refused to co-operate and landed back on the streets? How could asylum-seekers be stopped from using the shelters for two weeks, being kicked out, and then returning while promising to co-operate again? Several towns have already announced they will ignore the new policy and continue to provide shelter. If municipalities refuse to obey the terms of the deal, the coalition partners may need to go back to the drawing board.

None of this squabbling is likely to have much effect on Europe’s vast refugee crisis. But the drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean over the past two weeks may have altered the political landscape. As Mr Rutte prepared to attend this week’s extraordinary meeting of the European Council on the refugee crisis, he said he would accept a change of EU rules to allow refugees who land in Italy to apply for asylum in other European countries, including the Netherlands. The idea that the Liberals would back accepting more asylum-seekers in the Netherlands would have seemed absurd a few weeks ago. Mr Rutte is a preternaturally adept politician, with a rare talent for hopping on bandwagons and making it seem as though he has been driving them from the start. If he thinks the Dutch are ready to stop dodging the asylum issue, it may be that the Netherlands is finally ready to recognise the real size of the problem. Perhaps the rest of Europe is too.

From the Economist

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