A picture showing Syrian refugee brothers in an asylum center in the Netherlands. Taken June 26 2017. Used as a symbolic picture | Photo: Picture Alliance / AP / M. Muheisen
A picture showing Syrian refugee brothers in an asylum center in the Netherlands. Taken June 26 2017. Used as a symbolic picture | Photo: Picture Alliance / AP / M. Muheisen

The Dutch coalition government has agreed a compromise deal granting asylum to several hundred young migrants who have been in the Netherlands for at least five years. The deal reached late on Tuesday enabled the government to avoid a political crisis.

More than 600 children have been in the Netherlands for more than five years, some for as long as ten and some were born in the country. Their parents come from all over the world; Congo, Nigeria, Mongolia, Armenia, Russia, Iraq and Afghanistan. What they have in common is that they, along with organizations like “Defence for Children” have been fighting for years for the right to stay in the Netherlands along with their families.

Finally, late on Tuesday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his four-party coalition reached a compromise which would grant an exception to the children, allowing them full residency and Dutch citizenship. The dispute had threatened a political crisis within the ruling coalition, pitting Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) against the three junior coalition parties, which all favored a more generous approach to the children’s cases and a block on deportations until after an investigatory commission publishes its findings later this year.

A picture showing a group of Syrian refugee girls playing on a swing in the Netherlands Taken July 20 2017  Photo Picture Alliance  AP  M Muheisen

The ‘Children’s Pardon’

The government’s decision has used the so-called "Children’s Pardon" to grant the group citizenship. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Dutch government, the pardon was set up to regulate long-term resident children. It was voted in with a new government in 2012 and was intended to help children of asylum seekers or unaccompanied minors who do not have a residence permit and who have been living in the Netherlands for more than five years.

Children who are born in the Netherlands to non-Dutch parents do not automatically receive Dutch citizenship, but rather that of their parents. Critics of the pardon have pointed out that it is almost impossible to fulfil all the criteria, given that one is that the child must cooperate "in the obligation to leave the country following a past rejection." As Martijn van der Linden from the Dutch Refugee Council points out, "doing so would have meant that you would have been forced to leave the country," and therefore would no longer be there to apply for the pardon. "It’s a kind of ‘Catch-22’, impossible situation," he says.

An asylum center in a former prison in the Netherlands One Syrian refugee hangs her washing up Taken in June 2017  Photo Picture Alliance  AP  M Muheisen

A positive step

This current "exception" would probably grant residency to around 1,300 people including the families of the estimated 630 children. "Defence for Children" is an international organization which campaigns for children’s rights and has been involved in some of the cases affected by the pardon. Spokesperson Martine Goeman told the website Dutch News that it was still unclear to her on what criteria the children included in this special pardon were being judged. She conceded though that overall this was a positive breakthrough: "If you see the stress these children are going through, they deserve it."

The downsides

Van der Linden spoke to InfoMigrants while the debate was still going on in the Dutch Parliament. He explained that the figures "are for the moment estimations," so no one has any details about how many children, and their families, will eventually be granted citizenship. The problem with this political decision is that, after this group of children has been granted the pardon, the pardon will cease to exist. The government also announced that it would reduce the number of refugees it took in under the UN resettlement scheme.

UNHCR Netherlands tweeted late Tuesday that while the news was positive for the children included in the group, it was a shame that the exception had been granted "at the cost of other refugees whose numbers [in the UN settlement scheme] would now be reduced." This decision also drew criticism from opposition MPs who debated the decision on Wednesday. GroenLinks (Green Left) MP Bram van Oijk tweeted calling the decision "miserly horse trading."

An Afghan refugee does his washing in an asylum center in a former prison Taken 25 April 2016  Photo Picture Alliance  AP Photo  M Muheisen

'Falling behind'

The asylum system in the Netherlands is "falling behind," says Van der Linden. There is a huge backlog of people waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. He says that in 2018 there were a total of 18,596 applications for asylum, of which only 3,620 have so far had a positive decision. "The general acceptance rate is between 20-30 percent," Van der Linden says, adding that it can take 16 weeks for those under the Dublin agreement to be sent back, and even longer for those refused from Afghanistan. "The asylum centers are almost full," he added, calling the government's measures a case of “"too little too late."

One positive outcome of this debate, according to Van der Linden, has been that the Dutch government has declared it will put more money into the system. "Thirteen million euros to the immigration service to manage these asylum applications. Hopefully this will shorten the asylum procedure in the Netherlands. We hope asylum seekers in the future will also benefit from that." He conceded that the minister had admitted there was a problem and had started to address the matter, advertising for more people to work within the system. Right now though, Van der Linden knows that training those employees will take time and "it will probably take a lot of time for the immigration service to be working at full power once again."


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