Hundreds of asylum seekers were evacuated on Friday from the Netherlands' main migrant center to shelters across the country. Dozens more remain camped outside the gates of the facility as the government struggles to tackle the ongoing crisis.
A group of around 400 men were moved late Friday (August 26) night from the Ter Apel center near the northern city of Groningen to reception facilities where they are to be processed and given shelter while their asylum applications are under consideration.
"Several hundred people were taken by bus late last night to other reception locations across the country," Leon Veldt, the spokesperson for the Dutch government's refugee organization (COA) said Saturday.
"We hope to slowly normalize the situation at Ter Apel," he told the news agency AFP.
A day earlier, Dutch authorities transferred 150 people from the center to two sports halls in a central city, in an effort to relieve the reception crisis.
But Dutch newspapers at the weekend reported that dozens of men remained behind at the Ter Apel center, mainly because they were worried about losing their places in the queue, according to AFP. Most people arriving at Ter Apel are Syrian nationals.
More than 700 people have been sleeping under makeshift tarpaulins outside the gates of the Ter Apel center for nearly three weeks. Aside from a number of dirty portable toilets, they have no other facilities.
Refugee advocates have compared the situation to overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy, where most asylum seekers first arrive in Europe.
A 25-year-old asylum seeker from Yemen, Motaz Mohammed, told Reuters on Friday that he had been sleeping outside the Ter Apel center for 11 days, through both a heat-wave and thunderstorms. "We are stuck, we don't know where to go," he said.
"No one wants to talk to us, only the guards, and the guards tell us: 'Sorry, wait'."
The crisis in the Netherlands has been blamed on staff shortages at the COA, as well as a backlog of asylum seekers waiting to be processed and a lack of housing in the country. Many people whose applications for asylum have been approved have had to continue living in reception centers because they are unable to find a home.
Aid organizations last week warned of a looming medical and humanitarian emergency, following the death on Wednesday of a three-month-old infant from unknown causes at the center. At least two men at the center have also been hospitalized, one for a heart attack and another for diabetes that had gone untreated for weeks.
The conditions were so bad that the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) sent a team to Ter Apel on Thursday, the relief agency's first deployment in the Netherlands.
A recent report by the Dutch Inspectorate for Health Care and Youth also warned of "a serious risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases as a result of the total lack of hygiene" at the facility.
Government measures criticized
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday he was ashamed of the scenes in Ter Apel and announced a number of measures aimed at ending the crisis.
They include temporarily pulling out of the 2016 European Union deal with Turkey, which saw the Netherlands agree to take around 1,000 asylum seekers per year from refugee camps in Turkey.
Gerald Knaus, the architect of the EU-Turkey deal, said the new plan was "not very constructive." He told the Netherlands public broadcasting organization NOS that the country actually takes in relatively few asylum seekers.
The fact that the Netherlands will now not hold up its end of the bargain [the EU-Turkey deal] is a "disgrace," Knaus said. "We should be very concerned about our attitude toward people who flee. The resistance against asylum seekers is growing everywhere. A rich EU country that is not prepared to take in small numbers of people does not set a good example for Turkey."
More accommodation places
Other efforts by the government to tackle the crisis include halting visas for family members of people who do not have housing.
The government has also reached an agreement with local Dutch municipalities to create homes for 20,000 people with protection status this year, allowing them to move out of asylum seeker centers and free up space for new arrivals.
The Dutch military has also been tasked with setting up a new camp to house people who are waiting to register asylum claims at the Ter Apel center.
Milo Schoenmaker, chair of the COA board, welcomed the measures, but added that there were still insufficient places to accommodate everyone, AP reports. There are 16,000 processed asylum seekers currently looking for accommodation, according to the COA.
Plans to relocate asylum seekers to cities and town in the Netherlands have already run into fierce resistance. In the eastern town of Albergen, residents held protests last week against the re-housing of up to 300 asylum seekers in a local hotel.
Chanting slogans like "No to asylum seekers!" and "Go away!", AFP reported that protestors said the decision was forced upon them despite objections that the town was too small for the influx of hundreds of foreigners.
With AP, AFP, Reuters