Netherlands: Dutch parliament votes to deport 26,000 refugees

Government scapegoats asylum seekers for cuts and economic slowdown

The Dutch parliament’s lower house voted on 17 February to expel up to 26,000 "failed asylum seekers" over the next three years. This cruel and inhumane policy has shocked and angered Dutch working people and also many people across Europe. It stands as a warning as to the direction European governments can go; as they attempt to put the blame for the failures of capitalism onto the shoulders of the most oppressed and impoverished sections of society.

The bill marks the most draconian asylum policy in Europe. Motions to "soften" the plans were rejected by the Christian Democrat-led government and the bill was passed by 83 votes to 57. Many EU countries have strengthened anti-immigrant policies, including introducing barriers to people seeking work from the ten eastern European states due to join the EU in a few weeks. But the proposals of Jan Pieter Balkenende’s right wing coalition government are the first to mean the forcible ejection of refugees.

The immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, attempted to deflect criticism by claiming the policy was humane because it would "not break up families" and would provide air tickets and funds to deportees. In other words, entire families will be expelled, despite many having lived in the Netherlands for five years, and with many children of these families settled in schools. This is what Rita Verdonk calls a "very good, very humane" policy.

In fact, the Netherlands has already opened deportation centres where families are detained before being forced onto flights "home". Those who fail to leave can be imprisoned and deprived of benefits. Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded in April 2003 that "over the past several years, the Netherlands has left behind its traditionally protective stance toward asylum seekers to take a restrictive approach that stands out among Western European countries."

In 2001, only 219 asylum seekers were granted permanent residence in the Netherlands: the lowest figure in all European states (In 1999, around 9,000 asylum seekers were granted refugee status). In other words, only 0.6% of asylum seekers received a residence permit in 2001.

The HRW April 2003 report went on to say that the Dutch government "breached the Netherlands’ refugee and human rights obligation". There was "inappropriate treatment of migrant children" and "restrictions to basic material support, such as food and housing".

The bill to expel thousands of refugees, which has to be passed by the upper house of Parliament, refers to asylum seekers who came to the Netherlands before April 2001. Many of these fled the war torn areas of the world, like the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya. To send families back to these countries means deporting them to poverty, joblessness, and conflict. Most of these states are without a "functioning government" and are blighted by violence. Of the 26,000 potential deportees a great deal will face persecution on their return and physical attack. The Dutch right wing coalition government’s policy is, in effect, a death sentence, for many desperate refugees. Human Rights Watch said the measures were a "deportation law violating international standards".

Anti-immigrant feelings are whipped up by the right wing parties in the Netherlands. They play on the fears and grievances of Dutch working people, who face worsening living conditions. The economy is nearly at a standstill, unemployment is growing, and there is an acute housing shortage in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe.

Recent opinion polls indicate the fears and confusion around the issue of deportations, and also the effect of years of right wing propaganda and cutbacks. One poll reported that although most Dutch people recognise the new legislation is draconian, the majority feel drastic action is needed. At the same time, a poll last weekend showed that two thirds of the population were in favour of an amnesty for asylum seekers who have lived in the Netherlands for more than five years. Despite the scapegoating of immigrants by the politicians and media, large sections of the population oppose the legislation.

As the bitter fruit of the new bill becomes clear – increased ethnic tensions, inhumane treatment of families – and the fact that it will not be a solution to the Netherlands’ economic woes, many more Dutch workers will oppose the government’s policies.

The acute social and economic problems are not the result of an increase in the number of immigrants and refugees. It is the right wing coalition government which is carrying out the largest round of cuts since 1945, leading to increased poverty and a serious erosion of resources. Moreover, minorities face the worst living conditions in Dutch society. A recent all-party parliamentary report concluded that efforts to create an "integrated multi-ethnic society has failed", leaving many first and second generation immigrants alienated. The plans to expel thousands of asylum seekers will only exacerbate this problem.

Government adopts Pim Fortuyn policies

The bill on refugees is a crude attempt by the unpopular government to disguise its anti-working class policies behind anti-immigrant populism. The administration also wants to send a message of a new hard-line policy to potential immigrants from Eastern Europe. Of course, until recently, the Dutch capitalists encouraged immigration, so as to fill the worst jobs when the economy grew, and to push down wages (Faced with lower birth rates and an ageing population, the EU as a whole projects that it will need more foreign labour). Now that the economy is slowing down, the Dutch ruling class wants to lay the blame on foreign workers. The government hopes this will divide the working class and weaken its efforts to resist cutbacks.

Ever since the rise of the racist, populist Pim Fortuyn List, which leapt to second place in the 2002 elections, following the assassination of its leader, the main parties have adopted many of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric of the ultra right. Jolted by the meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn, the mainstream Dutch politicians turned to racist policies. This has stirred up prejudices in a country whose population includes around 4.4% Muslims.

Smaller parties, such as the Dutch Socialist Party and Green Left, and human rights groups, have attacked the bill. Churches say they will give refuge to those targeted for expulsion. So desperate is the situation facing immigrant families, some refugee groups have called for protest hunger strikes. According to one newspaper, "Mass hunger strikes and demonstrations – quietly encouraged by social workers – have been threatened in response to the vote. One Iranian asylum seeker has sewn up his eyes and mouth in protest" (London Guardian, 18/02/04).

Even the Labour Party, which previously was part of coalition governments that carried out neo-liberal attacks, is opposed to the expulsion of immigrants. Furthermore, a section of the Christian Democrats, who are in government, opposed the bill at the party’s national congress, which was held recently. They were defeated in the conference debate, but the very fact the issue made it onto the agenda shows how the bill is deeply polarising society.

The Socialist Party, a broad left formation in which Offensief, the Dutch section of the CWI, participates, has a history of failing to put forward a class position on issues like immigrants’ rights. However, on this occasion, the SP correctly opposes the bill.

Offensief opposes the bill and all racist immigration policies, and calls for a mass campaign, uniting immigrants and workers, to oppose the government’s bill and the social cuts. This should include unions organising immigrant workers.

Last year saw large scale protests against the cutbacks and also a huge movement against the US led war on Iraq, which the Dutch government supported and assisted. This shows that working people can be brought together to fight the right wing policies of the government. It is essential that a united struggle also fights for jobs for all, for a huge increase in funding to the welfare state, and for decent and affordable housing. The wealth exists in society to provide these aims, but it needs to be under the ownership of the working class – in a planned, democratically run economy, under a socialist society.

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February 2004