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Bed, Bath, Bread – Asylum in the Netherlands

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Dutch government struggles with care for failed asylum seekers

The Dutch government continues to create controversy with its policy on asylum seekers. In October, we published an article on the deteriorating conditions asylum seekers face in The Netherlands. A German court had ruled against the deportation of a Somali asylum seeker to The Netherlands, since the risk of inhumane treatment was deemed too high. This incident wasn’t the first, and would not be the last. Most recently, the so-called ‘bed, bath, bread’ discussion almost caused the government to fall.

Protestant Church gets the ball rolling

In 2010, the Dutch government was ordered by the Council of Europe to stop evicting families with young children from asylum seekers centers. By refusing to provide these families with a place to stay, The Netherlands ignored human rights legislation, including the European Social Charter. Despite this verdict, the Dutch government remained reluctant in providing failed asylum seekers with basic care. In order to force its government to change its policies, the Dutch Protestant Church filed a complaint at the European Committee for Social Rights (ECSR). The Committee agreed with the Church and stated that The Netherlands must continue to provide failed asylum seekers with food, clothing and a bed to sleep in (commonly referred to in Dutch media and politics as ‘bed, bath, bread’). However, the ruling was non-binding. The Dutch government decided to hold off any changes to its policy until the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers spoke its mind on the matter.

Ideological differences provide major issue in coalition

This postponing behaviour was a clear sign on the wall that the coalition was struggling with the issue of failed asylum seekers. The coalition consists of the PvdA (the Dutch Labour party) and Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD (a conservative liberal party). Since they created a coalition after the general elections in 2012, the parties’ ideological differences caused several governmental crises, especially around issues involving immigration.

As much as the coalition may have hoped it would, the Committee of Ministers’ verdict did not provide a way out of another political crisis. In fact, it turned out the verdict was so vague the parties interpreted it in opposite ways – thus causing the same governmental crisis they hoped to avoid. The European Ministers accepted a resolution that recognizes both the ECSR report and the Dutch government’s concerns. The Committee of Ministers “looks forward to the Netherlands reporting on any possible developments in the issue.” Click here for the full text of the resolution.

The solution

And thus, the Dutch government had to find its own way out of the issue. After days of negotiating, the prime minister and vice prime minister proudly presented the ‘bed, bath, bread agreement’. The crisis was averted, but critics were quick in dismissing the agreement. And those critics came from a wide range of organisations, political parties and municipal governments. The agreement entailed that the government would provide failed asylum seekers with basic care (bed, bath and bread), but only in the five largest municipalities. After a period of regaining their strength, the failed asylum seekers will be asked to cooperate with their departure from The Netherlands. If they refuse, the basic care will stop.

New violations of human rights?

It is these conditions that the critics find hard to swallow. In fact, several smaller municipalities announced that they would continue taking care of the failed asylum seekers in their municipality. The mayor of Deventer, one of the municipalities that will have to end their care for failed asylum seekers, argues that “it’s ten people in our municipality. We will not make them sleep under a bridge.” The five largest municipalities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, also have major concerns over the agreement. A majority of the Amsterdam city councils opposes the agreement, arguing that it crossed a humanitarian bottom line. Several human rights- and refugee organisations in The Netherlands agree, in somewhat bolder terms: the Dutch department of Amnesty International announced that the “bed, bath, bread agreement contravenes the statement of the European Committee for Social Rights”.

Opposition protests

In the House of Commons, the opposition parties also found the agreement a tough nut to crack. Since the coalition does not have a majority of seats in the Senate, it has joined forces with three opposition parties – the ‘constructive three’ or C-3. But even these constructive partners of the coalition are reluctant to back the government in this agreement. Head of liberal democratic D66, Alexander Pechtold, called it an “insane compromise”.

The hard-fought agreement also received major criticism from within the coalition parties. Former Interior Minister Hans Wiegel (VVD, or People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) argued in a major Dutch newspaper that the agreement was “first and foremost meant to avert a government crisis”. In fact, Wiegel argues that Prime Minister Rutte has set his mind on making his second government the seventh since World War II to reach its full term, no matter how it gets there.

New debates ahead

It has been a month since the ‘bed, bath bread agreement’ was presented as a hard-fought solution to end a governmental crisis. Although the issue originated in a debate over human rights violations, critics argue that the solution does not end these violations. With all this criticism, it seems increasingly unlikely that this agreement will come into effect. What’s more, shortly after the agreement was presented, it appeared that the coalition parties interpreted it differently. Taking into account the lack of political support in both the national and regional governments, it is likely that the treatment of failed asylum seekers will continue to spark debate in Dutch politics.

Words by Lisanne Oldekamp

Picture by Tjebbe van Tijen

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