Following the death of hundreds of refugees in one of the many recent dramas in the Mediterranean Sea, immigration is again high on the European agenda. This fuels debates on European border patrols and asylum policies, and influences political decision making on boundaries of belonging within nation states. The Netherlands has a long tradition of excluding people without residence rights from all sorts of services. For instance, one thorny issue is that some people without rights, who’ve ended up in marginal positions, are still offered shelter. From a humanitarian point of view this is essential, but it also undermines the official migration policy message.
For the past several weeks, the national coalition government in the Netherlands nearly collapsed over the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers. The locally organized food and shelter services for rejected asylum-seekers and other irregular migrants are under attack. After a long and heated political debate following a Council of Europe decision, Liberal and Labour leaders unveiled a compromise on 22 April 2015. Yet, in presenting their plans, the leaders interpreted the issue in completely different ways, which were also met with strong criticism in Dutch society. No one seems to believe that the plan to reduce the number of shelters and to make shelter conditional on the willingness to return is workable. Rather, it appears that the plan is meant to hammer home the message that there’s no place in Dutch society for people with no residence rights. Additionally, over the past few days, the example of Australia has been referenced. One of the Netherlands most active anti-immigration politicians, Geert Wilders, explicitly copied the ‘No way you will make Australia home’ campaign and translated it to the Dutch situation.
The example of what the Dutch have dubbed the ‘bed, bath and bread debate’ is illustrative of the difficulties of making migration policies in a time in which anti-immigrant sentiment among the public seems to be ever-growing. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that it was shameful to see the political turmoil about such a tiny issue in a rich country against the backdrop of the sheer size of the Mediterranean crisis. In the Netherlands, the debate is about an estimated 200 beds in a population of 16 million official inhabitants and an estimated 100,000 irregular migrants. A recent story in The Economist, when pointing out this contrast, offered scant comfort by maintaining that ‘[t]he Dutch are not really doing any worse than other European countries.’
Across Europe, many voters have turned their backs on the continent’s refugee crisis. Recent attacks on journalists in Paris and young migrants leaving to fight in Syria have complicated matters further. For decades now, the national and local governments in the Netherlands have fought over the issue of how far excluding irregular migrants should go. In 2001, I concluded my dissertation with the hope that these two governmental layers would come up with a more structural solution soon. In reality, the practical solutions are, on the one hand, comparable to how they were back then, but on the other hand, the issue has become much more difficult to deal with politically.
The real issue is located at a third level of policy-making: the EU. A sound and coherent European approach to refugee and irregular migrant issues is lacking. Meanwhile, money-making criminal organizations and individuals profit and fuel the criminal representations on which migration control thrives. To break this vicious cycle, scholars increasingly argue either for a world without borders (which is very unrealistic) or for a watertight system of migration management and control (which is equally unrealistic). Joining forces in the European Union to deal with the refugee crisis seems the only option that brings realistic ways to deal with migration.
But what happens in the meantime? While national governments in countries such as the Netherlands struggle in the political arena, civil society is filling the gaps. A recent inventory of shelters for irregular migrants revealed that most shelters in the Netherlands are run by pro-migration NGOs from different walks of life, often partially funded by local level governments. The good news is that there’s still some tolerance left. The bad news is that it’s not enough to solve the problem.
This blog has been published on 19-05-2015 on the blogsite Border Criminologies of the University of Oxford.