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Europe

Asylum Seekers in The Netherlands Face Deportation

A bill currently being debated by the Dutch parliament could send more than 26,000 asylum seekers in the country packing. The move reflects a growing trend in restrictive asylum policies across Europe.

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Staring into an uncertain future.

The Dutch parliament is debating a bill which would authorize the deportation of more than 26,000 asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal appeals -- they will be sent home over the next three years.

The bill -- which is scheduled for a final vote next Tuesday -- is the latest effort to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in this once liberal bastion of multiculturalism and reflects a Europe-wide trend towards stricter policies.

On Friday, the German parliament will debate a new immigration law, including asylum policy.

Thousands could be sent home

The parliamentary debate follows weeks of lively and divisive public debate in the Netherlands, where opinion polls show up to 60 percent of the Dutch public is against the measure. Opposition groups have offered -- as an alternative -- granting general amnesty to asylum seekers currently residing in the Netherlands.

But The Netherland's Immigration and Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk, declined the compromise, declaring that total amnesty would, "send the wrong signal".

But not all will be going home: 2,000 asylum seekers who have lived in the country for more than five years, have a clean police record and have applied for residency permits and another 200 who have claimed "hardship" status have been granted permission, according to the bill, to stay. Yet, that represents only a small portion of the thousands who applied for "hardship" status or have lived in the Netherlands for more than five years.

Groups skeptical the plan will work

Minister Verdonk still has some difficult questions to answer, like how she plans to proceed. She has not been clear on the details. Meanwhile refugee and asylum organizations in the Netherlands point to the fact that many refugees come from chaotic regions without functioning governments, which have proven none to willing to take people back.

"This is not very realistic -- it disregards the fact that return is simply impossible for some," Brian Lit, a lawyer with the Foundation for Legal Aid and Asylum in The Netherlands, told Deutsche Welle. "This is a complicated issue and the minister has presented deportation as a very simple solution, which it is not," he added.

Brigitta van den Berg, a spokesperson for the Dutch Refugee Council, concured. "There are certain countries of origin which are not very cooperative in taking their nationals back," she told Deutsche Welle. She added that her organization was"extremely disappointed" by the minister's decision to pursue this policy, as it was unfair to send back asylum seekers who have been in the Netherlands for more than five years -- many of whom have children who were born there. The latter comprises about a third of those who would be sent home if the bill gets final approval.

Asylum seekers less welcome in the Netherlands

The plan is representative of the growing negative attitude towards foreigners in the Netherlands, which has gradually reversed its once liberal asylum laws and replaced them with some of Europe's most restrictive ones.

For example, larger numbers of those seeking asylum status are subjected to a 48-hour "accelerated procedure" upon first entering the country, 60 percent of whom are turned away, according to Lit at the Foundation for Legal Aid in Asylum . Due to the tougher legislation, the number of asylum requests has decreased by 50 percent in the last year according to the Dutch Immigration Ministry.

Pim Fortuyn tot

Dutch right wing politician Pim Fortuyn

The Dutch people's resentment of foreigners was most effectively harnessed by controversial politician Pim Fortuyn (photo), who was assassinated in 2002. In an unusual application of logic, Fortuyn started the whole immigration debate two years ago, when he argued that it was immigrants' intolerant attitudes, particularly those of Muslim immigrants, that was undermining Dutch liberal values.

Restrictions tighten throughout Europe

Elsewhere in Europe too, governments are embracing ever-more restrictive asylum policies, attempting to meet the needs of genuine asylum seekers, while stemming the tide of economic refugees and immigrants at a time when unemployment is high and social services overstretched.

But some fear Europeans are engaging in a "race to the bottom", by implementing policies aimed at creating deterrents. In short, encouraging "asylum shopping", and hoping potential asylum seekers will feel they get a better deal elsewhere.

But this "not in my backyard" mentality may not be in the best interests of asylum seekers, say human rights organizations. "We have seen a profound degradation in terms of protecting the rights of asylum seekers in Europe," says Julia Hall, an expert on European asylum policies at Human Rights Watch in New York City. Brigitta van den Berg, of the Dutch Refugee Council, agrees and feels that the creation of a Europe-wide asylum policy, which is scheduled for completion in 2004, may help address the issue.

In Germany, the parliament will debate the country's first immigration law, including asylum policy, on Friday.

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