Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte lamented on Friday the handling of the hundreds of migrants and refugees who have been forced to sleep rough outside a refugee reception center due to overcrowding inside.
More than 700 people camped out for several nights near the facility in the eastern village of Ter Apel, close to the German border.
"It is terrible what is happening in Ter Apel," Rutte said while expressing shame that the humanitarian group Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF) has launched its first operation in the Netherlands to support the migrants.
"I think that everyone in the Netherlands thinks it's terrible that MSF feels obliged to jump in at Ter Apel," Rutte told reporters.
'Dismal' situation at registration center
The center in Ter Apel — the largest in the Netherlands — has beds for up to 2,000 people.
The overcrowding has been building for months and Dutch officials say it has been exacerbated by lengthy delays in processing asylum claims and a lack of housing for those who are approved to stay.
"The asylum-seekers here live in dismal, primitive circumstances," MSF emergency coordinator Monique Nagelkerke said.
Rutte said the problem was down to a decision from 2015 to reduce asylum capacity as well as a national housing shortage.
How is the government planning to solve things?
But Rutte also announced the Dutch government had "found a way out of this problem.''
The measures, agreed by the Dutch Cabinet, include opening a new registration center at a nearby military base with the aim of placing all people at the center in shelters by September 10.
The government will also restrict the number of migrants and refugees entering the country — including the 1,000 asylum seekers who come annually as part of the 2016 EU deal with Turkey — until the end of next year.
There will also be a restriction on those with granted refugee status being able to bring their families over to the Netherlands. At the same time, repatriations will be accelerated for those coming from countries not on the official danger list.
What is the situation like outside the refugee center?
Many of the refugees have been forced to camp by the roadside in squalid conditions with dirty toilets and no showers, the Dutch Council for Refugees said.
News agencies reported that some of the asylum-seekers have been provided with blankets and are sleeping under four canvas shades held up by wooden poles.
Occasional fights have reportedly broken out.
Dutch Red Cross spokeswoman Nicole van Batenburg told the NU.nl news site that the charity was "seriously concerned" about the potential spread of infectious diseases.
Two people were hospitalized from outside the camp Thursday — a man who had a heart attack and another who did not have medication for his diabetes.
The Dutch arm of Doctors Without Borders deployed medics to give first aid and other assistance to those sleeping rough.
A mobile hospital was expected to arrive Friday, the organization's national director, Judith Sargentini, said.
Is the Dutch asylum system in crisis?
The Netherlands is not currently facing a large influx of refugees. Their number is stable at around 43,000 people per year.
Dutch officials blame cutbacks following the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the closure of some refugee centers and placed additional pressure on others, leading to the overcrowding at Ter Apel.
Asylum applications can take months to process, especially when migrants and refugees arrive from so-called "safe countries" who ultimately are not entitled to stay.
A housing crisis means refugees often have nowhere to go once they have been granted a residency permit and therefore remain at asylum-seeker centers.
The Council says the situation has got so bad it has launched legal action against the government.
It said thousands of refugees have had to live in tents or sports halls around the country under "inhumane circumstances" for almost a year.
The lawsuit, which is due to be heard on September 15, demands improved conditions including access to clean water, showers, privacy, adequate food and healthcare.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Ter Apel residents on Thursday protested against the "overburdening" of the community by the asylum center.
Probe launched after baby death
The Dutch justice department is now probing whether the overcrowding at Ter Apel could have played a role in the death of a three-month-old baby.
In a statement, the department said the death happened at a sports hall used as an emergency center on Wednesday.
"Currently little is known about the baby's death, but first aid given failed to reanimate the child," the statement added.
Van der Burg told reporters he was "deeply shocked" at the news of the baby's death.
ab, mm/sms, fb (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)