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Dutch Government Gets Tough on Immigrants - 2004-06-16

Recent Dutch legislation to expel some 26,000 failed asylum seekers from the country over the next three years raises the specter of what some people are calling Europe's largest mass deportations since World War II. The asylum seekers come from dozens of countries, mainly from the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. The first people to be affected by the center-right government's plan will be some 3000 asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal means to stay.

Nine-year-old Fikrye Callaki proudly shows off her reading skills.

"The Netherlands is my home," she says. "Everything is here for me. I have friends here who are nice to me, I have my house here, I have my school, I have everything I want. I don't want to go to Kosovo. My grandmother and grandfather are there, but I don't want to go there because I'm used to living here."

She sounds and looks like any other Dutch girl her age. A long ponytail trails down her back, small gold drops dangle from her ears, and she's wearing sneakers. The only difference is she's from Kosovo. Now, if the Dutch government has its way, she'll soon be on a plane back to a country she knows nothing about, whose language she doesn't speak and where, she says, she doesn't want to go.

She says, "The Netherlands is her home. Everything is here for me, she says, I have friends here who are nice to me, I have my house here, I have my school, I have everything I want. I don't want to go to Kosovo."

Sanijeh Callaki is Fikrye's mother. A smartly dressed, friendly woman in her late 40s, Sanije serves me coffee and cookies even though we're not in her home. We've met up at a branch of the Dutch Refugee Council in the small town of Bergen op Zoom in the south of the country. It's in out-of-the-way places like this where most asylum seekers live.

Sanije Callaki's story is typical.

Sanije Callaki left Kosovo in 1998, two years after her husband. As ethnic Albanians, she says, they had no choice but to flee the civil war. Serb authorities, she says, harassed her husband and molested her.

In the Netherlands, the Callaki's got a series of temporary permits to stay. Not, says Mrs. Callaki, because the government believed they were true refugees, but because Dutch authorities deemed Kosovo, at least temporarily, too dangerous a place to return to.

Last March, the government told the Callaki's it's safe for them to go home.

Although their case is still under review, authorities are poised to take away a Dutch education for their daughter in the only school she's ever known, a small monthly stipend and a three-room apartment.

This jail at Rotterdam's airport is in one of two centers set up to hold illegal migrants before they're deported. The government is also planning to open expulsion centers that would hold entire families for weeks, maybe months. Failed asylum seekers, possibly the Caliki's, could end up in jails like this one or be forced onto the streets. Closing doors, say critics, is what Holland's latest asylum policies are all about.

Loos Vellenga is an asylum lawyer in the small town of Alkmaar. For the first time in her 15-year career, she says she's losing cases.

The number of asylum applications in the Netherlands has dropped by some 70 percent over the past four years, but Ms. Vellenga says she's never been busier.

"It's the atmosphere at the moment, trying to reject as many as possible, to stop, establish that no one comes to our country to ask asylum," she adds. "For a long time it was Denmark with the strictest asylum policy. Now I think it's our country."

Dutch asylum policy actually changed in April 2001, when the last center-left government cracked down after years of an almost open door policy.

According to Ms. Vellenga, it's not so much the legislation that's changed things so drastically, as the government's relentless and efficient implementation of it, with the backing of the country's highest court.

Now more than half of all people seeking asylum are turned away within days. Ms. Vellenga says real refugees don't get the opportunity to argue their claims. "I think that this short procedure brings the risk that people are rejected who are refugees and that means the Dutch government takes the risk of sending people back to a situation where they have fear of persecution or a risk of violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights," she notes.

Loos Vellenga is the first lawyer to take the Dutch government to the European Court of Human Rights. She won interim measures blocking the government from sending asylum seekers back to Somalia.

The Netherlands is now subject to a rare interference in domestic policy by the European Court and it's in the unusual position of being taken to task by organizations like Human Rights Watch.

The Dutch Immigration and Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk, who is a former prison director, is a staunch defender of the government policy.

"We are tolerant," she says. "We are very hospitable for real refugees. We are very, very severe, with clear policy, [to those] who come to Holland not because their homeland is unsafe but because their homeland is much more poor than Holland is. That's no reason to stay in Holland and it's the same in all European countries."

But Loes Vellenga says she feels real asylum seekers don't get to stay either.

"What I'm afraid of is the real asylum seeker won't get access to Europe anymore, because they're talking about harmonization of asylum laws in European countries, which isn't progressing good at moment, but that's what they want to do. I think they will take the baddest asylum procedure as the standard. Yeah. That's my biggest nightmare," she says.

Back at the Refugee Council In Bergen op Zoom, Baruam Ali Hamed sits quietly for over two hours. He says he is used to waiting. It's been over seven years since he left his native Iraq, fleeing the memory of three years of imprisonment, torture and sexual abuse under Saddam Hussein. The scar on his forehead bears testimony to time spent at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and others. Ali Hamed says he and his wife chose the Netherlands because they'd heard many good things about it. But ever since he arrived, he's been held in a legal limbo with his life on hold while the Dutch dealt with his asylum claim. He says he hasn't been allowed to work, go to school or give anything back to society.

The former doctor's assistant and Iraqi Communist Party member, a Kurd, says he's tired and disappointed.

"It's very difficult for us. I have a child born here," he says. "Everything I have is here. I have nothing in Iraq. I want to stay here, but without permission to stay, you cannot work nor study, or go to school. You only can sit and wait and eat and sleep."

On February 1, the Dutch declared northern Iraq safe enough for asylum seekers to return. The same day, two suicide bombers blew up the offices of the main Kurdish parties there, killing more than 100 people.

Ali Hamed was told to leave, though officials are still deciding the fate of his wife and 4-year-old daughter, who was born in The Netherlands.

Thousands of Dutch protesters took to the streets of Amsterdam in April to oppose the deportations that many say make them ashamed to be Dutch. One Iranian asylum seeker even sewed up his eyes and lips in protest. Opinion polls show that a majority of Dutch people think there should be a general amnesty for all those who have been here for more than five years.

Toine Heymans, a reporter for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, says public opinion isn't as generous to future asylum seekers as it is to those who are already here.

"They are playing in the football team, members of the church, they are respected Dutch people. How do you want to send these people home?" he asked. "In fact, Dutch people want something to be changed, they don't want the big influx of asylum seekers anymore, on the other hand they don't want their neighbors to go home. That's the paradox."

Mr. Heymans tells the story of how he once took a flight with people being sent back to Kosovo.

"This girl asked her father in Dutch why are we going and the father said we're going home, we're going to Pristina. She didn't know where it was. She didn't speak the language and that really broke my heart," he recalls. "I thought, what are we doing to these people?"

At the refugee center, Sanije Callaki said on a Monday morning in March, police came to the Callaki family's home, took them to prison and told them they were being put on a charted flight to Kosovo. They were spared at the last minute after their lawyer intervened and convinced the police their case was still under review.

But the future of the family is uncertain and every Monday, Sanije Callaki says she now sits in fear, waiting for the doorbell to ring and the Dutch police to take her and her family away from the place she wants to call home.