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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 17:00 GMT
Dutch MPs split over asylum bill
Jan Peter Balkenende
Most Dutch people are against Mr Balkenende's plans
The Dutch parliament has begun debating a controversial new bill aimed at clearing a backlog of asylum cases.

The bill grants residence rights to 2,300 asylum seekers, but allows for the forceful deportation of another 26,000 failed applicants.

Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk says a total amnesty would "send the wrong signal to people smugglers".

But opposition parties and civil rights groups, who fiercely criticise the proposal, say it is "inhumane".

Ms Verdonk's bill says more than 2,000 asylum seekers who have been in the country for more than five years, have a clean police record and have applied for a residence permit can now stay.

Opinion polls

Another 200 people, although they do not meet the criteria, are included in the amnesty for humanitarian reasons.

Those who have exhausted all legal avenues are to be deported.

Most of them would have lived in the Netherlands for years and have children born there.

Pim Fortuyn
Pim Fortuyn started the asylum debate
Opinion polls show more than 60% of the population are against these plans and would prefer a more generous amnesty, which allows all those asylum seekers who arrived in the country before the new law was adopted to stay.

The opposition parties also question why only 200 "hardship" cases were identified, although thousands of similar applications have been made.

The Christian Democrat-led government has the tentative support of its coalition allies for the bill.

But Ms Verdonk has rejected their proposal to set up a joint commission to reconsider the number of "hardship" cases, according to Radio Netherlands.

Immigration has been a hotly debated issue in the Netherlands since radical politician Pim Fortuyn, who was later assassinated, called for an end to immigration two years ago.

He said immigration, especially from Muslim countries, was diluting Dutch liberal values.

The new centre-right government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which came to power last May, says it wants to find a "tough but fair solution".


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Mathew Charles
"The Dutch government knows it has to tread carefully on this issue"



SEE ALSO:
Dutch get new government
27 May 03  |  Europe
Fortuyn party set for comeback
14 Apr 03  |  Europe


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