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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 17:49 GMT
Dutch MPs approve asylum exodus
Asylum seekers
The issue of asylum seekers has divided Dutch society
The Dutch lower house of parliament has approved a controversial bill from the centre-right government to expel 26,000 asylum seekers.

The plans would force the failed applicants, many of whom have lived in the Netherlands for years, to leave over a three-year period.

About 2,300 others will be given leave to stay.

The new policy is bitterly opposed by large sections of the traditionally tolerant society.

DUTCH ASYLUM APPLICATIONS
2000: 43,560
2002: 18,670
2003: Estimated 10,000
Sources: Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics & Dutch Refugee Council
One man facing deportation has sewn up his eyes and mouth in protest.

The bill - which still has to be endorsed by parliament's upper house - was backed by 83 votes to 57, and the lower house rejected a series of motions designed to soften the plans.

It covers all asylum seekers who arrived in the country before 1 April 2001, a period when Yugoslavians, Iraqis and Afghans were the three main nationalities arriving as refugees.

Some of the failed asylum seekers have obtained jobs and raised Dutch-speaking families in the Netherlands.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's government has gone further than the policies of controversial anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, who was shot dead ahead of parliamentary elections in 2002.

Fortuyn favoured an amnesty for asylum seekers already in the Netherlands.

Departure centres

The BBC's Geraldine Coughlan in The Hague says the political spectrum in the Netherlands has been moving in this direction for some time.

Mehdy Kavousi, who has sewn up eyes and lips in protest against bill
One asylum seeker has sewn up his eyes and lips in protest at the bill
The thousands of failed asylum applications were built up under the previous centre-left cabinet, when immigration restrictions were more lax.

The country's Immigration and Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk, said those affected had never been under the illusion they could stay.

Those who refuse or are unable to return voluntarily will be placed in departure centres before being sent back.

Our correspondent says the new policy is opposed by about two-thirds of Dutch people, as well as human rights groups.

She adds that there is expected to be widespread support for asylum seekers who resist the order to go back to their countries.

'Critical'

The Dutch Council of Churches and a large number of mayors have been campaigning against the new law.

"Many asylum seekers live in critical situations. They have physical and mental problems, their families have been broken up and there is insecurity in their home countries," said the Council of Churches in a letter of protest to the government.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has condemned the bill, saying it would violate international standards by sending rejected asylum seekers - including children - back to unsafe areas, such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya.

"The Dutch government's proposals... signal a serious departure from the Netherlands' historic role as a leader in human rights protection in Europe," the group said in a report.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Dutchman Ruud Lubbers, has also expressed concern.

The government insists that no-one at risk will be forced to leave.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Angus Roxburgh
"Holland has been closing its doors to foreigners"



SEE ALSO:
Deal to tackle EU migrants agreed
17 Feb 04  |  Politics
Living the legacy of Pim Fortuyn
17 Feb 04  |  Europe
Dutch MPs split over asylum bill
09 Feb 04  |  Europe


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