In recent years the Netherlands has successfully tailored its asylum policies and practices with an eye toward stimulating efficiency in decision-making and deterring manifestly unfounded claims. As a result, requests for asylum are dramatically lower while the percentage of applications processed in accelerated procedures has significantly increased. But as this report details, the Dutch government has pursued its new asylum policies at the expense of fundamental asylum and refugee rights. After three months of research into Dutch asylum policies, Human Rights Watch has identified three areas of particular concern: violations of refugee and asylum rights in the accelerated procedure; inappropriate treatment of migrant children; and restrictions on asylum seekers' rights to basic material support, such as food and housing. This report elaborates these concerns and identifies measures the Dutch government should take to address them.
Over the past several years, the Netherlands has left behind its traditionally protective stance toward asylum seekers to take up a restrictive approach that stands out among Western European countries. In December 2002, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva observed a rise in anti-migrant attitudes in Europe, writing in its 2002 overview that "[a] high temperature against foreigners in Europe crossed a new threshold, especially in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, traditionally major UNHCR donors and supporters."1 Dutch politics over the past year has reflected this shift, featuring renewed calls for efficiency in processing asylum seekers; drastic reductions in budgetary costs associated with the processing of asylum applications; better immigration control through tougher requirements for family reunification and increased deportation efforts; and stricter integration requirements for refugees and migrants. In July 2002, governmental coalition partners created the post of Minister for Immigration and Integration, making the management of immigration flows and the control and evaluation of refugees' and migrants' integration efforts a top priority. These themes also figured prominently in the recent general elections. The new government that forms in the coming weeks should take stock of the human rights effects of policy developments in the asylum field over the past five years and consider ways in which asylum policy can be realigned to comport more closely with the Netherlands' international protection commitments.
Although the most recent Dutch law on asylum and immigration-the Aliens Act 2000, effective April 2001-is in many ways similar to the previous asylum and immigration act dating from 1994, the few changes that were made have had a clear impact on the practice of asylum law and policy. Perhaps most significant has been the shift in final authority for appeals in asylum and immigration cases to the Raad van State (Council of State), the Netherlands highest administrative court, which has given a strikingly restrictive cast to Dutch asylum law. The new law-particularly as interpreted by the Raad van State-has resulted in routine infringement of asylum seekers' most basic rights-the right to a meaningful opportunity to be heard and to seek asylum and refuge outside one's own country. It is critical that any process for evaluating asylum requests not undermine these principles in the interest of speed and efficiency. In this respect, Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the mechanism intended to speed the processing of asylum applications-the accelerated procedure in the aanmeldcentra (reception centers) or the "AC procedure"-is being used inappropriately and with little opportunity to repair errors through a meaningful judicial review opportunity.
The AC procedure is regularly used to process and reject some 60 percent of asylum applications, including those lodged by people fleeing countries torn by war, ethnic strife, and grave human rights abuse. It is also used to decide applications involving complex legal or factual issues or severe trauma, which can only be given cursory consideration in the rapid AC procedure. The process-which lasts only forty-eight working hours-gives applicants little opportunity to document their need for protection or to receive meaningful advice from a lawyer. Finally, the Raad van State has severely limited the scope of judicial review in asylum cases, so that asylum seekers whose claims are erroneously denied in the AC procedure have little hope of redress through the courts.
Dutch policy and practice regarding the care and protection of migrant children and children seeking asylum in the territory of the Netherlands is also inadequate. More than 30 percent of child asylum seekers in the Netherlands have their applications considered in the accelerated procedure. Child asylum seekers as young as four are frequently interviewed without a lawyer or guardian present. Moreover, Human Rights Watch received a number of reports of asylum interviews with children that focused on detailed questions that were inappropriate in light of the children's age and maturity. Our investigation also revealed violations of international and regional standards in the current policy and practice for determining whether a child is unaccompanied and therefore in need of care and protection, including state-supported efforts to trace families and repatriate them. In many cases the government assigns responsibility for the care of unaccompanied children to distant relatives resident in the Netherlands, even where those relatives may be unwilling or unfit to assume that responsibility. In all of these ways, Dutch treatment of child asylum seekers raises serious questions about its commitment to pursue asylum policies that serve the best interests of these children, as required under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Dutch policy on asylum seekers' right to reception conditions such as basic housing and food is also of serious concern. Neither asylum seekers rejected in accelerated procedures nor asylum seekers who have filed a second or third application are granted any form of reception support during the appeal or subsequent proceedings related to their claim. The Aliens Act 2000 has also resulted in the automatic termination of all reception benefits for asylum seekers rejected in the full asylum procedure, in some cases even where there are serious health or psychological issues or families with young children involved.
Human Rights Watch recognizes the need for the Dutch government to control immigration and provide efficient review of asylum cases. Our findings indicate, however, that the current approach has breached the Netherlands' refugee and human rights obligations.
Separate chapters of this report detail our concerns and recommendations relating to the accelerated procedure, the treatment of child asylum seekers, and the adequacy of the current policy for providing asylum seekers material reception benefits. Based on this analysis of the effects of recent policy changes, Human Rights Watch urges the Dutch government to act promptly to bring its asylum and immigration policy and practice into full compliance with international and regional standards.
1 See UNHCR, Refugees, vol. 4, no. 129, December 2002.