A leading Dutch immigration expert says the Netherlands faces a severe logistical challenge in implementing a hotly debated new law to expel some 26,000 foreigners who have failed to qualify for asylum by 2006.
Rinus Penninx, academic director of the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, said during a Washington visit last week that local officials in major Dutch cities are already in open revolt against the federal government’s plan.
“Nobody knows how to do it, nobody knows where to put them and nobody knows where they will live,” Mr. Penninx said. “The aims of the national policy simply aren’t being accepted at the local level.”
The fate of the Dutch immigration crackdown is being closely watched across Europe, where populist fringe parties have made striking electoral gains with anti-immigrant platforms in recent years.
“It’s going to be very interesting to watch,” said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
“It’s still not clear yet whether other countries will catch the Dutch disease, or whether this is one of those political fashions that come and go, but never develop roots.”
Countries across Western Europe tightened immigration quotas ahead of the addition of 10 mostly poorer new states to the European Union in May.
Just last week, an Italian court declared invalid large parts of a tough immigration law passed by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one part of which called for the mandatory arrest of any immigrant who defied a five-day deadline to leave the country.
Once one of the most tolerant and most densely populated countries on the continent, the Netherlands has embraced tough new immigration policies in the past two years. The laws and proposed regulations target both those who applied for asylum and the more than 400,000 long-term legal immigrants — so-called “oldcomers” — who have failed to integrate into Dutch society.
Refugee-advocacy groups have criticized the new Dutch policies. Among those facing deportation are refugees from such troubled places as the Balkans, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.
“We are deeply concerned that some of the people subject to the planned deportations may be at risk of return to a country or a part of a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened,” Human Rights Watch Europe division director Rachel Denber complained to the Dutch government in February.
But Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has shown no signs of backing away from her aggressive enforcement of the new immigration and asylum laws.
Mrs. Verdonk last week pressed the mayors of the four largest Dutch cities — Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht — to evict failed asylum seekers from temporary public-housing centers, saying it is the responsibility of those who have failed to qualify for asylum to make their own way home.
But the cities fear the rejected applicants will simply flee the centers and remain in the country illegally.
Mr. Penninx said the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s had one of the most liberal immigration policies in Europe, coupled with a generous social-welfare net for newcomers. Leading political parties avoided any debate on the social and economic effects of a growing number of Turkish, Moroccan and other minority communities clustered in so-called “black” districts in major Dutch cities.
By 2002, some 18.4 percent of the country’s 16.1 million people were born outside the country.
But Mr. Penninx said the country was now paying for its failure to hold that debate. An anti-immigrant movement started by political maverick Pim Fortuyn rocked the political establishment with a strong showing in the 2002 parliamentary elections.
Declaring the country “full,” Mr. Fortuyn called for a halt to new immigration until the immigrant population was fully assimilated.
Even after Mr. Fortuyn’s assassination just before the 2002 vote, leading parties vied with Mr. Fortuyn’s successors for the growing anti-immigrant vote.
“We’re still paying the debt for not managing this issue properly in the 1990s,” Mr. Penninx said.
The deportations are supposed to take place through 2006, and the Dutch parliament has postponed a final debate on Mrs. Verdonk’s integration policies until the fall.
But the new skepticism toward immigration is already apparent in the government figures.
The number of people applying for asylum in the Netherlands fell from 43,500 in 2000 to just 13,400 in 2003. The Immigration Ministry said last week that just 4,832 asylum applications were received in the first half of this year.
And applications for Dutch citizenship are also expected to fall sharply this year, from 32,000 in 2003 to a projected 24,000 this year.