A confident Dutch coalition - save for migration policy

Barbara Oomen & Sara Miellet

On Tuesday the 10 of October, after 208 days of negotiation, the new Dutch government presented its policy agreement for the coming four years: “Confidence in the Future”. If anything is apparent in reading the 70-page document, it is that this confidence hardly applies to migrants in general, and asylum seekers in particular. Neither, clearly, is there much confidence between the four parties in the new governmental coalition: they dedicate 10 % of all text to setting out the agreements in the field of migration. In contrast, for instance, there is only half a page dedicated to culture.

Before turning to these measures, let’s recapitulate what happened since the last Dutch elections in March. These left a highly fragmented political landscape, with the Liberal Democrats (VVD) obtaining 21 % of the votes, Wilders’ PVV 13 %, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Democrats 66 (D66) both 12 %, the Green Left and the Socialists SP each 9 % and the Social Democrats (PvdA) down from 25 % to 6 %. The initial round of negotiations, with the VVD, CDA, D66 and the Green Left already showed the degree to which migration has become one of the main markers of political difference. Whilst parties had already agreed on a type of ‘Turkey-deal’  with North-African countries, the Green Left’s insistence that refugees should always retain the right to claim asylum in Europe lead to an implosion of the negotiations.

It took the next set of actors - VVD, CDA, D66 and the Christian Union (3 % of the votes) - nearly six months to come to the agreement presented earlier this week. In it, the fault lines between premier Rutte’s VVD and the Christian Democrats (that both campaigned with an anti-migration agenda) and D66 and the Christian Union (whose agenda could be characterised as more internationalist and humanitarian) are still clearly visible. Out of the wide range of issues relating to migration, asylum and integration policy presented under the heading of an ‘effective and dignified migration policy’, the key points could be summarized as follows:


  • Extraterritorialization of policies: One of the key points of departure is that refugees have the right to asylum, but not necessarily in the Netherlands. The agreement emphasizes the importance of better reception in safe third countries outside of the EU (euphemistically called the ‘region’ in Dutch). The cabinet also aims to realize reception facilities for minors in the country of origin enabling children to grow up there until they can return (remarking that this does not apply to unsafe countries like Syria). In addition, the Repatriation and Departure service will receive additional funding to strengthen collaboration with partner organizations working in the field of returns in third countries. Whereas the Green Left wanted the Netherlands to take in an additional 2500 to 25000 refugees, the new partners in government resolve to increase the UNHCR relocation quotum from 500 to 750.

  • Separation on the basis of probability of asylum: Early stage screening of asylum-seekers on the basis of chance of asylum approval and different standards of reception facilities for those expected to receive asylum to facilitate integration at an earlier stage. Here the German inspiration is clear, as is the case with the plans to ‘couple’ people with specific skills to those municipalities where those skills are needed.  

  • An effective return policy:  A great deal of text concerns returns. The cabinet seeks to amend and ‘intensify’ European legislation, for instance concerning administrative detention, to realize such policies. The Repatriation and Departure service will get extra capacity. People denied the right to stay have to cooperate with their own expulsion. Those who do not do this can be put in a ‘location under supervision’ where they will have to cooperate with their expulsion as well. If they refuse they will receive no more shelter and support.  

  • A limitation of rights: The rights of people who are permitted to stay will be limited in a number of ways. One instance is the way in which municipalities will receive the social benefits (for housing, healthcare and general expenses) and support ‘newcomers’ in kind for the first two years. Another concerns limiting the duration of residence permits from five to three years. After this period of three years the residence permit can be extended for two years if a person is still eligible for formal status.    

  • More responsibility for municipalities: There is a considerable empowerment of municipalities once asylum applications are considered promising. Here, the applicants can start language lessons immediately and start integrating in the municipalities where they will be based. Municipalities may experiment with allowing people to work before receiving a formal status. Additionally, one of the main controversies in the previous VVD-PvdA government, the ‘Bed-Bath-Bread’ shelter for undocumented migrants at the local level clearly remains unresolved - the new government will close an agreement with the Dutch Association of Municipalities on this matter. The responsibility of municipalities to support the new returns policy, however, is also emphasized a number of times.

Parts of the agreement were characterized as a ‘bitter pill’ by coalition partner Christian Union and civil society, like the lack of a ‘Children's’ Amnesty’ for undocumented migrant children who had been in the Netherlands for a long time.  The legality and the actual impact of many of the other measures proposed are still unclear. In this light the first sentence of the coalition agreement ‘Confidence in the Future’ is telling. It states how ‘In the Netherlands individual freedoms and a close collective go hand in hand. Everyone can have the ambition to jump over the highest fence, in the knowledge that there is a safety net to catch them if needed’. All the is clear here is that the degree to which truly everyone in the Netherlands can be confident that this sentence also applies to their future is far from certain.