x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

From Sierra Leone, a pleading look for a home in the Netherlands

Migrants, asylum seekers and minorities are bearing the brunt of what has been billed in two recent reports as a disturbing trend in Europe's human-rights record.

Somali asylum seekers protest outside the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in Ter Apel in the Netherlands.
Somali asylum seekers protest outside the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in Ter Apel in the Netherlands.

ROTTERDAM // The 27-year-old man from Sierra Leone had a pleading look in his eyes. He had entered the centre that aids undocumented migrants, near the port of Rotterdam, one freezing day last week. But his case is hopeless. His request for a residence permit was rejected years ago and he has run out of options.

He is facing more pressure now because of a change in the regulations that went into effect in January, the staff at the centre warned him.

"If you get caught now without a permit, it is a crime. They can lock you up for months and they may ban you from returning for 10 years. In that case you will not even be able to find a wife here to get a residence permit," Connie van den Broek, one of the coordinators of the ROS migrant centre, a church-affiliated non-profit organisation, told him.

Migrants, asylum seekers and minorities are bearing the brunt of what has been billed in two recent reports as a disturbing trend in Europe's human-rights record. One report, by the US-based Human Rights Watch, and the other, by the human-rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg, run counter to the oft-professed core of European human-rights' values.

Making it a criminal offence to be in the country without valid documents is one of the steps that the Netherlands has taken to discourage migrants, as well as asylum seekers, from entering the country. Pressure from the right-wing Party for Freedom, led by the anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders, is having a significant influence on the measures' enactment.

It is a pattern that the reports says is occurring across Europe.

"Populist extremist parties remained strong across the EU, corroding mainstream politics especially on issues related to Roma, Muslims, and migrants. Governments frequently responded by echoing these parties' criticism of minorities and pursuing policies that infringed human rights," Human Rights Watch said in its report released last month.

The report of the European Council, a body that takes in all of Europe, appeared days later and was similar in tone. "Political leaders have all too often preferred to follow - rather than lead - public opinions, thus feeding xenophobic movements. Europe should adopt a more humane migration policy and asylum procedures based on human rights principles."

In the Netherlands, where the Party for Freedom provides crucial support to the ruling coalition, a raft of measures is being introduced, including making certain migrants pay for their own expulsion, repatriating certain immigrants if they break the law - even on minor offences - and making family reunification much harder.

Similar measures are being enacted across western Europe, in what Mr Van den Broek of the migrants aid centre, calls "a race to the bottom" where EU countries attempt to avoid becoming known as "soft" and, therefore, a target for more immigration.

Migration and integration, particularly of Muslims, has been a contentious issue in Europe for the past several decades but its effect is now being felt in the highest reaches of politics, said Benjamin Ward, one of the authors of the Human Rights Watch report. "When the chancellor of Germany says that migrants in Germany must accept Germany's Christian values or leave the country, that is the kind of rhetoric that really would have been unthinkable from a mainstream politician five or 10 years ago," he said.

During the past year, Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, along with Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, and France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, have declared efforts at multiculturalism - that is, the equal acceptance of immigrants' cultures - as a failure.

Catherine Fieschi of the London-based think tank Counterpoint said that in France and Britain multiculturalism had never really been tried. Instead it was a code word for everything that right-wing parties were against. "It has just become associated with decades of expense, lavish state subsidies, political correctness and so on," she said.

Now governments are saying, "we're getting down to business, no more 'multi-culti' stuff, " said Mrs Fieschi. The sentiment has been around for a while but may have become more pronounced because of the recent economic crisis in Europe, although Mrs Fieschi said that "growing inequality," is much more to blame.

The way this all impacts human rights is often incremental but nevertheless very noticeable. Myrthe Wijnkoop of the main Dutch refugees organisation Vluchtelingenwerk has seen it happen over recent years. "There is an increasing number of small decisions that do have a large impact on the rights position of asylum seekers."

Another effect of the anti-immigrant and anti-minorities atmosphere is the creation of a climate of fear.Staff at the migrants aid centre in Rotterdam remarked that they and other mainstream or church-affiliated organisations still offered assistance, even to illegal migrants, but that mosques and Muslim organisations did not dare.

An official of the umbrella Muslim organisation in Rotterdam only nuanced that slightly: "We give some limited assistance but we don't like to advertise it, because of the climate".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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