Nearly one hundred thousand Dutch people have signed a petition calling for a 'children’s amnesty'. This would apply to under-age asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected but who have been in the Netherlands most of their lives.
The petition is an initiative of Green Left MP Tofik Dibi, and is supported by various entertainers, writers and sports figures. Mr Dibi launched it just before Christmas after failing to convince the immigration minister to grant asylum to an Angolan boy Mauro, in a case that received widespread national attention.
"I saw, particularly in the debate about Mauro that Dutch people across the political spectrum, from the Socialist Party to the Freedom Party, believed that you just shouldn’t deport children. You can have a strict asylum policy, but children who’ve been here for eight years, belong here."
Immigration Minister Gerd Leers decided not to grant Mauro asylum, even though he had clearly put down roots in the Netherlands. This was the second such case to catch the attention of the Dutch public and parliament last year. In January, a similar case involving Sahar, a young Afghani girl who had been rejected for asylum, was widely debated. But in her case, Minister Leers made an exception and she was allowed to stay in the Netherlands.
Tofik Dibi’s petition is meant to help other such children before another case hits the headlines. Estimates of how many children such a pardon would affect vary depending on the criteria - it could be as many as several thousand.
Joel Voordewind, an opposition MP from the Christian Union, is co-signer of a proposed regulation for such children who have put down roots in Dutch society.
"Instead of discussing individual cases here in parliament, as we did with Mauro and with Sahar, I would like to see us come up with a definitive, unequivocal rule for all children who have been here longer than eight years because of government delay in handling their cases."
Mr Voordewind, like Mr Dibi, feels that it is inhumane to require children who have assimilated into Dutch culture to ‘return’ to countries which they have never really known.
According to the regulations, Immigration Minister Gerd Leers has no choice but to have these children deported. But he does have the discretion to decide on a case-by-case basis to grant asylum on humanitarian grounds. That is how the coalition government would like it to stay. Geert Wilders' Freedom Party agreed to support this coalition on the condition that immigration would be dramatically reduced. The last thing the Freedom Party wants is another amnesty for asylum seekers.
For this would not be the first amnesty - in 2006, parliament passed an amnesty on humanitarian grounds, and some 28,000 asylum seekers qualified. But the current initiative involves a much smaller group, and the Dutch public is more sensitive to cases involving children.
That argument does not convince Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, MP for the governing VVD party. She finds any pardon aimed at children misleading.
"The name itself is misleading, it’s called a children’s pardon. But that doesn’t exist, since if you grant a child a residence visa, you get the brothers, sisters, father, mother, grandmother and grandfather as well, since they have the right to a family life under international law."
Ms van Nieuwenhuizen prefers the current situation where the minister has the discretion to make exceptions on humanitarian grounds.
Her position is that of the current right-wing government, but the ideological differences between the left-wing opposition and the right-wing coalition is not the only political gap apparent here. There is another divide: local versus national. Over the years, municipal governments have been more open toward asylum seekers than the national government. And in the case of the children’s pardon, the Green Left has appealed directly to municipalities for support. Six mayors plan to pay Minister Leers a visit next week to plead the case for a children’s pardon. Mr Leers, himself a former mayor, will be hard pressed to hold his ground.