Article & Podcast: MMC Director Bram Frouws, about the asylum reception crisis in the Netherlands

This podcast and article are based on an earlier interview between journalist Priyanka Shankar and Bram Frouws, for Deutsche Welle, of which quotes were used in the article published here:

Listen to the interview here:


1. Has the asylum system in the Netherlands come to a halt? Why is the situation so bad at Ter Apel? (Ter Apel is the centre in the North of the country where all asylum seekers need to go to file their first-time application.)

Well yes, I think to some extent the asylum system in the Netherlands has indeed come to a halt.

But I think it’s important to stress that this should not be called an asylum crisis. It’s a reception crisis.

In historical perspective, the numbers currently applying for asylum are not that high. It’s much lower than in the 90s or in 2015, which is not what you may think when you see this footage of the asylum reception centre and the circumstances there in Ter Apel.

The situation is so bad, because the reception capacity in the Netherlands is simply too low, but also because there are several other crises in the Netherlands at the moment, which in a way are all linked.

There is a housing crisis. There is a huge shortage of houses, and that also affects the availability of houses for those who have been granted asylum.

So currently there are about 16,000 people who have already been granted asylum, but they are still living in asylum centres across the country because there are no houses available for them.

Now 16,000 is a relatively small number compared to the total number of new houses needed in the Netherlands – there are plans to build 100,000 every year. But still, imagine those 16,000 people would actually find a house. We are talking at the moment about 700 people sleeping outside of the centre in Ter Apel, several hundred more in very bad circumstances inside the centre. But this could all be quite easily solved if there’s way more space in the current asylum system.

The housing crisis is also linked two other crises currently affecting the Netherlands.

There is a shortage of workers in every sector including construction.

And there is the nitrogen emission crisis.

The government needs to reduce emissions of nitrogen. In order to be able to continue to build houses, one of the sectors that will drastically need to cut down on nitrogen emissions is agriculture. It’s a very old problem, but again, the government and especially CDA and VVD have been pushing this file forward until breaking point. They never had the courage to really address it. And now there’s been very fierce and violent farmer protests all over the country.

Far-right, populist parties have now managed to link all this as part of a conspiracy policy, saying the elite in the Netherlands wants more immigration, so they need the land of the farmers to build houses for immigrants and therefore the Dutch farmers need to go and give up on agriculture.

While that’s of course a non-grounded conspiracy theory, what is true is that several of these crises – asylum reception, housing, nitrogen emission, shortage of labourers – all come together at the same time, reinforce each other and that during a time when there’s a war in Europe and the cost of living keeps on rising with very high inflation. And that’s after 10 years of Mark Rutte as Prime Minister.

So all of this, makes this asylum reception crisis even more politically volatile and led to the very shameful humanitarian circumstances we are now seeing in Ter Apel, where for the first time in history, MSF felt the need to implement a response inside the Netherlands. And as always, asylum seekers bear the brunt of poor policies and a lack of courage among political leaders.

2. To what extent is national politics affecting the Dutch asylum system? For example, this asylum application centre is quite far away from central Netherlands and cities and there are no direct train lines either. Has this been done on purpose?

Yes, national politics are definitely affecting the Dutch asylum system.

All of this is the result of a deliberate policy.

Indeed, the asylum application centre in Ter Apel, where asylum seekers need to file their first application, is very far from where people would enter the country and hard to reach by public transport. That’s deliberate.

This policy is of course very similar to what we see elsewhere, in Greece or the EU as a whole.

The idea is to make circumstances as bad as possible in the hope that this will discourage others to come. Even this morning, I read there’s a liberal party politician saying the Netherlands is still too attractive as if that’s a bad thing if your country is an attractive place to go. I think this kind of thinking is the world upside down.

Of course, this policy backfires. The liberal party of Prime Minister Rutte wants to appear tough on immigration. But what the consequences of their policy actually show is they are not in control. Their voters are going to see what’s happening in Ter Apel: there’s a queue of people and terrible humanitarian circumstances. They will think that the numbers are massive and too high to manage, but that’s not the case at all.

And political competitors on the right side of the Prime Minister’s party of course use this. They say: see, this government is opening up its borders to record numbers of migrants and asylum seekers.

As always and everywhere, people want to see that their leaders are in control of sensitive files like migration.

The situation in Ter Apel clearly signals that they are not.

If you would swiftly process claims, in multiple locations across the country, then swiftly house and integrate people and let them work, hardly anyone would notice. Basically: exactly what happened with Ukrainian refugees who came to the Netherlands.

All experts have been saying for many years: keep a surplus reception capacity during times of lower arrivals, to be prepared for higher numbers during other times. And it’s not just so-called pro-migration and asylum activists who have been saying this. Consultants from Price Waterhouse Coopers advised the same: keeping empty beds is cheaper than having to create new emergency capacity when needed.

Plus, usually, when you have to open a new asylum centre, there’s resistance among the local populations and politicians. It takes a while. There might be some protests. But once the centre has been there, and people interact with each other and they see that asylum seekers are just normal human beings like them, then resistance fades away.

But all the hard-won support is then gone because the government might close the centre during times of low arrivals and then has to restart the same process again in other places across the country.

So yes, all of this is a deliberate policy, because conservative politicians like the Cristian Democratic Party and the Prime Minister’s Liberal party, think that if you have surplus capacity, that would be a pull factor for more asylum seekers to come, even though there is absolutely no evidence that would support this.

And then you get to the point we see now. The national government is forcing small municipalities to host relativity large numbers in empty hotels or office buildings. Like recently, in a village of 3,000 people, forcing them to host 300 asylum seekers. That’s like forcing a city like Rotterdam to host an extra 62,000 asylum seekers in one go. So to some extent, it’s even understandable that villagers have concerns when something like that happens. I think this type of policy, forcing municipalities to host asylum seekers, is never really going to work.

3. The situation in neighbouring Belgium is also the same with the asylum system struggling to cope with the administration procedures, leaving many people on the streets. If Rutte and the Belgian government had it their way, do they expect southern European countries to manage displaced people? Is this why the asylum systems up north are broken?

Well, I think there’s indeed still a huge lack of solidarity across Europe, with every country hoping that other countries would receive asylum seekers and migrants instead of them. So yes, countries in the north definitely want countries on Europe’s external borders or preferably even, countries in regions where displaced people come from, to host the majority of refugees. That’s actually what leads to this race to the bottom, and the shameful humanitarian circumstances in the Netherlands are a new low in this race to the bottom in a northern European country. But it’s not just in the Netherlands of course – we see this everywhere, unfortunately.

4. What do you expect the Dutch government to do? Do you also expect an EU response to this?

Well, there are a couple of things the government should do.

First of all, listen to the experts who have been saying for so many years to keep a surplus asylum reception capacity instead of scaling down every time the arrival numbers are lower. Keeping the surplus capacity is more efficient, it’s cheaper, it avoids crisis and it ensures more support among the population.

Secondly, ensure that there are many small-scale asylum centres, not large ones, across the country, which are usually well accepted after some time by local populations.

Third, make sure the asylum system as a whole functions more like the response to Ukrainian refugees that we’ve seen in the Netherlands, when there was actually a lot of willingness all over the country to host refugees. Many of them are working already, because they are allowed to work, and there’s a need for labourers all over the country in many sectors. Many of them will probably integrate very well if they decide to stay.

Fourth, make sure there are other locations, more conveniently located, where asylum seekers can file their first application, so they don’t all have to go to the same place, in a very remote corner up north in the country.

Fifth, stop the procedure whereby people who arrive in light of family reunification also need to go to Ter Apel. There’s really no need for that. They arrive through another type of process and they’ve been vetted already. One of the plans now, announced yesterday by the government to handle this crisis, is to put a stop to family reunification in case a family already in the Netherlands does not have a house yet, to avoid congestion at Ter Apel. This can simply be avoided by letting go of the obligation.

Finally: the issue of available housing. That’s of course a much bigger crisis, again the result of years of bad policy. Simply put: the Netherlands needs to ensure they’re going to build more houses. But in the meantime, I’m sure creative solutions can be found, like temporary flexible housing, or using empty office buildings, of which there are many, especially now that so many people continued working from home after the COVID pandemic.

In terms of an EU response, well, I’m afraid the EU has lost a lot of credibility on the topic of migration and asylum too; only think of the continued support to the Libyan coastguards, intercepting refugees and migrants and putting them back to detention and torture centres in Libya. So I think anything the EU might say on this issue might come across as a bit dishonest. That said, the EU should definitely strongly condemn what’s happening, and also critically assess the Dutch asylum policy, including the newly proposed ideas on family reunification, and judge whether what’s happening is in line or violates European legislation that the Netherlands should adhere too, like all other countries in Europe.

5. You mentioned the plans the Dutch government announced in response to this crisis. What do you think of these measures?

These plans are not really a solution and some elements in it are highly problematic.

The plan to basically suspend family reunification and make it conditional on whether family already in the Netherlands who have been granted asylum have already found a place to live, is extremely harsh on family members left behind and leads to longer-term separation of families and their children. As far as I know, it’s also not allowed by the European Family Reunification Directive, and it turned out the Dutch government is actually very well aware of this. So they are deliberately proposing something that is against the law. Reducing family reunification also signals numbers are the problem, but as explained earlier, they are not.

Another part of the plan is to temporarily suspend their part of the EU-Turkey deal, taking in refugees living in Turkey through resettlement. So here we have a country, a very wealthy country, having to deal with just over 20,000 asylum claims in 2022, and a few hundred people having to sleep outside the centre, and in response, they say to a country hosting millions of refugees: sorry, we can’t take any more refugees. What does that signal to Turkey, or other countries around the world hosting much larger numbers of refugees? And how does it affect the credibility of the Netherlands, and the ability of the Netherlands to have future discussions with countries like Turkey about refugee hosting?

These are all short-sighted, ad-hoc measures, not longer-term and real solutions, that might even have a negative impact in the longer term, both for the Netherlands, but of course mostly for refugees themselves. And unfortunately, we keep seeing too much of such short-sighted policies all over Europe.