Bed, board and deportation in the Netherlands

Amsterdam street scene

Amsterdam - a welcoming city for tourists but not necessarily for asylum-seekers. Randy Connolly under a Creative Commons Licence

As Western European countries face increased criticism over their immigration policies, Beulah Devaney asks why commentators have waited until now to criticize the Netherlands.

Following the deaths of over 400 migrants while crossing the Mediterranean in April and Tuesday’s report that another 40 migrants have perished while attempting the same crossing, it’s easy to see why immigration is making headlines across Europe. Hundreds of op-ed pieces have been demanding to know how these deaths could have been avoided. Italy (the first European destination for most migrants) is bracing itself for a new influx of asylum-seekers, Germany is struggling to handle the majority of European asylum applications, Britain is mired in an election where all the major parties are running on anti-immigration platforms, France is battling a rise in hate crimes against immigrants, and the Netherlands is facing both external and internal criticism for its new Bed and Board Deal.

Until now, the Netherlands’ attempts to limit the rights of immigrants has garnered little international interest, but recent criticism from the UN and high-profile Dutch opinion-maker Geert Mak has thrown the spotlight on a country desperately trying to control its own anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Criticism of the Netherlands reached a new high in April when Philip Alston, a human rights lawyer with 20 years’ experience working for the UN, condemned the Dutch government’s treatment of undocumented refugees. Alston told a radio programme: ‘If the Netherlands is going to turn itself into an island in the middle of Europe which rejects its human rights obligations it is better to come out and say it... Just come out and say it: we don’t believe non-Europeans have human rights. At least not in our country.’

The cause of Alston’s frustration is the newly proposed Bed and Board Deal which will replace the emergency shelters available to undocumented refugees with five centres. Undocumented refugees will be allowed to stay in these centres for a few weeks, providing that they co-operate with their own deportation. Alston’s suggestion that the Dutch don’t believe non-Europeans have human rights carries extra weight in the wake of April’s Mediterranean disaster, the news that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of European asylum is set to increase and claims from the International Organization for Migration that up to 30,000 people could die in the attempt.

Despite first appearances, the Bed and Board Deal is not knee-jerk policy; the Netherlands has been struggling to deal with its undocumented refugees for years now and Alston’s criticism is well-timed to capitalize on growing unease about the way Western European governments are handling immigration.

Raised awareness of the dangers immigrants run to reach Western Europe does not, however, explain why Geert Mak has waded into the fray. Mak, a highly respected Dutch journalist, historian and opinion-maker, has accused the Dutch political elite of allowing themselves to be bullied by rightwing politicians like Geert Wilders, founder and leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party. Just as the Mediterranean tragedy has sparked international interest in immigration, Wilders has sparked domestic unease.

Until now the Dutch have attempted to disengage from debates around immigration, pushing back against EU sanctions on refugee rights, casting themselves as a calm, level-headed nation which can be trusted to do the right thing for sound economic reasons. But by cosying up to the Tea Party and attending anti-immigration rallies in Texas, Wilders has thrown a spotlight on the anti-immigration rhetoric that reverberates around the Netherlands. Mak’s public criticism of the government and media for their inability to handle Wilders highlights the need for the Netherlands to start fighting back against anti-immigration rhetoric.

While the Dutch government attempts to rehabilitate its image after Alston and Mak’s accusations, another crisis has been brewing. Last week, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) released its findings that discrimination against documented Eastern European immigrants is on the rise. Following interviews with Bulgarian and Polish immigrants who moved to the Netherlands in 2010, the report’s authors found that the discrimination faced by Bulgarian nationals had risen from 17% in 2010 to 66% by 2013, while Polish immigrants saw a rise from 39% to 49% in the same period. The report goes on to make a direct correlation between the anti-immigration rhetoric of Wilders’ Freedom Party and an increase in discrimination. Given that the Freedom Party website has a hotline so that Dutch nationals can ‘report problems with immigrants’ this is hardly surprising – although very damning – news.

The Dutch government is yet to comment on the SCP report or Alston’s promise to bring his disapproval of the Bed and Board Deal up with the UN. For now it remains to be seen whether the Netherlands will treat this recent criticism seriously or if it will simply wait until international interest has moved on.

Netherlands’ tax hypocrisy harms Greek economy

Euro note cut up

photosteve101 under a Creative Commons Licence

A new report from SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Companies, a Dutch non-profit organization) has revealed that Greece’s economic recovery is being undermined by the Netherland’s tax-dodging laws.

SOMO’s report, ‘Fool’s Gold’, demonstrates that by setting up a mailbox company in Amsterdam the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold has avoided paying the Greek government over €1.7 million ($1.8 million) in taxes. The report’s authors go on to suggest that this is not an isolated incident and that by allowing transnational companies like Eldorado Gold to use the Netherlands as a tax conduit, the Dutch government is responsible for millions of euros in lost tax to the Greek economy. Considering that Greece is currently undergoing austerity measures – measures which were strongly advocated for and supported by the Dutch government – the thundering hypocrisy of this situation is astonishing.

Eldorado Gold is currently planning to mine for gold in the Halkidiki area of Greece. Its operations will devastate forests, destroy the local tourism trade and, according to the report, encompass a piece of land the size of 250 American football fields. Protests against the mining by residents have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Greek government, and representatives of Amnesty International have repeatedly expressed concerns about police misconduct. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however: the new Greek government has promised to review its contract with the mining company, but this will do little address Eldorado Gold’s tax shortfall.

Discussions around Greece’s budget deficit (the largest among EU countries) have tended to focus on the impact of the recession, but the relatively underreported issue of tax avoidance is far more concerning. ‘Fool’s Gold’ shows that nearly 80 per cent of direct investment in Greece from the Netherlands is routed through so-called ‘mailbox companies’ (a company with a postal address but no other business activity in the country). This staggering figure demonstrates the innate hypocrisy at the heart of the Netherland’s dealing with the Greek economy. By crafting tax-dodging laws that allow transnational companies to have a presence in the Netherlands without having any material operations in the country, the Dutch government leaves some of the EU’s most vulnerable economies open to abuse.

‘The European Union and the Netherlands have double standards,’ says SOMO researcher Katrin McGauran. ‘On the one hand, they impose harsh austerity measures which have devastating social and economic impacts in Greece; on the other, they actively facilitate tax avoidance which costs the Greek state millions of euros.’

The rhetoric around imposing austerity measures on Greece has been predicated on the need to keep the Euro strong. The suggestion is that Greece’s (increasing) deficit poses a direct threat to the currency’s stability and there have been a glut of op-ed pieces asking if we can ‘afford’ to keep Greece in the EU. With the publication of ‘Fool’s Gold’, many will be asking if it is time for a different discussion.

SOMO is advocating for a change in Dutch tax laws: outlawing mailbox companies and demanding more accountability. At the official launch of ‘Fool’s Gold’ in Athens, politician Eva Joly (MEP for the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance and vice chair of the European Parliament Special Committee on Tax Rulings) was quoted as saying: ‘We cannot ask Greece for more sacrifices for ordinary people while allowing tax-dodging by multinational companies in the EU.’

Watch SOMO's Fool's Gold video here. Follow SOMO on Twitter: @SOMO

Santa’s helper is a racist caricature

Lego Santa and Zwarte Piet

Pascal under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been a month since Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan announced his decision to cancel Christmas. Or at least that’s how Anneka Hendriks laughingly describes it to me. Hendriks is one of the hundreds of people in Amsterdam who enjoy painting their faces black, donning afro wigs and gold hoop earrings, and celebrating the festive season by masquerading as Zwarte Piet (Dutch for ‘Black Pete’).

‘Hundreds’ is a conservative estimate; it’s probably more like thousands or tens of thousands when the rest of the Netherlands is taken into account. But no-one is keeping track of exactly how many Dutch people join Hendricks in her annual winter ‘jolly’, so I’m having a go at understatement here. Something you won’t find much of when it comes to the Zwarte Piet debate.

Did van der Laan cancel Christmas? Of course not, but he did strike an interesting, if slightly puny, blow against the Zwarte Piet tradition. Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) visits the Netherlands on 5 December every year. With his red cape and long white beard he has a lot in common with Santa Claus as portrayed in Britain and the US. They even share a book of children who’ve been naughty and nice.

But while Santa has elves to help distribute toys to the good children, Sinterklaas has Zwarte Piet to give candy to good children and to punish the bad children. Hendriks is quick to point out that the black paint Zwarte Piet wears is actually soot (he comes down the chimney, and everyone knows those things are bursting with afro wigs – all of this is up for debate). Unfortunately for Hendriks a Dutch court disagreed with this interpretation.

In July the Amsterdam District Court found that the character of Zwarte Piet was a racist caricature and they advised van der Laan to reconsider his licensing of the annual Sinterklaas parade. In August van der Laan got back to them and said that the character of Zwarte Piet would change over the next four years; the black paint, red lips and afro wigs would be ‘toned down’.

Many, including myself, have taken this as a sign that nothing will change in this years’ Sinterklaas parade. It doesn’t take four years to tone down a black face. It takes three minutes, some hot water and a towel. It doesn’t take four years to remove an afro wig, it takes a strong gust of wind. Despite this lacklustre response from van der Laan, emotions are still running high in Amsterdam.

Last week the judicial advisor to the anti-Zwarte Piet movement, Frank King, resigned from his position with the campaign after receiving a barrage of death threats. These death threats included an email saying the 50-year-old advisor from Leiden should be put on a 17th-century slave ship, just like his ancestors. Although King is only an advisor to the campaign, many people have decided he is the face of the campaign and directed their frustrations accordingly.

When a group of people famed for their tolerance are sending death threats about slave ships because they might have to stop dressing their children as a black-faced Christmas character, well, it doesn’t look good. It also helps explain why claims of race discrimination have increased three-fold in the last eight months. In 2013 there were 525 calls to the Discrimination Hotline in Amsterdam; so far in 2014 there have been 1,562 calls. This reflects a trend across the Netherlands with 3,143 calls in 2013 and 6,285 this year

It’s possible to argue, as Hendriks does, that the Zwarte Piet debate has stirred up racial tension that didn’t exist before people began protesting the Dutch tradition. What’s more likely is that the increased international scrutiny of the Sinterklaas parade has encouraged Dutch people of colour to speak out about the discrimination they face on a daily basis.

Whichever way you read van der Laan’s attempt to tone down Zwarte Piet, there’s no denying that emotions are running high; the next few months will be an interesting illustration of how he plans to bring racial sensitivity to the Sinterklaas parade.

Refused refugees in Amsterdam find support through social media

social media apps

Jason Howie under a Creative Commons Licence

We are living in the social media era of news. The forces that have traditionally controlled media and information sources (governments, big business and the extremely wealthy) are being stripped of their power by the ‘everyman’ nature of social media, and a new set of voices is starting to be heard. Regardless of the conflict, all effective propaganda must, it seems, first be filtered through Twitter and Facebook.

An example of these new voices can be found in the Amsterdam campaigning group Wij Zijn Hier (‘We are here’ –WZH); a group of refugees who have started using social media to tell their own stories.

WZH is a campaigning group of self-identified ‘refused refugees’ – men and women who have been refused asylum in the Netherlands. Since 1998, illegal aliens here have not been entitled to access social services; in 2010 it was made illegal for municipalities to offer them emergency shelter.

This hardline attitude flies in the face of the human right to ‘bed, bath and bread’. The European Committee of Social Rights responded by asking the Dutch government to provide some basic assistance in the form of shelter, food and medical care. The government’s solution was to provide 6 months’ worth of shelter for the refugees by housing them in a former prison known as Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven).

WZH members started squatting at various locations in 2012, setting up a social media presence the same year. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, the 120 refused refugees were able to keep their supporters informed of the Dutch government’s decision, on subsequent life in Vluchthaven, and what happened once they were no longer welcome there.

WZH’s time at Vluchthaven came to an end on the night of the football World Cup semi-final between Holland and Argentina. As the citizens of Amsterdam cheered on the national team, the streets were deserted, and many supporters of WZH’s campaign were distracted by the game.

As a result, people were unaware that WZH had been told that they would have to leave Vluchthaven and (due to the hardline laws preventing Dutch municipalities from offering shelter to illegal immigrants) they would no longer be housed by the city of Amsterdam. The group of refugees took to the streets and social media in an attempt to tell their supporters that they had nowhere to go.

For many other refugee groups, this would have been the start of a lonely, harrowing night. But thanks to the ability of social media to reach into people’s homes, WZH was still able to contact its supporters.

Offers of help began to trickle in. People brought tents and sleeping bags, food was offered, people began to tell the story on Twitter, cutting across the World Cup static, and finally a local church offered the group a roof for tonight.

Getting over 120 people off the streets, fed and safe for the night is a massive challenge. Had it not been for WZH’s established presence on social media it is likely most of the help offered would not have been forthcoming.

WZH member Ali Juma is quick to point out that social media has a greater use than sourcing food and donations. Juma credits the group’s social media presence – which gained hundreds of followers that weekend – for its success in making contact with Dutch citizens who might otherwise never have heard about what was happening.

As more people became aware of their campaign, the members of WZH felt less alone; a triumph in the face of the ongoing and sustained rejection they have experienced as refused refugees. Facebook alone cannot stop them being evicted, but it has allowed their voices to be heard.

For more information on Wij Zijn Hier please follow them on Facebook and Twitter, or visit their website.

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