By Arja Oomkens -
“Will you consider the rights of children when you vote this week?”
- “Sure! Who are you going to vote for?”
“I don’t have a residence permit, so I’m not allowed to vote.
- “Really, how come? Your Dutch is perfect!”
Last week, Anood (22) campaigned for children’s rights before the final debate on the Dutch parliamentary elections in The Hague. Her goal was to encourage young adults to go and vote, and for them to consider their impact on the protection of human rights. She described to passersby her daily reality of feeling Dutch while living in fear of being sent back to Iraq – a country that she has no connection with, because she grew up in the Netherlands. She hoped to engage youngsters to think about the significance of their vote: “Especially during elections, citizens cannot avert their eyes. Every vote makes a difference.”
In 2008, Anood fled with her family from Iraq to the Netherlands. Nine years later, she has a high school degree and studies biology in The Netherlands, speaks fluent Dutch, and has built up a large network of friends. And yet, every day Anood wakes up with the possibility of being sent back to Iraq. How is it possible that she still has no residence permit?
In 2012, the newly elected members of parliament were posed similar questions. This resulted in arrangements being made for a so-called Child Pardon Act. The aim of this act was to grant residency to children who had resided in the Netherlands for at least five years. For the first months of 2013, this policy worked reasonably effectively. But after May 2013, the criteria became so strict that hitherto 95% of children’s applications have been rejected.
The main reason for rejection is the fact that the legal status of children depends on the actions (or inactions) of their parents or guardians. For example, children who apply for the Child Pardon Act are rejected if their parents do not “cooperate” with the authorities by leaving the Netherlands. When parents are awaiting appeal in their own asylum-procedure, they are expected to leave the Netherlands during this period, and take their children with them. For this reason, the Child Pardon Act did not offer a solution to Anood, and more than thousand other children. These children are punished based on the unreasonable criteria their parents have to fulfill.
The Child Pardon Act is an illustrative example of the overly strict and inadequate immigration law and policy in the Netherlands. Being too restrictive, it unfairly excludes children who have resided in the Netherlands for over five years, leaving them with no clear future perspective.
It also illustrates how political (and public) support for the rights of refugees, and in effect human rights, has eroded over the past few years in the Netherlands. The outcome of last week’s elections confirms this. Despite Anood’s plea, the results show that the majority of Dutch citizens did not vote for the universality of human rights. For various reasons, many Dutch citizens see their own rights eroding and are inclined to vote for right wing parties that promise their protection. While Prime Minister Mark Rutte made some highly controversial statements during his election campaign, his political party still became the largest in parliament. In his most widespread election-statement, a letter to “all Dutch citizens,” Rutte stated: people “who come to our country […] misuse our freedom and spoil everything” must either “behave normally, or go away.”
This normalization of the use of discriminatory language is a cause for concern. By alluding to immigrants in his election-statement, Prime Minister Rutte generalizes all immigrants as belonging to the same group, blaming them for all sorts of disturbances in Dutch society. First of all, from a legal perspective, this is problematic since the protection of human dignity and non-discrimination are considered universal and fundamental in European and international law, whereas Rutte implies that such rights are rather relative. Second, the normalization of such discriminatory language has great implications on a societal level, as it constructs and reinforces a social hierarchy between people, and groups of people, and furthers polarization. In the run up to the elections, Dutch-Moroccan producer Abdelkarim El-Fassi pointed out how he experiences this polarization on a personal level. While he grew up in the Netherlands and has always been open-minded, the current political debate makes him want to withdraw into the Dutch-Moroccan community.
To create space for understanding individual situations, such as the situation of Anood and her family, steps must be taken to condemn the normalization of discriminatory language. One option is via legal avenues, such as the Dutch court that found far-right leader Geert Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans – although this arguably worked out to his advantage. Therefore, most importantly, discriminatory language must be condemned by public opinion. A first step in this direction is to engage in personal contact. In doing so, individuals and groups move closer to each other, and towards a more cohesive society – as a recent study by Dutch news website De Correspondent aptly illustrates. Through an open and active attitude of Dutch residents, and by having voices like Anoods be heard – as well as the many other diverse voices of people in similar situations in the Netherlands – it becomes easier to sympathize with one another.
“Citizens cannot avert their eyes,” Anood said during the election campaign. When open communication and condemnation of discriminatory language becomes the norm, there is no need to fear for the devaluation of human rights as universal values. As the conversation between Anood and a man on the street in The Hague shows, there is a great discrepancy between the urgency of the plight of refugee and immigrant children in The Netherlands and a general understanding of their situation. Because of the open conversation Anood initiated there in The Hague, this man can put a face and voice together with a clear example of the inadequacies of Dutch immigration policy. But not all people in situations like Anood’s are fluent in Dutch or have a platform to tell their stories. Hopefully, her example can serve as an opportunity to open up the debate; to move beyond the current rhetoric, and inform people of the restrictive immigration policies enforced throughout the country on people like Anood, who have as much right to be here as any other Dutch person.