By Arja Oomkens -
Last November, the Dutch government decided that housing for refugees with a temporary residence permit must be “austere and just”. In effect, this meant the development of austerity measures to regularize housing for these refugees in empty governmental buildings (e.g. former offices), in one of the (to be built) 14,000 small-scale homes (e.g. containers), or in homes where at least four households are able to live together (e.g. student rooms). In addition to these measures, the government plans to change the 2014 Housing Act – in specific the part that prioritizes refugees for social housing. This topic has been part of a heated public debate over the past few months, since the prioritization of refugees has made many low-income Dutch citizens feel disadvantaged for being on a never-ending waiting list for social housing. In this sense, the (planned) austerity measures seem a step in the right direction, as they both address pressure on the social housing market as well as relieve increased tension towards refugees.
But how crucial and just are these measures really?
These measures cannot be deemed crucial simply by referring to the pressure of 24,000 refugees in need of housing. Especially since there is another important reason for pressure on the social housing sector: namely the decision of the government in 2013 to liberalize one million social housing facilities. In other words, of the 2,7 million houses available in the Netherlands, one million are to be sold – 2014 already saw the sale of about 7000 social houses. As a consequence, the liberalization of social housing facilities makes access to social housing more difficult for everyone, not just low-income Dutch citizens. It is therefore not rationally justifiable to develop office and container homes for refugees and present it as the sole solution to an already pressurized social housing market.
Furthermore, it is discriminatory to differentiate between refugees and low-income Dutch citizens by requiring refugees to live in austere, second-rate, housing facilities. In this regard, the UN Refugee Convention and European Union Law do not protect refugees’ interests sufficiently. Article 21 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention indicates that state parties “shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favorable as possible” and the 2004 EU-Qualification Directive requires that refugees must “have access to accommodation under equivalent conditions as other third country nationals legally resident in their territories.” Both of these definitions are problematic as they leave room for differentiation between Dutch citizens and refugees with a temporary residence permit. This differentiation, in the form of austerity measures for refugees, is contrary to the obligations of the Netherlands under the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (ICERD). Under this Convention, racial discrimination occurs when a person or group is treated differently because of their national origin. According to article 5 of the Convention, states must guarantee the right of everyone to equality before the law in the enjoyment of the freedom of residence. It is therefore questionable whether it is possible to require refugees to live in offices, or containers.
Next to this legal issue, it is also important to explore the social impact of the austerity measures. Will they be effective in the long term?
In the short term, by depressurizing the social housing market and placing refugees in office or container homes, the increasing tension amongst low-income Dutch citizens towards refugees may be diffused. But from an overcrowded asylum-seekers’ center to an abandoned office building, refugees are required to live on the outskirts of Dutch society, making the integration process more difficult. Needless to say, this is detrimental to their livelihoods and wellbeing. Only after five years are refugees with a temporary residence permit eligible for permanent residency, but only if they can indicate that they are sufficiently integrated and pass all Dutch language exams. It is more likely that refugees who are isolated in office or container homes will be denied permanent residency. Accordingly, the austerity measures are problematic as they assume that conflicts in those countries where people are fleeing from will cease soon, yet all indications point to the contrary. Therefore, while the Dutch government on the one hand stresses the importance of integration, the austerity measures in place on the other hand do not reconcile with this important objective.
By July 2016, the government hopes to have amended the law that prioritizes refugees for social housing. This article attempts to show the illegitimacy of such measures and what this means for the integration of refugees in the long term. In short, pressure on the social housing market cannot solely be ‘blamed’ on the influx of refugees to the Netherlands; differentiating between refugees and low-income Dutch citizens is contrary to the obligations of the Netherlands under the ICERD; and placing refugees in offices and container homes is detrimental to the integration process. Refugees do not have a family network to resort to or depend on: their families have often been torn apart by war and persecution in their home countries. For the same reason, refugees will not be able to repatriate soon. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the Dutch government, along with its citizens, starts to think about the implications and long-term effects of its austerity measures. Because sustainable peace in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea, is not feasible, and worldwide displacement has never been recorded higher than today, an open attitude towards the integration of refugees is imperative.