‘Certainty’ promised to children seeking asylum in the Netherlands

Edition 8 March 2019, byMegan Janicke

Hundreds of asylum-seeking children who were previously denied residency in the Netherlands could now be granted the right to stay under the new ‘general pardon for children’. Many were born in the Netherlands, or have spent most of their lives in the country, while their parents sought asylum status.

Reportedly, 90 per cent of the 700 children are expected to be allowed to remain, if they meet specific criteria. Their parents will also receive residency rights under the general pardon, which brings the total number to 1,300 people. This decision was made after a long and divisive debate within the government coalition.

The Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) also announced that children who have never applied for a children’s pardon, but meet the criteria, should register before 25 February in order to be considered for a residency permit. According to the Association of Asylum Advocates Netherlands (VJAN), this will likely involve dozens or perhaps a few hundred additional children.

“We have reached a balanced agreement”

This new approach to existing cases of asylum-seeking children and their parents who are rooted in the Netherlands is a directive of the CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie parties. The policy known as the ‘children’s pardon’ will subsequently be abolished, as the VVD requested. Exceptions can still be made in case of extenuating circumstances. But, in the future, the head of IND will grant such pardons, instead of the Secretary for Migration.

“We have reached a balanced agreement,” declared CDA leader Sybrand Buma. ChristenUnie leader Gert-Jan Segers called the compromise “a win for all those children who have been living in uncertainty.” VVD leader Klaas Dijkhof said: “We had to find a new balance and I think we succeeded.”

As part of the deal, the IND will be given 13 million euros to speed up asylum applications. This additional funding is aimed at reducing long waiting periods and to prevent asylum-seeking children from becoming rooted in the Netherlands if they have no hope of staying. The government also cut the number of refugees it voluntarily houses in the Netherlands under a UN programme from 750 people annually to 500. This decision drew sharp criticism from opposition parties.

GroenLinks MP Bram van Ojik described the UN programme reduction as “incomprehensible.” D66 said it was a “sour” part of the agreement and the SP called it “embarrassing.” According to MP Jasper van Dijk, it was “a bitter tradeoff” to placate the VVD. ChristenUnie PM Joost Voordewind said his party made the concession “with pain in its heart.”

The Dutch Council for Refugees (VluchtelingenWerk Nederland) also expressed dismay over the decision. However, the organisation has long advocated a better children’s pardon and said it is “hopeful that this will lead to a positive outcome.” It stated: “We will continue to closely follow the conclusion of the regulation and we will make every effort to ensure the scheme is implemented in the best way possible, in the spirit of the children’s pardon. The agreement provides children and their families, who have been living in uncertainty for years, the opportunity to finally get on with their future in the Netherlands.”

A decades-long debate

A general pardon is an arrangement which grants immigrants a residence permit after they have been living illegally in the Netherlands for a long period. The reasons for not having legal residence are typically because the residency process is moving very slowly or their application has previously been rejected. With a general pardon, residence permits are granted to a group of individuals who meet certain criteria, such as the number of years living in the Netherlands, the degree of integration, their work and tax history, and whether they have a criminal record.

The most recent decision regarding a general pardon was reached after a week debate in Parliament. However, various government coalitions have been embroiled in this debate for the past twenty years. The previous pardon, decided in 2013, granted 1,540 children the right to stay in the Netherlands. In 2006, residence permits were issued to 28,000 people. In 2003, a general pardon allowed 2,200 migrants to remain in the Netherlands. Prior to 2003, the law required a permit to be issued if the government could not give a foreign national a definite answer on their residency application within three years.

However, the Dutch Council for Refugees has said that the criteria for the children’s pardon of 2013 were much too strict and could not be met by most applicants. “We believe that if a family is still in the Netherlands after five years, the best interests of the child should be paramount, based on humanitarian considerations and on the basis of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the organisation stated.

Report: uncertainty psychologically harmful

For the Tamrazyan family, the recent political wrangling came to an end at a critical moment. The family fled Armenia for political reasons and came to the Netherlands nine years ago. Their asylum case dragged on for six years, until their application was ultimately rejected in October 2018. The parents and three teenage children then took shelter inside the Bethel church in The Hague. Dutch law prohibits police officers from entering a church while a religious service is taking place, so the church congregation held a continuous service for 96 days in order to prevent the family’s deportation. The Tamrazyans’ story made international headlines. The three-month church service ended in a small ceremony on January 30, after the family learned their deportation would be reviewed under the new political agreement. Hayarpi Tamrazyan, the eldest daughter, thanked the church volunteers and said the deal would “allow me to continue with my life.”

While it appears the Tamrazyans will see a positive outcome to their story, experts say long periods of uncertainty are harmful, especially for children. Erik Scherder, professor of neuropsychology at VU Amsterdam, co-authored a report which found that children who have lived in uncertainty for years, potentially experience traumatic stress. “I’ve visited children in The Hague who are afraid to go to sleep at night, because they fear that they’ll be arrested,” Professor Scherder explained. “The tension on those faces and the tension in their eyes that you see, that has a negative effect on the vital brain functions.” The report also referred to the recent case of Howick and Lili, two Armenian children who were threatened with deportation after ten years in the Netherlands. Their story sparked international outrage and they were granted a last-minute reprieve from deportation in September 2018.

Scherder wrote the report with two university lecturers from the University of Groningen. They did not conduct new research, but instead provided an overview of existing studies. According to the report, “the chronic stress to which children are exposed may have impaired their brain functions in such a way that the chances to recover from this damage and adapt to the living conditions in the country of origin has become extremely small.” The scientists conclude that “all this makes the expulsion of these children, who are long-term residents in the Netherlands, irresponsible according to current scientific insights.” Scherder has said he will continue to work with other scientists to show that it is inhumane to deport children who have been rooted in a country for some time.

The Dutch Institute of Psychologists, the Dutch Association of Pedagogues and Educationalists and Youth Surgeons in the Netherlands also backed the report findings. The associations called on politicians to use the insights for ”scientifically founded decision making.”

Secretary of Migration Mark Harbers (VVD) explained that the latest policy agreement will add speed and certainty to the asylum process. “What we have done is build a system for the future where you do not give people hope for a residency permit who should not have hope.”

Children on front lines of immigration conflict

The issue of child pardons in the Netherlands has parallels with the political deadlock in the United States over DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) recipients, also known as Dreamers. This deportation relief programme was offered to 700,000 people who were brought to the US without visas before age 16 or came with families who overstayed.

DACA does not provide an official legal status or a pathway to citizenship to these individuals, but it does allow them to apply for driver’s licenses and work permits without the threat of deportation. President Donald Trump has sought to abolish the programme, which was launched by President Obama in 2012. Trump has suggested he would offer temporary protection for DACA if the Democrats agree to secure billions of dollars for construction of a defence wall along the US-Mexico border. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called that offer a “non-starter” in the recent contentious budget negotiations. “Those protections were there until you decided to take them away, so now you’re going to come back and say ‘I’ll give them to you for three years’; that is not a protection. A protection is something that has certainty to it,” Pelosi said.