A new blow for undocumented people in the Netherlands

door Jilles Mast.

In all likelihood the Dutch government will soon put in effect a law declaring illegal residence a criminal offence. The new law will further deteriorate already harsh living conditions for undocumented people within Dutch borders as well as have adverse effects on those who try to help them.

The main strategy of undocumented residents in the Netherlands with regard to Dutch authorities has usually been one of avoidance. Staying away from the radar of the IND (Institute for migration and naturalization) and the police, because an arrest most likely results in detention and sometimes eviction. The resulting paranoia runs so deep that even when a general pardon was announced in 2006 there were many migrants who, even though eligible for legalization, at first were afraid to contact the authorities. Yet, in spite of this, groups of undocumented have been organizing themselves since last summer and made their presence, as well as their troubles, known to the general public.

The fact that these protests even sprung up in the first place is in itself telling of the harsh situation these people face everyday. It was a brave thing to do to say the least and it came right in time. Before long the Dutch government will declare ‘illegality’, not having papers, a criminal offence, resulting in a fine of 3900 Euros or a substitute prison sentence. Since in reality few will be able to pay the fine, getting caught will most likely result in a prison sentence.

The new law is the latest chapter of a long series of policies which, in the words of the current minister of migration issues Fred Teeven, is aimed at “making illegal residence in the Netherlands as unattractive as possible.”

We have seen in the last twenty years – and this goes not only for the Netherlands but concerns most European states – an increase in state repression concerning ‘illegals’. Related to this, it resulted in a harsher treatment of non-white migrants in general. At the same time borders opened up for business, but they became harder to cross for many people. In the Netherlands, policy changes appear to have had no other aim than mimicking the conditions most economic and political refugees fled in the first place. Through so called koppelings-wetten, laws linking having proper documents with access to work and social services, their lives here were made incredibly difficult. They could no longer work legally, which also led to increased exploitation and difficulties to access health care or social housing.

Yet instead of solving the problem of undocumented residence, repression has only resulted in making living conditions worse, without having a measurable effect on the number of undocumented. Estimates on the number of undocumented in the Netherlands has gone down, but according to research mentioned in de Groene Amsterdammer, this is almost completely due to the General pardon of 2007 and the growth of the European Union. In other words, increased repression has had no measurable effect and the only thing that helped was making illegals legal. The research-document also states: “due to factors such as population growth and youth unemployment in countries of birth and a permanent want for cheap workers in Netherlands, the flow of migrants will not diminish.” As a side note, it might interest the reader that, according to its own evaluation committee, the General pardon did not cause more migrants to opt for the Netherlands.

It is not entirely unthinkable that the new law will have, for a short time at least, some effect in deterring migrants. In his book Border Vigils, Jeremy Harding writes that asylum seekers and the human traffickers who smuggle them in will automatically seek for countries where the least restrictions are imposed. The preventive effect aimed for will however be short lived, because other countries will be under pressure to implement more restrictions as well. Meanwhile, the fortress constructed by this ‘race to the bottom’ has led to a human tragedy that has been going on for at least twenty years: 15.000 deaths of migrants who in vain tried to circumvent EU border control. Much more than being ‘preventive’ or a ‘deterrent’, anti-immigration restriction is above all else deadly.

In his book Harding poses the question whether “pressure from migrants who overstay their visas or come in undetected, will lead to the kind of policies – on border control, detention, deportations – that will turn Europe into a federation of police states […] with captives piling up in holding centers, round the clock removals and raids on workplaces.”
In view of the new law the answer seems to be that we are already there. Declaring undocumented people criminals fits perfectly in a police state, since supporting undocumented will be considered a criminal offence as well. It cuts through the only lifeline left to the sans-papier: their networks of friends and family and the charitable or activist organizations concerned with their struggle. This then is what a police state means in practice: it is punishable to help a person in need who has done no harm to others and whose only ‘crime’ is being here.