28 March 2012
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Government moves to criminalise irregular migrants
As elsewhere in Europe, undocumented migrants in the Netherlands face tough conditions. They are frequently excluded from the most basic facilities and services and face the prospect of arrest, vreemdelingendetentie (foreigners' detention) and deportation. The conditions in Dutch immigration detention centres are so bad that Amnesty International has sounded the alarm and issued several reports to raise awareness of the issue. Now the government is attempting to clamp down further on the undocumented through criminalising their status, claiming that a proposed new law will have "a deterrent effect" by making it "less attractive" to residence irregularly. 
Under the new law, an amendment to the Aliens Act, irregular status will be considered as a misdrijf (crime). When first apprehended, undocumented migrants will be fined up to 3,800. If the fine is not paid they will face a jail sentence of up to four months, and people fined two or more times can be subject to a so called zwaar inreisverbod (aggravated entry ban) of up to five years. Those who are caught will, in the words of the government, "have to leave, preferably voluntarily, but if necessary will undergo forced (repatriation)." The measures do not apply to children. 
The proposed law has been sent to parliament for approval by State Secretary Fred Teeven of the Ministry for Security and Justice and is expected to have the support of a majority of members.
The government is made up of a two-party coalition: the liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD) and the centre-left Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party, PvdA) . The latter is being severely criticised for supporting the criminalization of irregular status, but defends its stance by saying that the measure was agreed upon when the government was formed in November 2012 - it is contained in the official coalition agreement. 
The PvdA discussed the subject on their party congress in April in the city of Leeuwarden. A large majority of the members present at the congress adopted a motion rejecting it, and asked the party renegotiate this with the VVD. PvdA leader Diederik Samsom subsequently ignored the motion, and the only issue still under debate amongst politicians is whether aiding undocumented migrants (as many church-groups, activists and NGOs do) is also to be considered a criminal act. As it stands, helping a person who has been punished under the new law will be categorised as assisting with the commission of a criminal offence.
There is significant opposition to the proposed law. Many academics and religious groups, and even local authorities have issued declarations saying that they oppose the measure. Prominent members of the Labour Party - such as former development minister Jan Pronk - have publicly announced that they will cancel their membership.
Many experts and watchdogs have warned that the law will not have any effect on the number of undocumented migrants in the Netherlands. One prominent argument against it makes the point that those without official documents will become more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking, and will see their living conditions deteriorate further.
A petition started by the umbrella group Vluchtelingen-Organisaties Nederland (Refugee organisations in the Netherlands) that has been signed by a whole host of groups and individuals states that the proposed law signals "a degradation of human rights and threatens the most vulnerable groups in society."  Amnesty International, following a thorough analysis of the legislation, concluded that the arguments put forward in its favour are not substantial and that a number of its negative consequences are not addressed by the law. 
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