Group Week good opportunity to visit asylum seekers

13 December 2009

Group Week good opportunity to visit asylum seekers

Weeks in the European Parliament have colours. There are weeks when the plenary meetings take place in Strasbourg, weeks for committee meetings, weeks in which the various political groups gather and ‘free’ weeks, each with its own colour. Last week was ‘group week’ and so for the SP reserved for meetings within our political group, the United Left.

These meetings have turned out better than I expected. We have all-in-all two regular meetings: a meeting of the ‘bureau’, attended by the leaders of the affiliated groups, and a meeting of the group as a whole. Each lasts half a day, and so there is still enough time left over for other things.
In Brussels this means for the most part receiving visitors and discussing all sorts of matters with SP colleagues. Friday, however, I spent in the Netherlands, taking part in a working visit to the Asylum Seekers’ Centre (AZC) at Schiphol, Amsterdam’s airport. As an ordinary traveller you wouldn’t notice it, far removed as it is from the terminals where people arrive and depart.

There is always something unpleasant about this kind of visit, especially if you walk through the accommodation itself and see the look on the faces of the asylum seekers as they gaze at you through the glass. Every visitor is looked at as if he or she could arrange access to the Netherlands, because after all to visit there at all you must be influential. The NGO ‘Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland’ (Refugee Work Netherlands) assured us, on the other hand, that many such delegations visited and that we shouldn’t worry about this. Nevertheless, I avoided making eye contact. I’d rather not raise expectations.

Most of the visit was spent in a meeting room discussing the asylum policies of the Netherlands and the EU with Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland and the European umbrella group for refugees’ organisations, ECRE. These organisations are justifiably concerned over the way in which recently taken decisions are being put into practice. Greece’s asylum procedure, for instance, is still scarcely meticulous, though the new Greek government has announced that it will introduce improvements. The Netherlands should not be transferring asylum seekers to Greece, even though the country is, according to the EU rules, responsible for some of them. The system works in such a way that wherever you enter the European Union as an asylum seeker is where your request for asylum must be processed, even if you travel on to another member state. Other countries no longer transfer asylum seekers to Greece, but the Netherlands continues to do so and the Dutch government has even criticised European judges who have tried to put a stop to the practice.

There are also in the Netherlands itself various things which could be improved. For example, shortly before the visit I received a phone call from Josine Strörmann, an SP councillor in Rotterdam. She told me that recently there had been problems in the detention centre set up at Rotterdam airport by the Ministry of Justice. The Netherlands had already been criticised for detaining children, yet this has happened again. Both in the AZC at Schiphol and in the detention centre families are torn apart and men and women detained separately. Not really a humane situation, because it is precisely under uncertain circumstances like these that family members seek support from each other. Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland told me in answer to my question that they were not represented in Rotterdam. So you receive help when you arrive, and when your request for asylum is dealt with in the AZC, but once you’re in Rotterdam, you have to sort things out for yourself. The organisation is most certainly prepared to offer its services there, and I think that this is badly needed. Even if as a Rotterdammer I consider my city often a better place than Amsterdam, an asylum seeker is better off at Schiphol, where at least you have the chance that your request for asylum will be granted. If you find yourself in Rotterdam, then your choice is to stay in detention, leave the country, or become an ‘illegal’ immigrant.

Dennis de Jong

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