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Dutch: 26,000 asylum seekers to go

Rita Verdonk
Verdonk: Wants people to return to their countries of origin

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (Reuters) -- The Dutch parliament has approved plans to expel up to 26,000 failed asylum seekers, a move that would be unprecedented in Europe and that has triggered large protests and threats of hunger strikes.

The plans, which still have to be endorsed by parliament's upper house, would force the failed applicants, many of whom have lived in the Netherlands for years, to leave over three years, while some 2,300 others would be granted amnesty.

Immigration has been a hot topic across Europe recently, with far-right parties exploiting fear of foreigners to win votes in countries from France to Austria, putting pressure on more mainstream politicians to introduce tougher policies.

The Dutch lower house of parliament rejected a series of motions Tuesday intended to soften the plans by the center-right government, which a spokesman for Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk said meant the policy had been approved.

"We have given status to about 2,300 asylum seekers and we have said that others have to leave our country. She (Verdonk) wants a better, stronger approach. She wants to bring into effect that people return to their country of origin," he said.

The spokesman said the policy tightened asylum legislation from 2001 to ensure that those whose applications have been rejected -- many who have been in the country long enough to raise families and take jobs -- are helped to return home.

They would be given eight weeks to leave the Netherlands voluntarily and then taken to special departure centers where they would be given assistance to leave voluntarily or be forcibly repatriated after another eight weeks, he said.

Long renowned for their tolerant and open society, the Dutch have become more hostile toward foreigners in recent years and voted in droves in May 2002 for the anti-immigration party of populist Pim Fortuyn, just days after he was shot dead.

But voters later abandoned it in a fresh election months later after infighting prompted the coalition government to collapse.

Human rights concerns

Dutch refugee groups staged a mass demonstration outside parliament in The Hague last week against the expulsions and several failed asylum seekers have threatened to go on hunger strike, one sewing up his eyes and mouth in protest.

While several countries, including Britain and Denmark, have tightened asylum policies, none has gone as far as mass expulsions, which some critics have compared with the World War Two deportation of Dutch Jews during Nazi occupation.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the policy of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's government last week, saying sending people home to countries like Somalia and Afghanistan could put them at risk.

"The Dutch government's proposals ... signal a serious departure from the Netherlands' historic role as a leader in human rights protection in Europe," the group said in a report.

The Netherlands has seen the number of asylum seekers fall sharply since 2000, when 43,560 people applied for refugee status. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 18,670 people sought asylum in 2002. The Dutch Refugee Council estimated that the number had fallen to about 10,000 in 2003. REUTERS

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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