Rutte Calls Early Election After Failed Push to Reform Asylum

Junior parties draw the line at limiting family reunifications for refugees.

Sigrid Kaag Mark Rutte
Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands listen to a debate in parliament in The Hague, September 21, 2022 (ANP/Sem van der Wal)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte announced the dissolution of his fourth cabinet on Friday after two days of negotiations that ran deep into the night on Thursday failed to unite the ruling parties behind a plan to reform asylum law.

Rutte’s center-right VVD (of which I am a member) and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) had demanded reforms to reduce immigration, which reached a record 400,000 last year. The Christian Union and left-liberal D66 would not support stricter rules for family reunification.

Rutte tendered his resignation to King Willem-Alexander, who returned from holiday in Greece, on Saturday. He stays on as caretaker prime minister until a new government can be formed. Elections are expected to be held in November.

Rutte’s VVD is neck and neck in the polls with the right-wing Farmer-Citizen Movement. It won the provincial elections in March.

Two procedures for asylum seekers

One point of contention was creating separate procedures for asylum seekers fleeing persecution for their beliefs or identity and refugees of wars and natural disasters. The first would still get a five-year residence permit, which is often a stepping stone to naturalization. The second would get a permit for three years.

Most EU countries make a similar distinction. The Netherlands merged its asylum procedures in the early 2000s, when immigrants who were denied in one category would often apply a second time in the other. To prevent that from happening again, the VVD would limit asylum seekers to one type of application.

Refugees could be returned when a war ends. Denmark has already sent back Syrians to parts of the country where the fighting has stopped. Most Syrian refugees in the Netherlands are on track to become Dutch citizens.

Center parties veto cap on families

Christian Union and D66 were wary but reportedly willing to go along in order to prevent early elections. They drew the line at weakening family-reunification rights for refugees with a three-year permit.

Rutte would allow family reunifications only after two years of residence and only once refugees meet income requirements. In addition, there would be 200 slots per month for families that don’t meet the criteria.

Germany, which has five times the population of the Netherlands, has a similar cap of 1,000 per month.

Currently the Netherlands receives about 900 applications for family reunification each month.

Typically men flee to Europe by boat and on foot and then fly in their children and wives once they have been given asylum.

Previous cap was overturned

Rutte’s government altogether suspended family reunifications last year, when asylum centers were at capacity. The freeze was overturned by the Netherlands’ supreme court for violating EU law.

CDA and VVD would cap overall asylum immigration. Christian Union and D66 are opposed. The Christian Union would cap labor migration, but that is something the pro-business D66 and VVD reject.

The parties did agree on European asylum reforms: screening migrants at the EU border in order to block those unlikely to qualify for asylum and making deals with non-EU countries to speed up returns.

Those changes, agreed by European governments, have yet to be voted through the European Parliament.

Asylum on track to surpass 2015 record

Immigration to the Netherlands reached a record 400,000 in 2022. Asylum applications jumped by a third to 46,000. Another 70,000 applications are expected this year, which would top the record of 2015. The largest groups of asylum seekers are Syrians (40 percent), Turks and Yemenis (both 7 percent).

Asylum seekers are 12 percent of all immigrants, but Ruben Brekelmans, the migration spokesman for Rutte’s VVD in parliament, points out that when you discount exchange students and workers who live in the Netherlands temporarily, asylum’s share in permanent immigration is closer to 25 percent.

Refugees are also more likely to need social housing and welfare benefits. They crowd out native Dutch home seekers in some cities. The waiting time for a subsidized rental apartment in Amsterdam has reached thirteen years.

Of the 50,000 immigrants in the Dutch asylum system, 16,000 have been issued a residence permit. They are allowed to move out but can’t, because they can’t afford housing.

Asylum system is at capacity

Overcapacity in asylum centers is one of the reasons VVD and CDA gave to rein in family reunifications. Last summer, asylum seekers camped outside the country’s main application center in Ter Apel in tents with little or no access to health care and sanitation.

Rutte asked other municipalities to help. Some complied by turning hotels and even ships into emergency shelters. Others resisted. A proposal to overrule local governments, and force them to find shelter for asylum seekers, is still pending in the Senate. Rutte’s liberal party agreed to it only after he promised to take meaningful steps to reduce immigration.

And to speed up returns. One in three asylum seekers who are denied a permit leave the Netherlands. That is more than the EU average of 20 percent, but it still means the country’s population of illegal aliens swells by thousands each year.

VVD neck and neck with farmers

Voters may not reward Christen Union and D66 for standing by their principles. A poll for the news program EenVandaag found that 68 to 75 percent of their voters want to cut asylum immigration as well.

Support for the Christian Union is stable at 3 to 4 percent. D66 appears to be losing half its voters. It is down from 15 percent in the last election to 6-8 percent in the polls. Center-left voters, disappointed that D66 leader Sigrid Kaag joined Rutte’s government as finance minister, have switched (back) to the Labor Party and Greens.

VVD and the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) are both polling at 14 to 18 percent, which would make either the largest party. Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party is in third place with 8 to 10 percent support.

The BBB has grown at the expense of the Christian Democrats, who are polling at a measly 4 to 6 percent, down from 10 percent in 2021 and 19 percent four years earlier. Rural voters, traditionally the backbone of the CDA, are furious about emission caps that may force one in three Dutch livestock farmers to quit.

BBB and VVD have formed coalitions in eight of the Netherlands’ twelve provincies. (Talks are ongoing in North Brabant.) BBB leader Caroline van der Plas has ruled out giving Rutte a fifth term as prime minister.

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