“The Netherlands has a solid human rights protection system, but in practice there are shortcomings, in particular as concerns migrants and children, that need to be addressed” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while releasing the report on his visit to the country carried out last May.
Particularly concerning is the extensive use of administrative detention of asylum seekers and immigrants, a practice at variance with international standards which only allow it as a measure of last resort, for the shortest possible period of time and when no effective alternative is applicable. Addressing specifically the systematic detention of asylum seekers arriving at international (air)ports from non-Schengen countries, the Commissioner notes that unaccompanied minors are exempted from its application and that families with children are to be detained only in exceptional circumstances. However, he urges the Dutch government to “stop detaining all children seeking asylum and all asylum seekers in particularly vulnerable situations”.
The Commissioner further calls on the Dutch authorities not to detain foreigners whose deportation is not feasible because “this is incompatible with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, which established that detention is arbitrary if it is not closely connected to the grounds on which it has been ordered”.
Another issue of concern to the Commissioner is the legal limbo in which irregular immigrants live. “A number of irregular immigrants end up in destitution on the streets or in camps as they do not manage to access existing emergency shelters. This situation must be dealt with urgently, because anyone, regardless of the residence status, has the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and shelter”.
Commissioner Muižnieks welcomes the steps taken to grant residence permits to some of the immigrants who cannot be returned and to child asylum seekers whose applications were rejected but who have been living in the country for a certain period of time (Children’s Pardon). However, he invites the Dutch authorities to ease the restrictive conditions applying to these schemes. “A humane and human-rights compliant approach is needed. Where return is impossible or particularly difficult, the relevant person should be authorised to stay in the Netherlands”.
As regards children’s rights, the Commissioner recommends a number of steps to improve the juvenile justice system, including increasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility (currently at 12 years), changing the law which allows, by way of exception, that 16 or 17-year-old children are treated as adult criminals, and using more extensively alternatives to pre-trial custodial settings.
Growing child poverty and its impact on the enjoyment of children’s rights is an additional problem highlighted in the report. “Since 2007, more than 100,000 additional children are now living in poverty. In 2012, poverty affected 11% of all children in the Netherlands. These alarming data call for strong anti-poverty measures both at national and local level”.
The Commissioner is also concerned that many children with disabilities are segregated from their peers in the Dutch education system. While recent legislation in this field represents a step in the right direction, there is still progress to be made to ensure that inclusive education is adopted as a fundamental principle. “The lifetime exclusion of persons with disabilities from society often begins with their exclusion from mainstream education. Inclusive education is not only beneficial to children with disabilities but also to their peers, teachers, and the whole community who will gain more knowledge about human diversity”.
Lastly the Commissioner calls on the Dutch authorities to refrain from cutting the budget of national human rights structures and to strengthen the financial independence of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights.