Back to list of articles

Where have all their rights gone?

Expatica Magazine (
13 August 2003
Mindy Ran
In the mid-1990s the Netherlands was the international example for humane and progressive policies on the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum (AMAs). So why does a recent report by Human Rights Watch suggest new polices violate UN treaties and rob these children of their basic human rights? Mindy Ran investigates.

It is a well known — if uncomfortable — fact that children around the world suffer appalling treatment: torture, slavery, forced into child armies, sold into prostitution, imprisoned, starved, assaulted, abused, witness violence against family members, get caught up in wars and sometimes murdered. It is not surprising that each year tens of thousands of these children look to Western Europe as a place of refuge.

Children aged from zero to 18 come to the Netherlands from countries such as China, Sierra Leone, Angola, Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda. According to refugee organisations, children travel as stowaways on boats or trains, are brought from war-torn countries by organisations such as the Red Cross, or can be brought in by smugglers or traffickers who are paid by families or communities to bring the children to a place of safety.

In the year 2000, 7,000 of these children made their way to the Netherlands. By spring 2003, that number had been halved as a result of new policies brought in by the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Department) in January and November of 2001, including the development of the now infamous “Campus Project”.

While Dutch authorities appear to consider this fall in numbers a success, refugee organisations including Human Rights Watch (HRW), VON (Association of Refugee Organisations), VluchtelingenWerk (Dutch Refugee Council), NIDOS (organisation responsible for guardianship) and SAMAH (non-governmental support group) consider the price far too high. In a report sent to the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child, HRW investigations found “children's basic rights are frequently ignored or considered inapplicable during the consideration of their asylum and immigration applications”.

“It was surprising that the Dutch Government has gone so far out of bounds,” says Julie Chadbourne, spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. “To be fair, maybe they didn’t realise how far-reaching the consequences would be.”

Children first

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified in the Netherlands in 1995 and is the most signed UN treaty, accepted by all UN countries except the US and Somalia. The treaty states that all children regardless of sex, race, nationality or religion are entitled to special care and protection and that the best interests of the child must be the overriding consideration in all actions and decisions concerning them.

In other words: they are children first and asylum seekers second.

According to the HRW report Fleeting Refuge: the Triumph of Efficiency Over Protection in the Dutch Asylum Policy, not only is the current policy failing to comply with UN treaties by focussing primarily on bringing the numbers of asylum seeking children down, in some cases “IND officials seem to have completely neglected the fact that they are dealing with children”.

“I had a lawyer on the telephone in tears,” says Chadbourne. “The IND interviewed a two-and-a-half year old from Somalia. His mother is dead, his father is terminally ill and because the child won’t speak he has now been labelled 'unco-operative'. (Which can be a reason to refuse a permit.) We have all been shocked.”

Chadbourne points to cases where children as young as four have been interviewed without a lawyer or guardian present. In fact, these children are often not given a lawyer or guardian until after the first interview and information from the first is often used against them in the second. Even in cases where the child is clearly traumatised, the guardian appointed will often only watch the interview through a video from another room.

In an interview with HRW, a representative from NIDOS (the organisation responsible for guardianship of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children) stated: “The IND use adult standards. Children of five, six, eight years old who know nothing are interviewed and then IND concludes that they are not credible and therefore cannot benefit from the unaccompanied minors permit”.

Ironically, IND stipulates that children younger than 12 cannot sign their own asylum applications because they do not know what is in their best interests, but expects them to give correct and full details of travel routes and political implications.

In cases of sibling “families”, the interviews are compared to test credibility. In the HRW report on one child, “the ten-year-old child could not remember the names of the men in Angola who beat him, made him steal things and take drugs, the seven-year-old said he had lived in the same house his entire life but the eldest brother said the family had been moved to a UNITA camp six years ago, and the drawings the children were asked to make of their house in Angola differed”. For these reasons, asylum was denied.

'Re-victimising children'

Professor Jaap Doek is a professor of law at the Free University of Amsterdam and the current chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It is this UN committee that will evaluate the reports by HRW, other refugee organisations and the Dutch government. The policy of the committee allows that when a member’s home country is on the agenda, that member is a silent witness to the proceedings. Professor Doek therefore felt able to speak freely.

“It’s re-victimising children,” says Doek. “For quite a number of these children it’s adding trauma to trauma. It’s a serious matter and I was very surprised to notice that the report of Human Rights Watch was given very little notice in the Dutch parliament.

“These children on the run, trying to find refuge in a country like the Netherlands, facing someone unknown in a position of authority, that might be, in itself, a very stressful situation. Children react very differently to adults. The treatment, reported by HRW, suggests that something went wrong when they were trying to reduce the number of children coming to the Netherlands.”

Certainly the HRW report outlines case after case where unreasonable expectations on the part of the IND have led to refusals of asylum. The system allows little room for appeal.

Another problem for refugee organisations is the policy to deal with some children under what is known as the “AC procedure” — an accelerated procedure designed to streamline the process which gives the asylum seeker 48 hours to make their case. Thirty percent of unaccompanied minors' applications are dealt with under this accelerated procedure. Sixty percent of all applications made under this procedure are denied.

Dangers of the fast-track system

HRW believes that unaccompanied children seeking asylum should never be put in the AC Procedure, nor should they be interviewed without having been given the time and opportunity to adjust to a new environment.

Nathalie Boerenbach is director of SAMAH, an NGO that supports unaccompanied asylum seekers between the ages of 12- 21. “All these children are estranged,” she says. “They don’t know the climate, the culture, the language or any one in the country. It is the first time they are away from home, the first time they see white people, other religions, other food. That should be the basic from where you start — they are afraid, lonely and traumatised.

Boerenbach continues: “At the moment the discussions are all about numbers. They want to cut the numbers and don’t see the individual stories anymore. Before they even come to Holland they say in advance that 80–90 percent of asylum seekers have to return to their home countries. For me, that’s like a doctor saying he will give 80–90 percent of his patients aspirin”.

The level of concern is such that the organisations above, and the Dutch Bar Association, have considered making a formal policy against the IND interviewing children under 12. In March of this year, NIDOS (the organisation responsible for guardianship) formally withdrew its co-operation and the IND temporarily suspended interviews for under 12s, but had re-instated them by the end of the month.

“It’s apparently based on the opinion that these children do not have the same rights as other children in the Netherlands,” says Doek. “There is an on-going debate on how much difference you are allowed to make between groups of children”.

The current policy of the government and the decision of the Ministry of Justice exclude some of these children from the protection of the UN treaty. The decision to apply this protection selectively has so far been upheld in the courts.

These legal manoeuvres have angered refugee organisations. “No child will leave their home, their family and their mother for nothing,” says Boerenbach. “So, whether they have come through smuggling or war or because their parents were killed and the Red Cross brought them — all the children who end up here are victims."

“Why are they are not using the same knowledge and expertise that has already been developed in the Netherlands,” asks Doek, “for children who come to the country traumatised with a lot of very, very horrific stories behind them? Why are these children not interviewed in the same careful manner that Dutch children who are victims of abuse are interviewed?”

Article 39 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically requires member states to “promote the rehabilitation of children who are victims of any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts, and to do so in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child".

The Campus Project

The focus and aim of the new policies, and specifically an experiment intended to be developed for use throughout Europe known as the “Campus Projects”, appear to many to contravene Article 39 of the UN treaty.

“It is a concern of the (UN) Commission,” Doek says of the reception many of these children receive into the country, “and applies not only to the Netherlands, that children are being detained. That is not just a place where they can live for a certain period of time, but some of those places are really detention centres”.

In November 2002, the experimental “Campus Project” was started and, although there has been some discussion in the press as result of violence at the campuses, no serious discussion in the Parliament has taken place.

Guus Kramer is a policy maker for COA (Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers), specialising in “return affairs”. The COA ensures basics such as housing, maintenance and material resources for asylum seekers. In 2001, the Secretary of State (then a member of the Labour Party PvdA) commissioned COA to develop a new way of receiving unaccompanied minors that matched the demands of a “new return policy”, especially for 16 to 17 year olds whose applications for asylum had been denied. This policy states that if you are under 18 and unaccompanied you can remain in the Netherlands only until you are 18, and only because you are a minor.

Children who have received asylum status before the age of 14 can apply for permanent residence. Any one older than 15 who has not been granted asylum has to return to their country of origin at 18. COA is in charge of this group and the two Campus Projects.

“The Secretary of State defined this form of reception,” says Kramer. “It had to be unattractive in order to stop the high influx of AMAs, it had to be solid and safe, contact with the Dutch society had to be avoided because it would not stimulate return, and there had to be a 24-hour programme, 365 days a year. There is also a big investment in education to prepare them for their return.”

All of the refugee organisations describe the Campus Project as “harsh”. Kramer believes there is good reason for the strict regimes. “If you put 60 boys aged 16 or 17 together under these conditions, you can expect management problems," he says. "Therefore, they choose a strict programme, for order; a rookie and senior phase with distinct privileges and some kind of point system for good behaviour. They didn't think of it as a sanction system.”

Yet, the first group of children placed in the Campus Project rioted. Boerenbach was called by one the children to help them. She recalls: “They tried to get to Den Haag (The Hague) to protest at Parliament, but didn’t have money for the train. So, the police removed them from the station saying if they could not buy a ticket, they had no right to be there. By then, the police knew some of the children by name because there had been so much trouble”.

Out of the original group of 44 children, 34 ran away and appealed to SAMAH for help. Boerenbach gave them the money to go to The Hague and protest. She also helped find them shelter in church for five days while she negotiated with the government to return them to normal refugee centres.

“Before they ran away,” Boerenbach says, “Some children gave interviews to the press. One very intelligent boy from Cameroon said his human rights were not being respected. So they arrested him. The police came, handcuffed him and shoved him to the ground and he was sent to another campus. Then they pointed out five other children and gave them a contract in Dutch, which they could not read, which said that if they protested or spoke to other people outside of the campus, they would also be sent away. The children were very scared because they thought that the other campus must even be worse.

“I was told that the children cried at night, had terrible nightmares and no one came to help them. It’s unbelievable.”

Kramer defends the treatment of the children in the campus and points to other factors that had a negative impact on the success of the project. “From my point of view the campus is not damaging to the children and the children were treated well," he says. "I think the people that suffered most are the COA workers. COA allowed a film crew (VPRO/Tegenlicht) to make a documentary. It shows perfectly well the tension between the new return policy and AMAs that don't want to go back.”

Kramer continues: “Because a large group of youngsters was put together under a strict regime and were confronted with the fact that sooner or later they have to go back while COA had no means to enforce this regime, this particular project was bound to fail”.

Refugee organisations have a very different view of why the project has failed. Boerenbach says the children complained of deprived contact with Dutch society or people, being locked in, being kept constantly busy including nights and weekends, harsh and brutal treatment including force, threats that they would be arrested, being placed under a constant state of surveillance where notes were kept of their behaviour without explanation, and having to fight for food which was old and out of date.

“They made all kinds of mistakes,” says Boerenbach. “In the first group there were children as young as 14. There were also children who had not had their first hearing yet and were placed there before they saw the IND. There were children there that the guardian told us had been abused and were entitled to status. None of those children should have been on the campus.”

In March of this year, a new group of children were brought to the campuses and some changes were made: insistence on uniforms was abandoned and the children are allowed out under very specific circumstances. But, by May, 14 of the group were arrested for destroying windows in protest and rioting again. This summer yet another riot has occurred.

“The whole experience shows that it is probably not good to keep large groups of youngsters under these conditions,” admits Kramer. “I don't know if large-scale reception in general has a damaging effect on the well-being of individuals. I know that the stress of unavoidable return in some cases has.”

“This is not the way to treat children,” says Boerenbach. “It’s also not the right way to manage the return of asylum-seeking children. The government thinks this is a success because the numbers of children asking for asylum is going down very quickly. But we are seeing more and more of these children are no longer asking for asylum, but ending up on the street. So now you have traumatised children who think they will end up in a campus, try to make their own way, and some are entitled to asylum. We see an increase in the number of children in the big cities living illegally with no education and without speaking the language.”

“At the end of the year, I hope they will conclude that it was a failure and go back to treating these children normally,” she continues. “But it was a prestige project, so I wonder.”

Words and deeds

Both the Ministry of Justice and the IND were invited to respond to the allegations in this article, and an email was sent explicitly stating those allegations with the request for response. So far, none has been received.

“It’s not a surprise,” says Doek of the government’s reluctance to respond. “They are aware they will meet with us (the UN commission) and have some explanation to do. There are indications that they are starting to look into the legalities, but I hope they will not try to hide behind wordings. It is not enough to say, it’s not in the convention, it’s how you interpret the approach.”

“I think this is the result of the rise of the right wing,” says Boerenbach, of the lack of response in the Parliament and in the public. “Most people don’t care. The politicians have always said that AMAs are just trying to profit from our wealth and have no reason to be here, even before the campus experiments. So the traumas of these children are not being taken seriously. For the first time children have to prove they have political reasons for asylum.”

Back to list of articles