Asylum in Holland: only for teenage girls?

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Can she stay? Or will she be forced to go back? That is the question facing thousands of young girls whose parents are seeking asylum in the Netherlands.

One such girl, 14-year-old Sahar Hbrahim Gel, from Afghanistan, got some good news recently: she and her family will be allowed to stay. What’s more, Minister of Immigration Gerd Leers decided to use Sahar as an example to formulate a new policy. All young girls from Afghanistan in circumstances similar to Sahar will be allowed to stay.

Untenable

But the new policy, meant to answer questions about the fate of a number of girls, has only served to raise even more questions about Dutch policy toward the children of asylum seekers. During a debate in parliament on Wednesday, opposition parties had so many questions for the immigration minister that the debate could not be completed during the allotted time.

Organisations working with asylum seekers and lawyers representing them say the policy is untenable. The children’s ombudsman goes even further, calling the policy illegal under international law.

Objective criteria
Minister Leers feels the criticism is unfair. He says he has attempted to construct a humane policy surrounding a very specific issue: preventing girls who have become settled in the Netherlands from going through psychological hardship by being sent to Afghanistan, a country widely recognised as not respecting women’s rights.

And Mr Leers has come up with specific, objective criteria for who qualifies to stay in the Netherlands: Afghan girls between the ages of ten and 18 who have lived in the Netherlands for at least eight years.

‘Westernised’

That sounds quite specific. More difficult to measure is another criterion in the new ‘Sahar’ policy: a girl has to have become ‘westernised’. No one knows how the government would go about measuring this last criterion. Trees Wijn of the Dutch Council for Refugees says he knows what the minister means by ‘westernised,’ even if he doesn’t know how to measure it.

“It means that you grew up in the Netherlands, that you have developed a Dutch way of thinking, that your entire way of walking, standing and thinking is such that you would no longer fit in in Afghanistan.”

Too specific
Regardless of how the government would go about measuring westernisation, the ‘Sahar’ policy only pertains to girls. What about boys? And what about children from other countries?

Haram is a 12-year-old boy from Iraq. He thinks he too should be allowed to stay in the Netherlands on the basis of the new policy.

“Boys can also become westernised. When you’ve lived here a long time, I think that you would also be seen in Iraq as a foreigner. Afghanistan isn’t the only country at war.”

Illegal
Indeed, children’s ombudsman Marc Dullaert says the new ‘Sahar’ criteria only serve to show how bad the entire Dutch asylum policy is when it comes to children. The Dutch government has been reprimanded in the past for not upholding the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Netherlands ratified in 1995. Mr Dullaert fears the Netherlands is "moving even further away from the international legal framework".

For his part, Minister Leers is caught in the middle. On the one hand, he is trying to do the right thing by allowing girls like Sahar to stay. On the other hand, he is a member of a government supported by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, a government with the express goal of further limiting non-western immigration.

“It is a balance, between strict criteria on the one hand, and humanity and the psychological affects that are also playing a role. I have to find that balance.”

A delicate balance, indeed. Minister Leers will need the agility of a tightrope walker to continue defending the new ‘Sahar’ policy.