Speech by Minister for Migration Broekers-Knol at the 25th anniversary of the COA

Ladies and gentlemen,

Safe and liveable reception facilities. A stopping-off point with opportunities instead of a waiting room without prospects. That’s what any human needs who has left behind their own familiar country. For 25 years now, COA - the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers - has been working to provide just that. To treat asylum seekers with dignity and to give them the prospect of a future in the Netherlands or elsewhere.

Prospects for the Tamils of Sri Lanka who came to our country in the late 1980s. Prospects for those who fled the Balkans in the 1990s. And, since 2015, prospects for Syrians. Not only through decent reception but increasingly through guidance towards a better future, wherever that may be.

And for good guidance you need to take an interest in the asylum seeker as an individual. You need to know the journey they’ve been on. Not only literally.

Rodaan Al Galidi, an Iraqi refugee, spent eight years in the asylum system and wrote about getting to know the Netherlands in his book Two Blankets, Three Sheets. He continued to be astonished at what he found here in the Netherlands.

For instance, he was due to give music lessons to an eight-year-old girl in exchange for Dutch lessons.

When she asked him on exactly what day and at exactly what time the lesson would be and exactly how long it would last, he thought she was joking. He also couldn’t believe that dogs in the Netherlands often have papers, health insurance and sometimes even an animal psychologist.

If you find yourself at that stopping-off point, caught between two opposite worlds, it takes time and effort to understand things like these. And it’s up to COA’s staff to help manage this culture shock.

I have a lot of respect for their work. Over the years, COA has had to be highly flexible. And it has managed this without compromising on the quality of its reception services or guidance.

COA isn’t alone in this. The influx of asylum seekers is a challenge many societies face. One that can only be tackled by working with others.

As you know, there are no easy answers. I believe we need to move forward resolutely - step by step - with all those involved, many of whom are here today. We need to take this path in order to maintain public support. Not as an end in itself, but because it’s a precondition for helping those who need our protection. People are working hard on that each and every day, in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

You know more than anyone else that there are factors that can erode public support: like crime and nuisance caused by asylum seekers and the difficulties we sometimes face in returning failed asylum seekers. In 2015/2016 we were predominantly dealing with refugees. Approximately 80 per cent of applicants in the Netherlands received a positive decision. Right now, less than 4 years later, the situation is the opposite: in final instance 70 to 80 per cent of asylum seekers turn out to have no right to stay. And in the majority of these cases we find ourselves unable to return them. Tackling this problem is one of my top priorities. Because this problem causes declining public support that prevents COA and the municipalities from doing their job.

The Netherlands works with many partners at national, international and European level to combat irregular migration and ensure the orderly reception of asylum seekers. Let me briefly explain how that works at each level.

National cooperation

The power of the Dutch asylum procedure lies in the integrated, multi-disciplinary approach. The various organisations form tight links in a chain, each with their own role and responsibility. That sounds impressive but what does an approach like this actually entail?

A good example can be found at our reception centre in Ter Apel, in the north of the country.

We want to give asylum seekers who arrive there as soon as possible clarity about their future. We either immediately work on their return or guide them in their first steps in getting to know and integrating into Dutch society. This happens in the safe surroundings of a central reception centre. In the years ahead, COA’s flexibility is set to become more structural by working together with municipalities and offering temporary housing to other target groups, for example students and migrant workers.

It’s not only the responsibility of COA, but also of other key organisations in the system, like the Immigration and Naturalisation Service; the Repatriation and Departure Service; and the Police departments for foreigners, Identification and Human Trafficking Department.

International cooperation

International cooperation is key to the Netherlands’ integrated approach. First and foremost, that means having a workable relationship with the countries of origin and transit of asylum seekers and other migrants. In the efforts of all departments of the government, we aim to combine our contacts with those countries in order to improve migration management and help reduce irregular migration. Where and if possible, we’ll strive for broad partnerships. With agreements on tackling root causes. On setting up asylum procedures in the region. But bilateral partial agreements on the return of people who aren’t allowed to stay in the European Union are also well worth making.

I am pleased that - in addition to a Commissioner for Home Affairs / Migration, Mrs Ylva Johansson, - a Commissioner for International Partnerships, mrs Jutta Urpilainen, has been appointed in the new European Commission. I am confident she will be a binding factor in concluding these kinds of agreements on behalf of the EU.

European cooperation

International cooperation is also about tackling the challenges EU member states face collectively. The number of registered arrivals at the EU’s external borders may have fallen by 90 per cent since 2015, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax. Irregular migration still is a fundamental problem and will be so for the years to come.

Next to irregular arrivals, so called primary migration, secondary migration remains a major issue. An asylum seeker at the external border of the EU can turn up at Ter Apel, so to speak, within one day. In all, 97 per cent of our asylum influx is coming from other Member States.

Schengen allows asylum seekers to move around freely in the EU while our common asylum system provides them with shelter.

Asylum hopping - or asylum shopping - around Europe from one procedure and facility to the next is something we - the member states and the Commission together - must put an end to.

Going ahead, I will press for an asylum system that can cope with the challenges we face now and in the future. An asylum system that will provide us with the trust that is needed to return to a Schengen area without internal border controls. This will require changes in the European asylum legislation.

In light of this, I look forward to thinking together about ways to close the loopholes between asylum and return. This is also an ambition of the new Commission.

In the meantime, we already have substantial means to gain a tighter hold on the influx of asylum seekers and on secondary movements. We must implement and enforce the existing legislation and regulations in our Common European Asylum System (CEAS) more effectively than we do now. Through its support to member states the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) plays a major role that must not be underestimated. Which is why I continue to advocate a swift conclusion of the negotiations on the European Union Agency for Asylum (EEAA), so that the EASO can fulfil this role even more successfully.

Where are we headed?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Cooperation at all levels is the key to a better asylum system. A system that allows us to distinguish between those who are entitled to our protection and those who are not. So that the first group – whether their stay is temporary or permanent – can start integrating into our society and the last group can return. Ideally, this distinction should be made at Europe’s external borders. This requires a system in which responsibility and solidarity are well balanced. Member states facing disproportionate migratory pressure must not be left alone. They should be able to rely on solidarity of their European partners. 

Only an integrated approach - in which member states, implementing organisations and the European agencies EASO and Frontex join forces - will allow a better European asylum system to succeed.

Today every possible partner in the migration system is here, as well as our European and international partners. Make the most of this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share your successes, but also talk about what didn’t work. That’s how you learn and that’s the way to improvement of the system.

The Iraqi refugee Rodaan Al Galidi, I told you about, used to marvel at Dutch habits and customs. In the early days he found himself caught between two opposite worlds. Now he earns a living as a Dutch writer and poet. It is success stories like this that make our work worthwhile. But let’s be honest: Rodaan’s asylum procedure lasted eight years. So we need to keep up our efforts to process applications faster and improve the way the system functions.

That’s one of the reasons why we’re here today.

Thank you.