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Dutch probe baby’s death amid ‘inhumane’ conditions at asylum centers

Hundreds of migrants seek shelter outside an overcrowded asylum seekers' center in Ter Apel, northern Netherlands on Aug. 25. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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Dutch authorities are investigating the death of a 3-month-old infant at a makeshift shelter as the country struggles to accommodate an influx of asylum seekers. Hundreds have been left to sleep outside and in tents in conditions aid agencies described as “inhumane.”

The baby died Wednesday morning in Ter Apel, a northeastern village that serves as a port of entry to the Dutch asylum system. The infant was at a sports facility that was converted into an emergency shelter after the area’s main refugee center ran out of room.

State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Eric van der Burg said he was “deeply shocked” by the incident, the Associated Press reported, but authorities gave no further details about the circumstances of the child’s death.

The incident put a spotlight on the increasingly dire conditions for asylum seekers in the Netherlands, where a housing crunch, insufficient shelter space and reduced immigration staff have created dangerous bottlenecks at the country’s refugee centers. Thousands of refugees are now living in emergency shelters such as tents, gyms and event halls, according to rights advocates.

The situation is so critical, aid agencies say, that at least one refugee rights group has sued the Dutch government. The Red Cross also began providing assistance to asylum seekers in Ter Apel this month, and Doctors Without Borders began offering medical and psychological care Thursday — the first time it has offered such assistance in the Netherlands.

“It is unprecedented that we are providing medical assistance in the Netherlands, but the conditions in which these people find themselves are inhumane,” Judith Sargentini, director of Doctors Without Borders for the Netherlands, said in a statement.

The AP reported Thursday that 700 people have been sleeping on the street in Ter Apel in recent days after the refugee center, which can house up to 2,000 people, ran out of space. Those who are living outside the center lack access to showers and clean toilets, and some asylum seekers with chronic illnesses have run out of medication, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The organization said that pregnant women and children were among the crowd of people stuck outside the center’s gates last week. “If this situation continues, it could lead to serious medical emergencies,” Doctors Without Borders said in a news release Thursday.

Munasar Muhidin, a teenage asylum seeker who said he fled Somalia in 2020 after Islamist militants killed most of his family, told Reuters that upon arriving in Ter Apel, he was forced to camp on the side of the road, where clashes broke out and thunderstorms left his bedding soaked.

In the Netherlands, several thousand people apply for asylum each month. Most of the applicants are Syrian, according to government figures, but others come from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Turkey and Yemen.

Well before the evacuation, a generation of Afghans escaped to Europe. Their experience has been dire.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Dutch authorities set aside shelter beds for some 60,000 Ukrainian refugees, who bypassed the normal asylum application process.

The number of new asylum seekers has grown compared to recent years, said Karel Hendriks, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders. But it remains significantly lower than it was at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015 and 2016.

Since that peak, Dutch authorities have scaled back staffing at the immigration service and closed asylum centers, reducing processing and shelter capacity, according to the Dutch Council for Refugees, a refugee rights group.

“The reception crisis was caused by political choices and could have been prevented,” said Nienke Toren, a spokeswoman for the group. She said that many Dutch municipalities have refused to participate in efforts to create more shelters.

The Dutch Council for Refugees sued the government to improve conditions for asylum seekers, with a court date set for Sept. 15.

Several government agencies, including the Health and Youth Care Inspectorate, have said they raised the alarm over deteriorating conditions months ago.

Leon Veldt, a spokesman for the government-run Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), told Reuters this month that the country would need 51,000 beds for asylum seekers by the end of the year. It currently has 45,000.

“COA does everything it can to prioritize shelter for more vulnerable people, like children, individuals with medical conditions and women,” said Lennart Wegewijs, a spokesman for the agency, adding that the COA does its best to improve conditions outside of its facility “where possible.”

Some COA employees stopped work Tuesday to protest conditions at Ter Apel, the local daily newspaper, Dagblad van het Noorden, reported.

After the baby’s death Wednesday, Wegewijs said residents and workers in Ter Apel felt “sadness and powerlessness.”

The crisis in general has raised tensions with local residents and police have struggled to maintain security. Fights have broken out as asylum seekers grow more desperate — and the Red Cross was forced to close its service point for several days, Iris van Deinse, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands branch, said.

The government has proposed some unusual solutions to alleviate the shelter shortage, including housing asylum seekers in hotels and on cruise ships. Authorities leased two cruise ships, one of which can accommodate 1,000 asylum seekers for a maximum period of six months, beginning in September.

Ukrainians in Rotterdam will use a cruise ship as a floating shelter

The government “must make municipalities formally responsible for providing shelter and reception as soon as possible, just as happened with the Ukrainians that came here,” said Toren.