Photo above: Jan Willem Beaujean, Ministry of Security and Justice
In recent years tens of thousands of people have been migrating from Africa to Europe. Some are fleeing famine, political oppression or physical danger. Others are desperately searching for work, income or a better future. These people set out on hazardous journeys, covering thousands of kilometres across vast deserts. Many travel through Libya, a country where the government is weak and human traffickers and criminal gangs have free rein. They risk captivity in harsh prisons, financial exploitation and sexual abuse, all before the perilous Mediterranean crossing has even begun.
‘In the Netherlands we seem to regard the plight of migrants from Africa as less urgent than that of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees who have come to Europe via Turkey in recent years. But appearances can be deceptive. Most migrants arrive in Italy, but are seeking a future elsewhere in Europe. Some have a preference for a particular European country, including the Netherlands, and will do everything in their power to get there.’ So says Jan Willem Beaujean, the Deputy Director-General for Migration Affairs at the Ministry of Security and Justice, where he has been seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Working with both ministries, he is in charge of combating the root causes of migration and finding more effective ways of controlling migration flows.
'It’s crucial to pursue dialogue with our European partners', he explains, 'as well as the countries where large numbers of migrants and refugees originate and the countries used for transit by people smugglers. My job is to maintain contact on behalf of the foreign ministry and to find a credible solution in partnership with their governments. ‘The Netherlands wants to work with other EU countries to end the human suffering and deliver a blow to the criminals who cause it. In their ruthless business model, people get exploited, treated like common cargo, loaded onto leaky boats and forced to set off on a potentially fatal sea voyage.’
Assistance in the region
We are all appalled when we hear reports of dozens or hundreds of people drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean. And the stories told by those who survive are often extremely harrowing,’ Beaujean continues. ‘No one wants this to happen. The Netherlands and the other countries of the EU want to put an end to this suffering.’
But how do you tackle a problem of this magnitude? Beaujean explains: ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Security and Justice work together closely on this. We organise joint visits to the countries in question and make joint plans for tackling the problem. We put pressure on our networks, our embassies and our contacts in the NGO world, Brussels and large organisations such as UNHCR and IOM, and challenge them to take responsible steps forward. And the message is that we must always deliver on what we’ve promised.
‘We look at the short term as well as the long term, and follow a three-point approach. The Netherlands supports all the efforts that contribute to a better migration strategy, not just one.
‘We initiate dialogue with the governments of the countries of origin. The Netherlands sometimes does this on behalf of the other EU member states. For instance, in 2016 the Minister of Foreign Affairs paid a visit to Mali, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. In the short term, these countries must be prepared to take back refugees who are not allowed to stay in Europe. We can offer practical assistance, such as equipment for making passports more secure, or more study grants for young people. And in Mali the Netherlands is doing something quite unusual – we’re playing an important role in a mission that trains police and customs officers to conduct effective border controls.’
The foreign ministry’s diplomats, both those based in The Hague and those at our embassies in the migrants’ countries of origin, conduct the negotiations on these matters. Once talks are concluded, the country concerned can sign an agreement with the Netherlands, or with the European Union if the Netherlands has negotiated on its behalf.
The EU is working to restore a stable government in Libya that is capable of securing its borders and tackling people smuggling. In the deserts of Africa, border controls are practically non-existent. Refugees pass through with illegal travel documents, smugglers evade checkpoints and there are rarely enough staff to ensure effective border security.
When refugees arrive in Libya, there is no one to stop them continuing on their journey. On the contrary, people smugglers persuade them to make the crossing to Europe in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.
Beaujean explains, ‘The Dutch diplomats talk to other EU countries about what they can do to make Libya’s coast more secure and help the interim government run the country. For instance, we decided to deploy EU naval vessels to patrol the coast and to support the Libyan government’s efforts to develop its own coast guard.’
So, European cooperation is extremely important? ‘Yes, definitely,’ Beaujean agrees. ‘Not only that; it’s the only credible way of achieving anything. Of course, the process is often fraught with difficulty, but when refugees were streaming through Turkey and Greece, we demonstrated what could be done. At the time, the Netherlands held the presidency of the Council of the EU, and played a significant role in concluding an agreement with Turkey. The Netherlands and other member states gave a great deal of support to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, because these three countries were sheltering millions of refugees. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs donates funds to UNICEF to set up education programmes for refugee children.’
People fleeing political oppression are allowed to stay in Europe as refugees. Migrants who come here ‘only’ to find work and a better future are not refugees. It is one of the tasks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assess the human rights situation in their country of origin. Ministry staff write reports on which the courts can base their decisions.
Besides taking action that produces results in the short term, the Ministry also works to eliminate the root causes of mass migration, such as war, political conflict, oppression, extreme poverty, famine, natural disasters and a lack of future prospects. This is part of a European approach, in which the Netherlands plays an active role. For example the Netherlands is heading up a programme in East Africa. Beaujean comments, ‘In these countries, hundreds of thousands of people are living in refugee camps. It is understandable that some of them try to make it to Europe. The Netherlands strongly encourages those countries to take a new approach that improves the situation for refugees as well as local people. We don’t want people stuck in reception camps with no long-term prospects.’
Refugees currently living in camps should be given more opportunity to work and live outside the camps. But, of course, not at the expense of people who have been living in the country far longer. This would breed conflict and drain resources again. In the new model advocated by the Netherlands, host communities should benefit from the improved facilities for refugees. Under Dutch leadership, the model is being applied in the Horn of Africa, in partnership with the European Union. The programme is being implemented in cooperation with the local population and European companies, to create employment in the host countries and provide young people with vocational training that enables them to work in their own country. Beaujean adds, ‘We’re trying to work together to help people achieve self-reliance, so they no longer need to seek refugee elsewhere. They should be able to build a life in their own country, with their own family. Ultimately, that is what everyone wants.’