Albayrak hands out residence permits
4 July 2007
DEN BOSCH (AP) – Vipero Botari fled violence-wracked Congo 14 years ago with his wife and daughter to seek asylum and acceptance in the Netherlands. On Wednesday Botari and his family finally got what they came for: residency permits.
The Botaris – now including 4-year-old son Dieuci – were the first of up to 30,000 people who will be granted residency under a Dutch “'general amnest” for certain illegal immigrants, capping a dramatic softening of Dutch immigration policy after years of cracking down.
In a ceremony in a modern meeting hall attached to the 16th century Den Bosch Town Hall, the Botaris were personally handed their permits by State secretary for Justice Nebahat Albayrak.
''This family is living proof of why the amnesty was a good move,'' said Albayrak, herself the daughter of Turkish immigrants.
''For you this is a new start,'' she told the family, ''and also for the thousands more people I hope will pick up their permits soon.''
For 20-year-old Mauwa Zawali, wearing a brightly coloured African dress, the credit card-sized residency permit is a passport to the same kind of life her school friends enjoyed growing up in this historic city 90 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam.
''You don't notice it when you're young,'' she said in fluent Dutch when asked about life as an illegal immigrant. ''But as you get older you realise and it gets annoying. You want a vacation job like your school friends, but you can't get one.''
The amnesty applies only to asylum-seekers who arrived before a new immigration law was adopted on April 1, 2001, and remained in the country despite their applications being rejected.
Under Albayrak's hardline predecessor Rita Verdonk, 11,000 people in the same category left or were deported, 4,200 of them kicked out forcibly. Once one of Europe's most welcoming countries, the Netherlands became increasingly hostile toward immigrants amid rising crime and unemployment among mainly North African newcomers critics said did little to join or contribute to Dutch society.
Under the amnesty, immigrants must also have lived in the Netherlands full-time since 2001 and not have been convicted of a crime for which the maximum sentence is over a month imprisonment. They must agree to drop all legal actions against immigration authorities.
The residency permits are valid for a year from June 15 and are extended automatically if holders have not committed a crime in the last 12 months.
Newly legalised immigrants also will have to undergo citizenship training – learning Dutch language and customs to help them better assimilate, Albayrak told reporters in Den Bosch.
Refugee activists have welcomed the pardon.
''We are happy that all these people who have been waiting such a long time will now finally be able to work on their future,'' said Annerieke Dekker of independent support group Refugee Work. ''Now they can build their lives here. We hope the people of the Netherlands will help them integrate.''
Vipero Botari, a trained bookkeeper in his native Kinshasa, plans to immediately start looking for a job – ''any job,'' he said – while studying to improve his Dutch.
He declined to discuss his reasons for fleeing Congo or for his asylum application being rejected.
''It's in the past,'' he said. ''I have had 14 years of misery – I want to look to the future.''
Like thousands of illegal immigrants, the Botari family initially lived in a Dutch asylum seekers' centre and later moved into a house in Den Bosch despite their application being rejected. Legal appeals allowed rejected asylum seekers to remain in the country for years, in legal limbo.
While some 30,000 people will be allowed to stay, people whose asylum applications have been rejected since 2001 will not and the government is expected to step up efforts to send them home.
''Now we can start sending home people who failed under the new law,'' Albayrak said.