The Parliament of the Netherlands is currently in deliberations over making the presence of irregular migrants in the country a punishable criminal offense. This issue is part of the coalition agreement between the ruling Labor (PvdA) and Liberal (VVD) parties. According to the draft bill, the new law is meant to prevent migrants without the required documents from entering the country. The justification for the bill is in part that the presence of irregular migrants is a source of nuisance and crime in the Netherlands. The introduction of the draft bill and the discussions surrounding its justification have sparked significant debate as to the growing intolerance of the countries such as the Netherlands toward migrants in general and undocumented migrants in particular.
The draft bill under review in the Netherlands is not the first of its kind. Illegal migrants who are apprehended by authorities have long been subjected to detention before deportation. This is regulated even at the EU level. The United States also has a strong detention policy in dealing with undocumented migrants.
People who live in the EU without the necessary documentation are structurally referred to as illegal migrants, though the Council of Europe, for example, advises its members to refrain from this terminology and instead refer to these groups as irregular or undocumented migrants. The term illegal migrants carries considerable stigma of its own, even without any accompanying formal criminalization. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Jorge Bustamante, in a report delivered before the General Assembly, the “Criminalizing irregular migrants for the offence of being in a country without adequate documentation made all migrants—regardless of immigration status—vulnerable to potential racist or xenophobic acts, and disregarded migrants’ human rights.”
The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families was adopted 1990 to protect the rights of all migrants in a country, including those without documentation. This convention has been ratified by approximately sixty countries, predominantly in Africa, south American and southern Asia. More often than not, it has been confirmed that migrants—both regular and irregular—contribute enormously to the economies of their destination countries. Despite this, however, economically well-endowed countries are becoming less and less tolerant toward migrants, undocumented migrants in particular.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said that “A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” The development of global forces and technology today makes one wonder how accurate this statement still is. The interdependency of nations on each other’s economy, workforce, natural resources, society, and beyond make one wonder how strong the traditional borders to which countries so strongly cling really are. Policymakers in western nations tend to forget that at one point in time most people were undocumented migrants in the countries where they now live and are citizens, and that without their contribution, these countries might not have reached their stage of development.