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Threatened Srebrenica Refugees Appeal to Dutch Queen

Survivors of Bosnian massacre who sought asylum in Netherlands now facing deportation.
By Karen Meirik

After centuries of being viewed as a tolerant country that has always been open to accepting refugees, especially those fleeing political and religions oppression, the Netherlands appears to be doing an about-face.


The minister for immigration, Rita Verdonk, of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, announced recently that the government planned to send 26,000 asylum seekers back home within the next three years. Among those facing deportation are some 200 Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica.


This has shocked many politicians, aid organisations, human rights activists and even some military personnel because Dutch troops were in charge of protecting the former UN Safe Area when Bosnian Serb forces overran it in July 1995. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were summarily executed in the days that followed.


“We should be happy in the Netherlands that [those] people from Srebrenica seek refuge here, after all they’ve been through,” said former minister Jan Pronk.


Pronk was a member of the government that sent Dutch peacekeepers to the enclave. As soon as he heard that Serb troops were separating men from women and children, Pronk said that he thought a genocide was unfolding.


The Dutch troops unknowingly ended up facilitating the selection of who would live or die.


“We cannot select them for a second time,” an angered Pronk said, referring to the 200 Srebrenica survivors facing expulsion have already exhausted every legal option available to them.


After years of broken promises, partly due to several changes in the Dutch government between 2001 and 2003, the political route has turned out to be a dead end street.


In what appeared to be a desperate last gesture, they made a dramatic appeal on March 11 to the Dutch queen, Beatrix, to prevent their extradition.


“Our request to the Queen is our last hope. She’s the only one who can prevent this,” said Muharem Mehmedovic, one of the asylum seekers facing expulsion.


“I fear my life is in danger when I have to return to Srebrenica, but what can I do if the Dutch police forces me to go back?” he asked, smiling nervously.


“I’m deeply hurt by the fact that they are dividing us again,” said Mula Hadzibulic, mother of two, another asylum seeker from Srebrenica. “It’s just like they divided us earlier in Potocari.”


“Going back would be hell for me,” she continued, clearly distressed. “I lost 26 family members, including my husband and my sister. My son asks me every day, ‘Do I have to go back to the place where daddy was killed? Will I get killed too?’ ”


Hadzibulic, who has been in the Netherlands for three years, said that she hopes the queen saw the footage of Srebrenica on TV and that she reads the papers, “Then she would understand and help us.”


A volunteer organisation called the Political Committee Stari Most, which was formed to commemorate the anniversary of the fall of enclave, has been helping these Srebrenica survivors through their asylum procedure.


The Stari Most group began assembling asylum cases in 2002 believing that the Srebrenica refugees would have a better chance of being granted residence permits if they pressed their case as a group.


Their lobbying helped convince some members of parliament – those frustrated by the country’s new policy and those already concerned about Srebrenica – to ask Verdonk last September to re-consider some of their cases.


This resulted in seventeen people (four families) receiving residence permits. But it provided no solution for the rest.


Seeing no other possibilities, the Stari Most group decided to help them appeal to the queen.


“A national matter of history and honour concerning justice and mercy is at stake. Namely the special responsibility of the Netherlands to the victims of the fall of Srebrenica,” said Bram Bregman, a member of the organisation who helped draft the petition to the queen.


The Dutch government formally accepted “co-responsibility” for the fall of Srebrenica along with the United Nations in 2002. This promoted the government of then prime minister Wim Kok to resign.


In June 2003, Kok’s successor, Jan Peter Balkenende, acknowledged in the final national political debate on Srebrenica that the Netherlands has a “moral responsibility” towards Srebrenica’s victims, even though they were not “guilty” for the fall of the enclave or the horrific events that followed.


Given the national reckoning that took place over the Srebrenica issue, many are surprised that the government would allow asylum seekers from the enclave to be expelled.


The government’s main objection about the Stari Most-applicants is that they came to the Netherlands after 2000.


A similar group of 350 asylum seekers from Srebrenica, who applied earlier, received residence permits in 2000. But after that, the doors were closed.


Verdonk acknowledged that all of the people from the Stari Most list are traumatised, one of the most important criteria the Dutch use when deciding whether to grant asylum, but she said, “The Dutch policy towards [traumatised asylum seekers] demands … that a person, in principle, should have left [the country] within six months after the traumatizing event.”


Wim Dijkema, a former warrant officer with Dutchbat in Srebrenica, had a different take.


“…People with problems don’t ask for help that soon. They will sooner turn away from professional help, stay in their own surroundings,” he told IWPR, adding that he would love to explain to the minister how he and his fellow soldiers felt after their experience in Srebrenica.


“I was there when Srebrenica fell and it was an indescribable rotten time, then and the period following. I saw in my own unit how many people suffered from psychological problems. So how must it have felt for those people, living in these conditions for years?”


Social liberal deputy Ursie Lambrechts, who urged Verdonk to review the Stari Most cases, was initially shocked by the government’s decision to allow just 17 of them to stay in the Netherlands.


However, she said that Verdonk had assured her that in a majority of the cases, there were indications that the asylum seekers were not being honest, had criminal records, or had applied for residency in other countries – all of which would disqualify them for a Dutch status.


“I was truly shocked. But I do believe the minister. She’s straightforward, I never noticed any tendency to cheat and deceit,” Lambrechts said.


Human rights lawyers, as well as opposition politicians are more sceptical.


“I know of at least one case where a person from the Stari Most-list has been treated extremely carelessly,” said Sabine Breuls, a lawyer with the Dutch Legal Aid institute, SRA, that helps asylum seekers. “And I know of many other cases where the [immigration authorities] have not been diligent at all.”


For example, although the UNHCR advises governments on sending people back to their countries only if they can go back to their hometowns, Verdonk appears to believe that it is acceptable to return them even if it is not safe to do so.


As far as she is concerned, the people from the Stari Most list can go back to Tuzla, Sarajevo or wherever they want in Bosnia.


Bregman is convinced the 17 people who were given asylum were chosen at random, pointing out that their cases do not differ substantially from the others.


He fears for the lives of those who will be sent back, “There’s this man who was diagnosed as suicidal by both his own therapist and the medical advisor of the Dutch immigration and naturalisation service. The man said that he would only to return to Bosnia in a coffin and I think he is serious.”


He said this is just one of many similar examples, “Those people need rest and safety before they can even start to heal from their trauma. This insecurity only makes their health worse.”


Apart form the psychological difficulties, there are other problems as well.


Muharem Mehmedovic, for example, said he would love to leave the asylum centre in the Netherlands and return to his house in Bratunac. However, a Bosnian Serb court has accused him of setting fire to the village of Kravica in 1992. He claims he was in Tuzla at the time, and does not trust a Serb court to hear his case.


“I would be very willing to cooperate with the Hague tribunal, but I don’t trust a Serb court in Srebrenica,” he said.


Mehmedovic was one of the thousands of Muslim men who fled to Tuzla just before the enclave fell. He requested asylum in the Netherlands as soon as he found out he was being sought by the Serb court in Srebrenica. He said that he thought the Dutch would be sympathetic.


“I don’t think the Netherlands are guilty for what happened [in Srebrenica], but they were there with us. They shared the drama with us,” he said.


The appeal delivered at the gates of the royal palace provides a last resort. “I think the queen is going to help us,” said Mehmedovic. “I have a positive feeling.. She has to. One of her people promised us one day in Tuzla that the Netherlands would always be there for the people of Srebrenica.”


Bregman said he hoped the queen would consider the petition. “According to Psalm 72 from the Bible, the ruling power should take special care of the weak in society,” he said in the petition.


However, royal intervention does not seem very likely. The queen only rarely goes against policies approved by a parliamentary majority.


Bregman promises he will not accept “no” for an answer, “It will be over my dead body, if these people have to go back to Bosnia.”


Karen Meirik is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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