FoRB at Dutch Reception Centres
On 20 May 2019, Gave protested against the way in which COA (the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Refugees) deals with religion in the reception centres. Gave has discussed this with COA for many years, but COA still does not seem to have any regard for the fundamental rights of the residents, including the freedom of religion. This was demonstrated once again by the recent ban on religious conversations with a chaplain in a resident’s room.
For some time now, Gave has been discussing the way in which the religious and political neutrality of COA is implemented with COA’s head office. According to COA, a religious conversation by residents in the presence of a chaplain from outside the reception centre constitutes an infringement of the personal privacy of other residents. COA states that due to COA’s political and religious neutrality, such meetings are not permitted in the private rooms, even if they take place at the invitation of the residents themselves and there is no question of nuisance. COA does neither facilitate a chaplancy within the reception centres or the use of common rooms for religious meetings. In Gave‘s view, COA does not realise that in doing so, COA itself violates the privacy of the residents by restricting their freedom of religion or belief.
The most fundamental point is that COA ignores fundamental rights, in particular the right to freedom of religion. A fundamental right that also gives the right to experience the faith collectivity. Moreover, it is distressing that COA has no regard for the background of vulnerable minorities among the residents: Christians who have fled from their country of origin because they could not openly profess and live their faith. Hoping to find this freedom of religion in the Netherlands, they are again confronted with the restrictions of this freedom in the reception centres. COA is insufficiently aware of how their restictions cause the reliving of experiences and traumas of countries of origin.
Infringement of privacy
Although Gave has been discussing this with COA since 2010, recent incidents at various reception centres have prompted the staff of the head office and the location manager of a reception centre to enter into dialogue with Gave. In the conversations, as well as in previous mail conversations with COA’s legal department, it became clear that religious neutrality is interpreted as ‘COA can prohibit everything that concerns religion’. During the conversations it became clear that an activity such as Bible study/conversation in the private room cannot be forbidden, but at the same time they do not want to allow for it either. The collective profession of faith in the private room is described as an activity that can be an infringement of the privacy of the residents and is therefore not permitted. Gave is astonished that this interpretation of religious neutrality not only lingers in the minds of local reception centre staff but is endorsed by COA’s legal department and head office also. The religious freedom of asylum seekers is therefore at stake at national level. It is distressing that COA banned religious conversations in someone’s private room and issued a centre ban tot the chaplain involved, without hearing the parties involved and without consultation.
Gave insists that asylum seekers should enjoy the freedom to share their faith with fellow believers in their room, without causing inconvenience to others. In response, COA indicated that they want to stop this by restricting the number of people in a room or by restricting religious conversations to the family, on the grounds of safety. However, COA had failed to clarify the grounds of these restrictions and how residents and their guests are informed about them. COA continues its questionable reference to their religious and political neutrality and their interpretation of it.
In recent years, COA has been working on Handreiking Levensbeschouwing (‘Guidelines Worldview’). This document contains a number of valuable elements, but in practice it does not provide sufficient clarity about the rights of asylum seekers with regard to freedom of religion or belief. As a result, minorities such as Christian converts, atheists and Yezidis receive insufficient support from COA. They experience the same kind of restrictions in the reception centre as in their countries of origin.
COA’s above-mentioned position forces Gave to make this more widely known. Gave called on COA to work on a change of attitude towards the personal beliefs of the residents of the reception centres. It cannot be the case that personal privacy continues to be affected by the fact that the collective profession of faith in the presence of someone from outside the asylum seekers’ centre remains forbidden.
Response by COA
On 12th June 2019, Gave received the following response:
“COA (…) is of the opinion that every resident who wishes to profess his faith, regardless of what faith, (…) has the freedom to do so and can profess it. In doing so, COA does not make any distinction according to religion. COA does, however, have the task of guaranteeing the quality of life and safety of the reception centre, whereby political and religious activities that violate the privacy of others are not permitted. It is for this reason that COA (…) will enhance relevant policy documents (including the house rules) to make it even clearer that residents are free to practise their faith in the private sphere, and that this does not apply to (organised) group meetings larger than the family.
COA therefore still relies on the arguments re the quality of life and safety of the reception centre and on the protection of privacy. Gave believes that these preconditions apply equally to all activities at a reception centre. However, COA makes a distinction between ‘religious’ meetings and other meetings. Residents are allowed to celebrate a birthday or watch a football match in their room collectively. However, as soon as the Bible is opened and the comversation is about people’s faith, COA believes that this is by definition a threat to the quality of life, safety and an infringement of the privacy of the residents. While COA can be expected to make serious efforts to respect the freedom of religion of the residents, COA wants to implement the unlawful restrictions in their policy. COA still does not realise that they impose the same restrictions on groups of asylum seekers that they have experienced in their country of origin. While they could not profess their faith together there, they are still not allowed to do so in the reception centres in the Netherlands. Gave continues to stress that COA is thus violating the fundamental rights of the residents.
Report World Evangelical Alliance
In 2018 the World Evangelical Alliance published the report “Oppressive Neutrality – Examination of the humanitarian discourse on religion, religious minorities, and its effect on policy practice in the Netherlands” that highlights the problem that the discourse on religious minorities is clearly informed by the secular understanding of religion and that the prescriptive nature of secularism over religion does not automatically ensure enhanced wellbeing of religious minorities
Special Rapporteur UN
In March 2019, Gave was able to raise issues like this during the visit of mr. Ahmed Shaheed (Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Religion or Belief of the UN) to the Netherlands.
In his preliminary report mr. Shaheed wrote among others:
Refugee & Asylum issues
“A number of concerns were raised during my visit regarding proscriptions on the manifestation of religious beliefs in asylum centres. The Central Body for Accommodating Asylum Seekers’ reportedly ban religious practice in the communal areas of these centres to “avoid inflaming tensions among different religious groups housed together in an already sensitive environment”. Some individuals reported that several Centres interpret these restrictions as being applicable to the private rooms of residents also. Further concerns about the lack of ‘religious literacy’ and awareness about dynamics between asylum seekers of different beliefs, including non-religious beliefs, or gender/sexuality identity were also raised during my visit. There appears to be no clear understanding or policy on preventing issues between asylum seekers that are perhaps from the same country but have different beliefs when they are housed in the same space.
“These issues highlight more prevalent issues unfolding in Dutch society as newer communities of individuals whose beliefs call for frequent public manifestations of the values, rites, and rituals on which their faiths are based, increasingly settle in the Netherlands. Integration requirements necessitate all immigrants to sign a ‘statement of civil integration’, complete a ‘Dutch integration course’, and pass an ‘integration examination’. While these may be positive measures, some individuals reflected on anxieties about feelings of unacceptance, regardless of efforts to integrate, in a society that makes them feel that they can never quite be included.”
Read the final report.