GRONINGEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Dozens of migrants are sheltering on a former hospital ship in a Dutch canal, beneficiaries of a “Bed, Bath, Bread” programme for asylum seekers. But their hopes of settlement are dimming with the anti-immigrant right poised for a surge at the ballot box.
Polls suggest the far-right ticket will double its vote in the March 15 election, riding perceptions that many years of Muslim immigration threaten to erode Dutch national identity.
Despite statistics showing there are fewer foreigners in the Netherlands than commonly believed, many voters feel Muslim immigrants are failing to integrate and running down a once-generous health and welfare system.
Even if firebrand nationalist leader Geert Wilders does not enter the next ruling coalition given the refusal of “establishment” parties to work with him, he has managed to push the mainstream political agenda to the anti-immigrant right.
In the northern coastal town of Groningen, dozens of mainly Muslim men and women - Africans, Arabs and some Iranians - sit at bare tables and chat quietly in the living quarters fashioned out of a ship where hospital patients were once treated.
They are awaiting decisions on appeals of government rejections of their asylum applications, a process that has dragged on for years during which the Netherlands began to crack down hard on economic migrants. In the meantime, they are grateful for the refuge from the harsh North Sea winter.
Groningen opened its “Bed, Bath, Bread” facility for 100 asylum seekers in January after the government of conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte cut off BBB funding, and it plans to expand capacity to 300 people later this year.
About 30 other Dutch cities and towns run BBB shelters too. They accommodate thousands of asylum seekers in legal limbo.
“Four years ago I was alone. You know how life is outside, without help, but at this moment I am grateful,” said Moussa Sall. He said he fled political violence in Guinea, West Africa and drifted across Europe before arriving in Groningen.
Sall and his cohorts were aware and worried about swelling anti-immigrant sentiment represented by Wilders, leader of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV), but seemed loath to discuss sensitive domestic politics.
“I would like to stay here and work as a hairdresser. I have started learning the language. It’s not possible to go back to my country for the moment. It’s dangerous for me,” said Sall.
That is not the position taken by Rutte’s government, which under the populist pressure of Wilders has imposed some of the toughest immigration policies in the European Union since 2012.
It has cut off funding for BBB facilities and shortened the period of shelter for failed applicants to 28 days unless they agree to leave and stay in semi-detention prior to deportation.
The government has also expanded the list of “safe” countries to which rejected migrants can be legally returned and outlawed the wearing in public of face veils by Muslim women.
The nationalist current changing Dutch politics reflects a deep souring of public attitudes towards immigrants in a country long known for liberalism and multicultural tolerance, rooted in centuries of maritime history.
The welcome showered on hundreds of thousands of Moroccan and Turkish workers a few decades ago has turned to resentment at open-door, pro-EU policies under mainstream parties that may drive 20 percent of voters into the PVV’s arms at the polls next week.
That could make Wilders’ party the biggest in parliament, though it is still unlikely to enter government as all its mainstream rivals have vowed to ostracise the PVV.
But diverging views among a handful of contending parties in the election about how many immigrants to accept and where to shelter them could make the formation of the next government a complex, prolonged affair.
The percentage of non-Western immigrants in the founding EU member state rose from 7.5 percent of the population in 1996 to 12.1 percent in 2015, according to Statistics Netherlands.
In 2015, when a record 1.2 million asylum seekers - often Muslims fleeing Syria’s civil war - flowed into the EU, the Netherlands took in 43,000 of them, roughly in line with the 28-nation bloc’s average.
That year, the Netherlands accepted 2,546 asylum seekers per one million inhabitants, compared with 5,441 in Germany and 1,063 in France, according to Eurostat. The Dutch intake fell by half in 2016 thanks to an EU deal with Turkey that curbed migration via that country to neighbouring Europe.
Yet the perception of the number of Muslims in the Netherlands greatly outstrips reality.
A 2016 Ipsos poll found most Dutch believed 19 percent of the country’s 17 million population is Muslim, rather than the actual 5 percent. Ipsos found a similar gap between perceptions and truth in France.
Wilders condemns Moroccans for being over-represented in Dutch crime and welfare statistics. He wants to close the border to non-Western immigrants, shut down hundreds of mosques and take the Netherlands out of the EU.
Jesse Klaver, a Greens politician, said Dutch culture was not threatened by immigration but by an intolerant far right. “We are not a racist country. It’s not about immigrants or Islam. It’s about social, economic problems. People who have to pay too much tax and can’t make a living,” he said.
Groningen and other municipalities decided to pay for migrant shelters themselves after talks with Rutte’s cabinet about funding the BBB programme collapsed.
Several lawsuits ensued, including by asylum seekers who won the right to shelter in Amsterdam.
Groningen officials said they were honouring a 2014 decision by the European Committee on Social Rights, part of the Council of Europe rights watchdog, that the Dutch must provide shelter and medical care to the homeless as a fundamental human right.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, accused mainstream parties of not standing up to populists ahead of elections in the Netherlands, Germany and France, but instead adopting their policies for short-term political gain.
Such criticism has not swayed Rutte’s conservatives. He published an open letter in January, weeks before election campaigning began, telling immigrants to accept Dutch values and blend in or go home.
Immigrants reacted with consternation and anger in social media posts. A poll last month found that 40 percent of Turks and Moroccans no longer feel at home in the Netherlands.
(For graphic on Dutch election candidates click here)
(For graphic on Dutch party approval ratings click here)
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Mark Heinrich