No support for displaced Sint-Maarten residents in the Netherlands

Sint Maarten after Hurricane Irma, 7 Sept 2017
Sint Maarten after Hurricane Irma, 7 Sept 2017Photo: @kon_marine / Twitter

National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen is critical about the Dutch government's stance on how to handle Sint Maarten residents who came to seek shelter in the Netherlands after Hurricane Irma caused devastation on the island in September. According to the Dutch government, aid money is going to the island, so emergency relief is happening there. Sint Maarten residents in the Netherlands should therefore return to the island as soon as possible, and in principle they cannot claim municipal arrangements for shelter or support, Trouw reports. 

A few dozen Sint Maarten residents came to the Netherlands after the hurricane, which left four people dead and damaged over 90 percent of the buildings on the island, the Red Cross said after the storm. The Dutch municipalities don't really know what to do about these residents, given the government's stance. The National Ombudsman asked the government for clarification about Sint Maarten residents who can't register themselves in Dutch municipalities.

According to a letter Minister Kasja Ollongren of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations sent to the Tweede Kamer last week, the government is counting on "self reliance" from the Sint Maarten residents currently in the Netherlands. Their first instructions are to find shelter with family and friends. If they do not have a network in the Netherlands, the government in principle does not provide assistance or shelter. They also can't get a postal address in the country, according to the newspaper. 

Sint Maarten residents who did manage to find shelter with family and friends in the Netherlands, can register themselves with the municipal administration. This gives them access to social services. But island residents who do not have a network in the Netherlands, were told that they can't register with the municipality. 

The island of Sint Maarten has the status of a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, like Curacao and Aruba. The island has its own government, and is responsible for its own laws and regulations. Residents of Sint Maarten have Dutch passports and are Dutch citizens. They can stay in the Netherlands or settle here without restrictions, Ollongren said in her letter. As long as they find shelter for themselves. 

Van Zutphen is critical of this approach. According to him, a citizen must be able to "register himself at any time, regardless of his living situation." He adds that the condition that Sint Maarten residents must find their own shelter, has undesired consequences. As some are having trouble registering with municipalities, there is doubt about whether they have access to the facilities to which they are entitled to, he said. 

Around 19 families from Sint Maarten are currently staying in Haarlem. They were placed in a location where refugees are staying while waiting for a home. Mayor Jos Wienen told Trouw that these families were placed in the refugee shelter, because Haarlem does not allow people to sleep on the street. "Especially given the miserable situation they came from", he said. Other than this shelter, Haarlem is following the government's lead. "Go back, be wise", according to the mayor.

Rotterdam is taking a similar approach, according to the newspaper. The Sint Maarten residents currently in Leiden include a number of school-age children. A spokesperson for the Leiden municipality told Trouw that the municipality is working with the Ministry to find a solution for them. She did not rule out that the Sint Maarten residents in Leiden will eventually be housed there or in surrounding municipalities.