How murder of Dutch girl triggered a national backlash against refugees

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The Independent Online

The rape and murder of a 16-year-old Dutch girl last year showed how easily asylum-seekers can find themselves at the centre of a witch-hunt, even when there is no direct evidence linking them to the crime.

The rape and murder of a 16-year-old Dutch girl last year showed how easily asylum-seekers can find themselves at the centre of a witch-hunt, even when there is no direct evidence linking them to the crime.

The savage and fatal attack on Marianne Vaatstra near the village of Kollum put refugees who were housed nearby under acute suspicion, prompting protests and an attempt to break into their temporary residence centre.

As a result, government policy in the Netherlands of dispersing asylum-seekers to locations across the country while their applications are processed has been called into question by a public backlash.

The reception centre housing 425 people had been in operation for four years, the residents coexisting with the inhabitants of Kollum, in the northern province of Friesland, before the murder of Marianne in May 1999. As she cycled home in the early hours of the morning from a disco in the neighbouring village of Zwaagwesteinde, the 16-year-old was attacked. She was raped before having her throat cut.

Suspicion quickly fell on the reception centre, which had to be placed under police surveillance after a gang of local youths attempted to break in.

The girl's father blamed his daughter's death on government asylum policy and a television programme focused on an Iraqi who left the centre the day after the murder. The furore produced protests and even spawned a political movement dedicated to opposing dispersal of asylum-seekers.

But, according to a report compiled by the Institute of Race Relations, there was little to link those inside the centre with the actual crime. The report says: "Of around 500 tip-offs from the public received by the police and of 1,000 statements taken as a result of these tip-offs, not one mentioned a dark-skinned person near the scene of the crime."

In an apparent response to public pressure and a tense climate, the police devoted considerable efforts to the asylum-centre lead. DNA samples were taken from four of those staying there and the Iraqi who had left the area was tracked down to Istanbul and, after a DNA test, eliminated from the inquiry.

Liz Fekete, head of European research for the Institute of Race Relations and co-author of a report on the Kollum case, warned yesterday of its wider implications for Britain. "If you have a discourse in society which is permanently stigmatising asylum-seekers, the ground is laid for a xenophobic reaction when you have dispersal," she said, adding: "What happened in the Netherlands could happen in the UK."

Ironically, while hostility to refugees appears to be on the increase, the economic indicators may point in the direction of a more liberal policy. A United Nations report yesterday suggested that, faced with a drop in population in Europe, mass immigration may be the only alternative to a big increase in the proportion of people of retirement age.

According to present trends, the United States is expected to grow from just under 280 million people to nearly 350 million in the next 50 years. By contrast, the 15 European Union countries will see their combined population fall from 375 million to 330 million.

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