Leading article: Follow the Dutch lead

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The amnesty for illegal immigrants approved by the Dutch parliament this week will benefit an estimated 30,000 people. Most of those refused asylum before 2001 will now be allowed to remain. It is no small irony that many of these are the very same people whom the immigration minister in the previous Dutch government had ordered to be deported.

Immigration has been a defining issue in recent Dutch politics. In the 2002 election, xenophobic sentiment was successfully exploited by Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated during the campaign. Two years later, the murder of Theo van Gogh, a film-maker who campaigned against Islamic extremism, brought the issue back to the top of the agenda. And it was a dispute about the citizenship of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a politician of Somali origin, that precipitated the collapse of the last Dutch government.

The new government is a centrist coalition led by the Christian Democrats, which also incorporates the centre-left Labour Party. That it had the courage to propose an amnesty, that the parliament passed it, and that, according to surveys, a majority of Dutch voters supports it, suggests that the latest upsurge in racist intolerance is on the wane. That would be the most optimistic interpretation; at the very least, it reflects a sense of realism. Deporting 26,000 failed asylum-seekers, as the previous government had proposed, would have been neither feasible nor humane.

There are arguments for and against such amnesties. Opponents say they only encourage more people to try their luck and boost the ill-gotten gains of people-smugglers. But Italy, Spain, France and Belgium have all enacted amnesties, without dire consequences for themselves - or for the European Union. Even those who reject the moral reasons for legalising illegal migrants of long standing must accept that the practical arguments are unimpeachable. Amnesties bring clandestine workers into the legal economy, increase tax revenue and allow migrants to live more settled lives.

This is why the British government should follow the Dutch lead and take the political risk of broaching an amnesty. At present, illegal immigrants and failed asylum-seekers are caught in a Catch-22 designed to encourage them to leave. They are not entitled to state help, but nor are they permitted to work. For all its periodic flights of tough rhetoric, the Government can neither trace, nor deport, more than a few.

The result is widespread exploitation in the black economy and a growing army of the destitute and desperate. An amnesty would not solve everything. But it would be more realistic, and more just, than the situation we have at present.