The Netherlands’s new ban on burqas has been fatally undermined on its very first day of operation after the police indicated they would not seriously try to enforce it.
The new law prohibits wearing anything which covers the face - including burqas, ski masks or motorcycle helmets - in public settings such as schools, hospitals, trains or buses.
Anyone who does enter one of these places with a burqa will be told to remove it or be fined between €150 and €415 (£136 - £378).
The legislation only extends to public buildings and transport and there is no ban on covering the face in the street.
But the law has been rendered largely pointless even on its first day after it emerged no-one wanted to actually enforce it.
The police have let it be known they do not consider stopping women wearing burqas a priority, and are concerned it will stop some people from coming into police stations to report crime.
Then, an umbrella organisation of transport companies said their bus conductors and train drivers will not try to enforce the law, especially as the police will not back them up should they need it.
Pedro Peters, a spokesman for the RET transport network, said: “The police have told us the ban is not a priority and that therefore they will not be able to respond inside the usual 30 minutes, if at all.
“It is not up to transport workers to impose the law and hand out fines.”
The same message has come from the national hospitals’ federation, which said in a statement upholding the ban on burqa-clad women from entering hospitals was the job of the police, not their staff.
“We are not aware of any cases in which wearing face-covering clothing or a possible ban has led to problems,” the statement added.
The Netherlands is the latest in a string of European nations to ban or restrict wearing the burqa, including France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark.
Although the government has insisted the law does not specifically target Muslims, it has been strongly welcomed by far-right politicians, such as Geert Wilders, who said its introduction was a “historic day”.
“I believe we should now try to take it to the next step,” he said. “The next step to make it sure that the headscarf could be banned in the Netherlands as well.”
When the law was first approved by the Dutch parliament last year, a senator from Mr Wilders party, Marjolein Faber, said it was the start of the process to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands and the next phase was to close every mosque.
Although about four per cent of the Dutch population are Muslims, only a tiny number of them actually wear the burqa. Estimates place the figure of women affected by the ban in the low hundreds.
There has also been strong opposition to the burqa ban, with one Islamic party in Rotterdam promising to pay the fines of anyone caught by the new law and the mayor of Amsterdam has indicated the capital’s local authorities will ignore it.
But even though the ban is mostly symbolic, experts have warned it will still have a “chilling effect” on community relations in the Netherlands.
Tom Zwart, an academic at the University of Utrecht who studies the intersection of law, culture and religion, said: “The ban is still on the books, and if [women wearing a burqa] come across a strict bus driver or tram conductor, they might still be in trouble.
“This undoubtedly has a chilling effect on their ability to take part in public life.”
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