The Dutch government performed an abrupt U-turn and said Saturday that two Armenian children whose bid for asylum had been rejected could remain in the Netherlands.
The decision came after the children, 12-year-old Lili and her brother, 13-year-old Howick, went into hiding ahead of their expected deportations. The government faced mounting disapproval of its original refusal to let the siblings remain in the country where they have lived for a decade.
The Ministry of Justice and Security said in a written statement that while Dutch and Armenian authorities had worked hard to arrange a secure situation for the pair in Armenia, “recent developments” meant “the welfare and security of the children can no longer be sufficiently guaranteed.”
The statement added: “The state secretary has therefore, taking everything into account, decided that the children can remain in the Netherlands.”
It was not immediately clear whether their mother, who was deported to Armenia last year, would be allowed to return to join her children.
Earlier Saturday, Justice Ministry spokesman Maarten Molenbeek said the children ran away from a foster home overnight and police appealed for the public’s help in locating them. Police reported in the afternoon they had been found and were being questioned, but would be returned to foster care.
Police added that the appeal for help finding Howick and Lily “was not widely embraced” by the public while the threat of deportation hung over the children.
An Amsterdam court on Friday rejected a final bid to block their deportations, which had been scheduled for Saturday at the latest.
The Netherlands was once known as a welcoming nation for migrants but has become tougher in recent years as the number of arrivals soared.
The government argues that it has to strictly apply its immigration regulations to retain public support for granting asylum to people fleeing war and persecution in countries like Syria.
However, authorities had been fiercely criticized by rights groups and supporters of Lili and Howick.
The independent national children’s ombudsman, Margrite Kalverboer, accused the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte of “breaching fundamental rights of children” with its decision to deport them.
The children came to the Netherlands with their mother in 2008 and go to school here, but a string of courts rejected their asylum applications, ruling that Armenia was safe.
The children reportedly have never visited the country and don’t speak Armenian. Lawyers representing them argued in court that the mother was not able psychologically to care for her children.
State Secretary for Justice and Security Mark Harbers defended the government’s stance Friday, but acknowledged it was a tough decision to deport them.
“Everybody feels emotional about this; that also applies to somebody in the Cabinet like me,” Harbers said. “But at the same time you have to keep looking at all the facts that play a role.”