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Dutch authorities are investigating the death of a three-month-old infant in a makeshift shelter as the country struggles to accommodate an influx of asylum seekers. Hundreds of people have been left to sleep outside and in tents in conditions that aid agencies have described as “inhumane”.

The baby died on Wednesday morning in the northeastern town of Ter Apel, which serves as a port of entry into the Dutch asylum system. The infants were at a sports facility that was converted into an emergency shelter after the area’s main evacuation center ran out of room.

State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Erik van der Berg said he was “deeply shocked” by the incident, the Associated Press reported, but officials did not provide further details about the circumstances of the boy’s death.

The incident highlighted the increasingly dire situation for asylum seekers in the Netherlands, where a lack of housing, insufficient shelter space and understaffed immigration staff have created dangerous bottlenecks in the country’s refugee centres. Thousands of refugees are now living in emergency shelters such as tents, gyms and event halls, according to rights advocates.

Aid agencies say the situation is so dire that at least one refugee rights group has sued the Dutch government. The Red Cross began providing aid to asylum seekers in Ter Apel this month, and Doctors Without Borders began offering medical and psychological care on Thursday – the first such aid to be offered in the Netherlands.

“The fact that we are providing medical aid in the Netherlands is unprecedented, but the conditions in which these people find themselves are inhumane,” Judith Sargentini, director of Doctors Without Borders in the Netherlands, said in a statement.

The AP reported Thursday that 700 people have been sleeping on the streets in Ter Appel in recent days after a refugee center that could house 2,000 people ran out of space. Those living outside the centers lack showers and clean toilets, and some asylum seekers with chronic illnesses have run out of medication, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The organization said pregnant women and children were among the throngs of people stuck outside the center’s gates last week. “If this situation persists, a serious medical emergency may arise,” Doctors Without Borders said in a news release on Thursday.

Munasar Muhidin, a teenage asylum seeker who said he fled Somalia in 2020 after Islamist militants killed most of his family, told Reuters that upon arriving in Ter Apel, he was forced to camp by the side of the road, where skirmishes broke out and storms erupted. His bed was left soaked.

In the Netherlands, several thousand people apply for asylum every month. Most of the applicants are Syrian, according to government statistics, but others come from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Turkey and Yemen.

A generation of Afghans fled to Europe before emigrating. Their experience is terrible.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Dutch authorities set aside shelter beds for some 60,000 Ukrainian refugees who bypassed the normal asylum application process.

The number of new asylum seekers has increased compared to recent years, said Karel Hendrix, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders. But that’s significantly lower than the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015-2016.

Since that peak, Dutch authorities have cut immigration service staff and closed asylum centers, reducing processing and shelter capacity, according to the Dutch Council for Refugees, a refugee rights group.

“The reception crisis was caused by a political choice and could have been avoided,” said Nienke Toren, a spokeswoman for the group. She said many Dutch municipalities have refused to participate in efforts to build more shelters.

The Dutch Council for Refugees sued the government to improve conditions for asylum seekers, with a court date of September 15.

A number of government agencies, including the Health and Youth Care Inspectorate, have said they raised the alarm about the worsening situation months ago.

Leon Veldt, a spokesman for the government-run Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), told Reuters this month that the country would need 51,000 beds for asylum seekers by the end of the year. It currently has 45,000.

“COA does everything it can to prioritize shelter for the most vulnerable people, such as children, people with medical conditions and women,” agency spokesman Lennart Wegewicz said, adding that COA does its best to improve conditions outside its facilities. where possible.”

Some COA employees stopped work on Tuesday to protest the conditions at Ter Apel, local daily newspaper, Dagblad van Het Noorden, reports.

After the baby’s death on Wednesday, Wegewicz said residents and workers in Ter Apel felt “grief and powerlessness”.

The crisis in general has raised tensions with local residents and the police have struggled to maintain security. Fights have broken out as asylum seekers have become more desperate – and the Red Cross has been forced to close its service point for several days, said Iris van Deense, spokeswoman for the Netherlands branch.

The government has proposed some unusual measures to address the shortage of asylum, including housing asylum seekers in hotels and on cruise ships. Officials chartered two cruise ships, one of which will accommodate 1,000 asylum seekers for a maximum period of six months, starting in September.

Ukrainians in Rotterdam will use a cruise ship as a floating shelter

The government “must formally make municipalities responsible for providing shelter and reception as soon as possible, as happened with the Ukrainians who arrived here,” Toren said.

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