Child asylum-seekers go into hiding before Dutch deportation

Two Armenian children whose bid for asylum in the Netherlands has been rejected have gone into hiding on the day the Dutch government was expected to deport them, a spokesman said Saturday, in the latest twist in a case that has riveted this nation.

Justice Ministry spokesman Maarten Molenbeek said that the children, identified in Dutch media by their first names, Lili and Howick, left their foster home overnight. An Amsterdam court on Friday rejected a final bid to block their deportation.

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 in order to retain support for granting asylum to people fleeing war and persecution in countries like Syria.

However, authorities have been fiercely criticized by supporters of Lili and Howick and rights groups for their tough treatment of the children.

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, aged 12 and 13, 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 is a safe country.

Their mother was sent back last year to Armenia. The children reportedly have never visited the country and don't speak Armenian.

Lawyers representing the children say the mother is not psychologically able to take care of the children.

State Secretary for Justice and Security Mark Harbers defended the government's stance on Friday, saying Dutch and Armenian authorities are working together to ensure there is support and care for the children. However, he acknowledged that it was a tough decision.

"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."