Deep in the forest, Dutch prepare to welcome migrants

Nijmegen (Netherlands) (AFP) - Deep in a tranquil Dutch forest a transformation is taking place, as the Netherlands scrambles to set up camp for thousands of migrants who will start arriving this week.

Between Wednesday and Friday the first of 3,000 desperate asylum-seekers are expected to stream through the gates at Heumensoord outside the eastern Dutch city of Nijmegen on the border with Germany.

Since late last week, teams of soldiers and private contractors have been working furiously to erect the first marquee tents on the grounds, roughly the size of 10 football fields, as lowbed trucks rumbled in and out to the sounds of drills and jackhammers.

The site is an obvious choice: in the summer some 5,000 soldiers camp here to take part in Europe's largest walk, the Nijmegen Four Day Marches, and infrastructure such as water and power already exists.

In the 1990s it was used twice to welcome hundreds of refugees fleeing the wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

- 'Give them shelter' -

So far, compared to countries like Austria, Hungary and Germany, the Netherlands has been relatively unaffected by the tens of thousands of migrants streaming across the EU's borders.

"We must give these people shelter, we can't leave them in the street, especially now with winter coming," Gerard Brans told AFP after cycling past the camp to watch the construction process.

Behind him, a front-end loader dumped out another pile of steel spikes which teams of workers drove into the soil to set up yet another massive marquee tent.

Dutch authorities say the asylum-seeker's housing will be "simple and humane" with beds, showers, portable toilets, electricity and Internet connectivity.

The campsite is a temporary solution, though: by next June it will have to be evacuated to make place for the annual marches and for use in a paralympic event.

In a country which professes its multiculturalism, most are mobilising to help with the migrant crisis, despite tightened immigration rules and calls by far-right politician Geert Wilders to "close the gates".

- 'Asylum shopping' -

In the 1990s, the number of asylum-seekers to the Netherlands regularly exceeded 40,000 every year -- particularly after the 1990s Balkans wars.

However, between 2002 and 2013 the annual number never went above around 20,000.

But the dragging conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere have changed the situation.

Asylum applications rocketed by 159 percent in the second quarter of 2015 in the Netherlands, higher than anywhere else in the EU, according to the continent's Eurostat database.

Even though the actual number of 6,270 applications remained low compared to Hungary (32,675) and Germany (80,935), it has been enough to sound a wake-up call across the country.

Military barracks, sports halls and unused prisons have been commandeered to house thousands of beds. And the migrant numbers are climbing: last month 7,000 asylum applications were recorded.

This month, 3,100 applications were received in just one week.

Faced with the influx, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called on EU countries to agree to binding quotas for the numbers of refugees they would take in.

He said he wanted to put an end to "asylum shopping" whereby migrants travel to richer western European countries only in order to benefit from better welfare systems there.

Firebrand anti-Islam politician Wilders is fighting the intake, saying some migrants may have radicalised Muslims hidden among them.

"The Netherlands does not want Islamisation in the country. Soon we'll be Hollandistan," the platinum-haired Wilders told lawmakers last week.

Back in Nijmegen however, Frits van Loosen, 57, said he'll continue to walk the woods past the camp, even if it was packed with migrants.

"It makes no sense worrying about the future," he answered with a shrug when asked about the coming of the migrants.

"There's no evidence for now that they'll be a nuisance," he added.