By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Year-long talks between the Dutch government and the country's cities over whether to provide food and shelter for rejected asylum-seekers broke down on Monday, likely delaying a resolution until after national elections in March.
The dispute pits the wish of conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte and most Dutch voters to promptly deport rejected migrants without giving them aid, against cities and a left-leaning minority who say that for legal, practical and ethical grounds they cannot simply leave such people on the street, perhaps to die, as the deportation process grinds into gear.
A compromise on what is known as the "bed, bath and bread" debate had been in sight, with the government prepared to allow a handful of shelters in major cities to feed and house migrants for several weeks, in exchange for a promise to withhold any further help.
Not all cities could agree to the trade-off.
Deputy Justice Minister Kees Dijkhoff said he would now cut all funding to city shelters and look into how to strip municipalities of the legal right to determine their own shelter policies. "That's a shame because we came so far" toward reaching agreement, Dijkhoff told a news conference.
The Union of Dutch Municipalities (VNG) said it was disappointed with the central government's stance. "Cities are being confronted with the consequences of (the government's) failing deportation policy," it said.
"Rejected asylum seekers who have been traumatized or have psychological problems are wandering around on the streets. This is a problem for public order and it's a humanitarian problem."
Asylum-seekers who would have been covered by the deal are those that have exhausted all legal appeals but still refuse to leave. In practice it has proved difficult to locate, detain and keep them locked up before carrying out a deportation, especially in cases where their country of origin may be in dispute or where they may face reprisals upon return.
Rutte's conservative VVD party is trailing the far-right party of populist Geert Wilders in most polls, with Wilders, like U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration.
In the 2012 election, Rutte steered his party hard to the right in order to siphon off Wilders' supporters.
The Labour Party, the junior member of Rutte's center-right coalition, had favored a compromise on asylum seekers, noting that human rights groups and the United Nations have already criticized Dutch immigration policies as among the most restrictive in Europe.
The Netherlands was once renowned for its multicultural tolerance, but public debate over the past decade has centered on resentment over Muslim immigrants and their perceived failure to integrate in Dutch society.
Wilders is now on trial on charges of inciting hatred against Moroccans for encouraging his supporters at a rally to chant that they wanted "fewer!" of them in the country.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Mark Heinrich)