Netherlands: anti-immigration and the road to intolerance

December 2, 2003 — Comment

Written by Robin van Stokrom

Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner has this week advocated the idea of a two-tier justice system in which foreigners who commit crime would be sentenced differently from Dutch nationals. How has a country which once had a reputation for tolerance descended to such illiberalism?

During the second half of 2004, the Dutch government will hold the EU presidency. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed the hope ‘that the Dutch government will seize this opportunity not only to improve its own asylum policy, but also to extend its humanitarian tradition to the broader European community.’ But, this hope is unlikely to be fulfilled. For, in recent years, the Netherlands has forfeited its image as an open society which welcomes refugees. Immigration policies have become very strict and the attitude towards foreigners generally hostile. Racist tendencies are emerging as a fear of foreigners is exploited in order to create a sense of Dutch national identity.

Whereas the immigration debate in southern Europe is focused on the clandestine entry of people who seek illegal work, in the Netherlands as in other northern European countries, the debate has focused on asylum seekers. During the 1990s, EU-member states made it more difficult for refugees to enter and to receive residence rights on political or humanitarian grounds. European countries are now engaged in a competition as to who can accept the lowest number of refugees – and the Dutch are winning. As HRW concluded in April 2003: ‘over the past several years, the Netherlands has left behind its traditionally protective stance toward asylum seekers to take up a restrictive approach that stands out among Western European countries.’

In fact, in 2001, only 219 asylum seekers were granted permanent residence in the Netherlands: the lowest figure of all European states. (In 1996, around 9,000 asylum seekers were granted refugee status.) Even in Italy, where the extreme-right is in power, the number of asylum seekers that received a residence permit in 2001 is higher than the Dutch figure: 15.9 per cent of applicants in Italy were successful as compared with 0.6 per cent in the Netherlands.

Influence on welfare groups

The strictness of current policies are even influencing refugee NGOs. In Friesland (a region in the North with its own distinct culture and language, and a strong socialist tradition) the Frisian branch of the refugee welfare NGO Vluchtelingenwerk, which campaigns for better refugee policies, recently suggested to Frisians that they should be less friendly to refugees. Instead of trying to influence the government’s harsh policies, it told Frisians that their welcoming attitude to refugees was problematic in the light of the strict current policies of the government. For it gave refugees the impression that they were welcome in our country, which ran contrary to fact.

There are also refugee NGOs engaged in sending asylum seekers back to their countries of origin. One is Maatwerk bij Terugkeer, an organisation set up by the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development and the Central Mission Commissariat. Maatwerk, a charity, co-operates with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that manages the REAN-project, Return and Emigration of Aliens from the Netherlands. IOM co-ordinates the ‘voluntary’ return of refugees in Europe. But the reality is that if an asylum seeker refuses to return voluntarily, he or she runs the risk of being deported, forcibly.

Human rights violations

In April 2003, HRW, after three months research, concluded that the Dutch government had, ‘breached the Netherlands’ refugee and human rights obligations’. In its report, The Triumph of Efficiency Over Protection in Dutch Asylum Policy, it identified three main areas in which the Dutch state violated international human rights legislation: ‘inappropriate treatment of migrant children’,’restrictions on asylum seekers’ rights to basic material support, such as food and housing’ and the 48-hour policy, the so-called AC-procedure. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), which is responsible for the admittance of foreigners, takes 48 working hours to decide if someone should be returned. ‘The AC procedure’, writes HRW, ‘is regularly used to process and reject some sixty per cent of asylum applications, including those lodged by people fleeing countries torn by war, ethnic strife, and grave human rights abuse.’ Above all, independent judicial review of this process is not taken seriously.

The government detains asylum seekers in a closed detention-centre, if a negative decision is made after the 48 working hours, and in an open centre after a positive decision. Deportations take place as soon as it is known where the person comes from. There have been examples of any asylum seekers from Africa being simply sent to Senegal, where many are then jailed. If the IND, however, makes a positive decision after the 48 hours, the refugee must wait for years for the next decision as to whether permanent residence will be granted.

Asylum and integration

Restrictions on asylum rights reflect broader tendencies in the Netherlands. It is clearly a sign of the times when opinion-formers within the second largest party, the PvdA (Labour Party), call for a ban on child benefits for ‘foreigner’ families if they bear more than one child. Such proposals aren’t coincidental. Tougher laws on asylum go hand-in-hand with a broad and nationalist tendency to ‘white-out’ foreigners and recreate a national identity. Within this new policy outlook learning to speak Dutch is not a right but a duty with penalties for failure. An ‘integration course’ costs a ‘foreigner’ 6,000 euros (half a years pay on the minimum wage).

Increasingly, a distinctive ‘other’ culture is presented as a threat to social cohesion. This view is not restricted to the extreme-right. On the contrary, demands for ‘integration’ of any foreigner go hand-in-hand with demands for a quota or even a ban on further immigration. Such demands now come from all major parties. As the former parliamentary leader of the PvdA, Jacques Wallage, told the Parliamentary Commission on Integration in October 2003, whereas before, he might have been afraid of being called intolerant, now notions such as ‘full is full’ (the country is full) have become commonplace.

The government itself can hardly be more explicit. The ‘multicultural’ society, where different cultures co-exist under the same set of formal rules, is believed to have failed. ‘Integration’ of foreign cultures, or as some say ‘assimilation’ into the Dutch way of life is seen as the way to deal with feelings of insecurity within the ‘host population’. In the yearly presentation of the budget, in a ceremony where the Queen as head of state announces plans, a distinctive ‘other’ culture was discussed as a threat to social cohesion. While at the same time, massive social and welfare cuts were presented as offering people more responsibility over their own lives.

The politics of immigration

Issues of immigration and integration have traditionally been separated, but now there is even a special department of Immigration and Integration, operating a new ministry within the Justice Department. The long tradition of separating the two issues was mainly because of the plurality within Dutch society itself. The country has had -as most other countries- a long tradition of different cultures, ranging from Catholics and fundamentalist Christians to socialists and liberals. These groups used to have their own magazines, radio and TV stations, sports clubs and so on. But now because the differences between such groups are less clear and the groups have become much less segregated, a new line of demarcation is being made between the Dutch and foreigners. It is essentially Islam which is now being discussed by both politicians and sections of the media as a threat to ‘Dutch values’.

Tougher immigration laws for asylum seekers have been implemented since the 1980s, under former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, currently the head of the UNHCR. More and more it has become a political issue – evolving into a new consensus on strict policies, which now embraces many parties from right and left. Today, with the current right-wing government, led by conservative Christian-democrat Jan-Peter Balkenende, laws become yet more repressive and get passed without much opposition.

It is doubtful whether current policies would have been any different if the populist anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn were in power. (He was shot dead just days before the May 2002 elections.) Some of his ideas on immigration were actually less strict than current policies.

Frits Bolkestein, currently European Commissioner of internal markets, began in 1994 to highlight in his right-wing liberal party Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD), the issue of immigration. He was one of the first to abuse the issue of ‘integration’ for advocating stricter asylum policies. In parliament he attacked his own government, a coalition of the PvdA ,the VVD and social-liberal Democrats 66 (1994-1998). The following government (1998-2002), of the same coalition, brought in many new laws to restrict entry and residence. One of the most infamous pieces of legislation is the Koppelingswet, the ‘Linking Law’ which denies ‘refused’ asylum seekers and any illegal resident basic rights to housing, education and health care. It relates also to asylum seekers who are still appealing against an IND decision.

The effect of the media

The mass media plays a crucial role in public debate. But most news outlets do not counter the false claims of the Dutch government, do not carry out investigations into the situation of refugees and do not open up a public debate based on the facts of immigration. For the majority of the electorate who supported Pim Fortuyn, the issue which motivated them was migration/integration. As the general attitude in Dutch society against foreigners and Muslims, in particular, has hardened, politicians eagerly feed this feeling, afraid that being perceived as soft on the issue will lose them votes.

Because of the Fortuyn effect, the media landscape changed dramatically. As veteran journalist John Jansen van Galen put it in the Amsterdam based newspaper De Parool in November 2003: ‘It was a politician, Pim Fortuyn, who changed the general tack. But, ever since, all the media advocates the new ideology: against Islam and the Antilleans, against privacy and state-benefits and against tolerance. Is resistance still possible against the all-embracing ideology of zero tolerance.’

Stricter asylum polices

The government is thinking up yet new ways to make the regime even more strict, especially for ‘official’ asylum seekers. Within the EU, the Dutch government is working on ways to keep them out of the Union in the first place. During the summer 2003 Thessaloniki summit of EU states, the Dutch backed a British plan to create processing centres outside the borders of the EU, from which refugees would be selected and then distributed among the European states. This plan was defeated because of strong opposition from, among others, Germany. But still the Dutch government want to take the idea forward with a ‘coalition of willing’ partners within the EU.

Detention centres outside the European borders would clearly not stop the main problems. ‘The more we close Europe, the more attractive it will be for criminals to traffic refugees for big money through the holes of the fences. Because external borders of Europe cannot possibly be absolute,’ argues Jeroen Doomerik, a scientist at the University of Amsterdam. And other critics maintain that independent scrutiny of asylum procedures will become even harder.

Public opposition

Laws and practices are currently so tough that some recent polls show a large proportion of the population actually wants less stringency. There is concern as to what should happen to asylum seekers that have been in the country for a long time without being granted asylum or who might be awaiting a court decision. Local people who have befriended refugees are beginning to protest. Though against the law, some churches and even some local authorities offer shelter and other means of subsistence to the destitute.

The government has had to tolerate such acts of ‘civil disobedience’, but recently came up with a policy to legalise around 2,000 asylum seekers who had been in the country for more than five years and who are still waiting for a first decision by the IND. Although the problem of the refugees who are appealing against the first decision of the IND (of whom many have been in the country for over five years) is not solved, this legalisation gives the government a pretext for then actively pursuing local authorities which are resisting central government edicts.

Refugee support organisations, churches and the organisation for local governments are strongly opposed to the limited number of asylum seekers who have been granted residence. They argue that those who have been in the Netherlands for over three or five years should get a permanent residence permit. These demands are widely supported by Dutch citizens. (Even Pim Fortuyn said he wanted to offer permanent residence permits to about 10,000 people who had been in the country for five years, if they spoke Dutch and did not have a criminal record.)

The way forward?

There are, however, alternative ideas that could be explored in the future as well. One of those calling for a new approach is Jeroen Doomernik. He argues for a layered system of social rights and starts from the proposition that anyone should be able to work in the EU.

For, he states, most people do not stay in the Netherlands longer than necessary, simply because they come to earn enough money so as to create better lives back home. But if people do stay, work and pay taxes, they should obtain rights to welfare benefits after several years, gaining more rights as they work more years. It basically resembles a multi-layered system of access to social and political rights. This proposal would solve the issue of migration, as anyone would have the universal right to emigrate. ‘The likely alternative’, says Doomernik in The myth of restrictive immigration policy, a report for the Dutch government, ‘is to be found in a moral liberal immigration regime, which can do justice to growing mobility in the present-day world and leaves behind the assumption that immigration is an aberration merely requiring stricter rules for it to go away.’

Another idea, which has been put forward recently, is more repressive and more likely to gain a foothold in public debate. It is in line with general economic and business-interests, but is brought forward by the progressive institution the Third Chamber, formed by a group of Dutch citizens selected by the environmental and solidarity NGO NCDO. The Third Chamber argues for a green-card system to import labour as needed – for example cheap IT workers from India and other sector-workers from the South. The group even argues for special immigrant import-zones within the EU, where workers will have fewer rights. According to the Third Chamber, it is a perfect means for Europe to profit from cheap labour around the world. They point to the special export-zones in the Third World as ‘engines of growth’ (ignoring the fact that these zones have done little for development and much for the enriching and empowering of multinational corporations).

The politics of integration

Until now, these alternatives gained little attention but they are likely to enter the public debate when the current non-discussion on integration ends. The populist focus of debate is about perceived differences between so-called Dutch and Islamic values. A more serious debate concerns connecting the perceived failure of integration with the socio-economic positions of immigrants. Although there are many second- and third-generation ‘immigrants’ who have higher education and have well-paid jobs, there is still a striking correlation between those in poverty and those of ‘non-Dutch origin’. But because young people, Moroccan and Antillean youth specifically, are associated with crime and the feelings of insecurity within the general population, the debate is more about culture and values than about social structure.

This comes out in the areas of housing and schooling. Instead of focussing on the eradication of poverty in general, the main thrust is on mixing rich and poor in the same neighbourhoods, so to avoid ghettos of poor ‘foreigners’. In addition, a parliamentary majority is in favour of extra control over Islamic schools. (In the Netherlands, all religious groups have the right to form their own schools and still receive subsidies.) The scrutiny of Islamic schools should be tougher and ‘liberal-democratic’ values should be taught in these schools, say several parties from both left and right. Yet a school-inspection organisation has concluded that there is hardly anything wrong with Islamic schools. And if there is one type of school where ‘liberal-democratic’ values are not taught, then it must be the old-Dutch ‘Christian fundamentalist’ schools.

For the ‘immigrants’ themselves, many questions remain unanswered. When is an immigrant ‘integrated’? How long does he or she need to live in the country? One immigrant, who lives in Rotterdam, made this point to the Parliamentary Commission on Integration in the three minutes allotted to speakers from the floor: ‘I have one important problem: I do not know if I am integrated yet. Please, Commission Integration, stop me from my suffering. Tell me, if I have a job, am I integrated? If I wear a beard, am I integrated? Going to school, is that enough? Could you please clarify that for me? If I do not get an answer, I will get ill and end up on Occupational Disability Insurance. So tell me: Am I integrated yet?’. After a weighty silence in the overheated community centre in the poor Rotterdam neighbourhood, the President of the Commission answered curtly: ‘We have not come here to give answers. Next please.’

Related links

Report from Expatica on Piet Hein Donner’s proposal to sentence foreigners differently from Dutch nationals

Report from De Telegraaf on local NGOs in Friesland.

IOM information on the REAN project.

Discussion of Jeroen Doomernik’s proposals on Autonoom Centrum.

Brief summary of The myth of restrictive immigration policy by Jeroen Doomernik.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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