The Politics of Integration: Can the Netherlands Get Immigration Right?

The Dutch political system, though increasingly hostile toward immigrants, may have finally found a way to embrace its large migrant communities -- and to help them assimilate


A muslim woman casts her vote at a polling station in an immigrant quarter of Rotterdam. Guido Benschop/Reuters

AMERSFOORT, Netherlands -- Dutch Politics are increasingly dominated by the rise of Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV), an anti-Islam, anti-immigration nationalist party whose power has increased considerably since gaining 15 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives last June. With the Arab Spring exodus and the changing immigration policies throughout Europe, the tolerance of some Dutch voters has ebbed noticeably. But the real nature of anti-immigration sentiment in the Netherlands, as a recent report shows, is far more complicated.

Most of the discussion on Dutch immigration politics focuses not on asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa or from Arab states embroiled in political turmoil, but on existing Moroccan and Turkish immigrant communities. As of the beginning of 2010, first and second-generation immigrants from those two countries composed about 44% of the 1.8 million people who make up what the Netherlands classifies as its "non-western foreign" population. The political success of Wilders' and the PVV's anti-immigration diatribes -- the group has deployed, to success, such slogans as "Henk and Ingrid are paying for Ali and Fatima" -- hinges on the supposed failure of these communities to integrate. But is that really the case? And what do the ongoing changes in Arab politics and in European immigration policies mean for the growing Dutch anti-immigration movement?

The Politics of Integration

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing shift in European state policies regarding immigrants and ethnic minorities -- a shift away from the salad bowl model of multiculturalism and towards the melting-pot model of assimilation. As Hans Vermeulen and Rinus Penninx wrote in their book Immigrant Integration: The Dutch Case, 1994 brought a shift in Dutch immigration policy with the publication of the Contourennota Integratiebeleid Etnische Minderheden (Ethnic Minorities Integration Policy Outline), a landmark report by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. This policy document declared that immigration would henceforth be built around "integration," the goal of which was to "improve the socio-economic position of disadvantaged ethnic minorities," with an emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between the state and its ward. They wrote:

Since the publication of the Contourennota (1994) a link has been made between integration and citizenship. Full and 'active' citizenship has become the goal of integration policy. This implies rights and duties on both sides. As the title of a new government report suggests, the government is obligated to offer opportunities and immigrants and their children are obligated to grasp them.

This sense of shared responsibility in integration simultaneously carries an underlying culpability -- the sense that blame can be placed on one side or the other when integration fails miserably. When immigrant communities didn't "integrate" as expected, it raised difficult questions. Are the Dutch national and local governments doing enough to foster integration in language, education, and employment? Are immigrant communities taking advantage of the opportunities provided? Are there reforms that need to be made, or are the Dutch just expecting too much too soon?

With questions such as these likely in mind, Statistics Netherlands, a government department of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, publishes the Annual Report on Integration, which "focuses on the traditionally four largest non-western groups in the Netherlands: Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese and Antilleans" and examines the challenges these communities face in achieving cultural integration. What the 2010 report reveals could help explain why Dutch immigration politics are so tricky.

Education and Employment

Education is a key issue in the report, and it is heavily influenced by the home environment. While high concentrations of a single ethnic group within one neighborhood are rare, the Integration Report found that 25 percent of Turks and 25 percent of Moroccans live in an area where more than 50 percent of their neighbors have a non-western foreign background. Turkish and Moroccan children are less likely than those from Suriname or the Antilles to speak Dutch at home, in part because the latter two were former Dutch colonies or settlements.

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Monica Raymunt is a writer currently residing in Washington, DC.

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