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.

Without a full grasp of the Dutch language, many children in these non-Western ethnic communities have less of a chance in the Dutch education system, which often determines the highest level of education one can achieve from an early age. Around the age of 12, most Dutch students take an aptitude assessment known as the Cito Test, which, along with the recommendation of their 8th grade teacher, generally determines the level of higher education they will go on to receive. Dutch high schools are divided into three tracks: pre-vocational/vocational (also known as VMBO/MBO), general middle school (HAVO), and pre-university studies (VWO). Students who complete the HAVO or VWO level are eligible (and often expected) to attend university.

As of 2010, almost 50 percent of native Dutch high school students were on the HAVO or VWO track. And while the number of Turkish and Moroccan students in those programs has been steadily increasing since 2000, the percentage for 2010 still remains less than 25 percent. The report argues this begins in elementary school. "When they leave primary school, pupils with a non-western foreign background lag behind their native Dutch peers in terms of performance," it found. "Moreover, non- western pupils who do not speak Dutch at home also score much lower on the Cito final primary school test than those who do."

The poverty of employment opportunities for immigrants is also a major factor. Data from Statsitics Netherlands also show that the Moroccan community has consistently had the highest rate of unemployment among non-Western groups, with the rate for 2010 at just under 15 percent. Women in the Turkish and Moroccan communities are far more likely to be unemployed. Employees with a non-western foreign background are more likely to lose their jobs first in an economic recession. They are also more frequently employed through temp agencies and therefore less likely to have a permanent employment contract. Approximately 36 percent of native Dutch citizens had a permanent employment contract in 2010, compared with 35 percent for Surinamese, 30 percent for Antilleans, and 24 percent for both Turks and Moroccans. And though all workers tend to earn more as they age, the income of Turks and Moroccans has increased the most slowly. In 2009, the average household income for a Turkish or Moroccan family hovered just above 16,000 euros; for Antilleans, 17,000; for Surinamese, 19,300; for native Dutch, 24,200.

The Legacy of Guest Workers

Following World War II, post-war reconstruction efforts in the Netherlands drove vast labor shortages, especially in sectors that required unskilled or low-skilled workers. The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, employer's organizations, and trade unions set up recruitment agreements with a number of countries -- among others, Turkey in 1964 and Morocco in 1969 -- to bring in the needed labor. The 1973 oil crisis and subsequent recession ended both the reconstruction boon and recruitment drives. But as the International Migration, Integration, and Social Cohesion research network documented, the country retained its immigrations:

Unlike in France and Germany, measures to force migrant workers to return home were never implemented in the Netherlands. The government proposal to introduce a return bonus for those who would return voluntarily was broadly rejected. And while from 1973 onwards, the Netherlands proclaimed itself closed to labour migration, the declaration was more a matter of rhetoric than factual policy.

The Netherlands also failed to ever fully address the legal status or social integration of these guest workers. It was simply assumed that immigrants from former Dutch colonies (namely Suriname and the Antilles) would have no problem assimilating to the motherland, and that those from Turkey and Morocco would return to their families in their home countries. But the opposite happened. Rather than leaving, guest workers had their families join them. In the 1970s, Christian political parties turned family integration into what they called a moral issue. It was not until 1983 that the government finally accepted the permanency of these immigrant communities and began to seriously construct what would become today's integration policies.

Despite the anti-immigrant ravings of Geert Wilders and his party, Dutch immigration policy toward Moroccan and Turkish residents is likely to focus on education and employment. Improving Dutch language facility is the obvious first step. Immigrant communities from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles have greatly profited from their familiarity and history with the language. This lingua-franca head start seems to have also made it easier for the Surinamese and Antilleans to assimilate to their new surroundings. If Moroccans and Turks are to successfully integrate, as the Dutch political system clearly expects them to, speaking Dutch will have to precede becoming Dutch.