Dutch Pull Back Welcome Mat
A remarkably multiethnic nation is enacting some of Europe’s toughest immigration restrictions.
Ken Dilanian, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30
AMSTERDAM — If there is a more striking picture of ethnic diversity in Europe than the Albert Cuyp Market in this city’s trendy Pijp neighborhood, it’s not by much.
Stroll down the mile-long stretch of stalls on a sunny afternoon and you’ll see turbaned Sikhs selling jeans to Moroccan boys, Turkish women in head scarves buying snacks from Surinamese vendors, and Ghanaians walking into Indonesian restaurants. It seems as if every racial and ethnic group on the planet is represented here, all mingling unself-consciously with the native Dutch.
This colorful scene tells the story of the Netherlands over the last three decades: A nation of tolerant traders throwing open its doors to immigrants and asylum-seekers, creating one of Europe’s most multicultural societies.
But what the Albert Cuyp Market’s surface harmony doesn’t reveal are the deep fault lines that have developed in the Netherlands as a result of these open-door policies, and the seismic political shift that has followed.
Worried about a loss of national identity, alienated by Islamic extremism, and frustrated by a sense that the newcomers are taking advantage of Holland’s cradle-to-grave social-welfare system, the Dutch are enacting some of the toughest immigration restrictions in Europe.
The new barriers include a rule that prospective residents pass a Dutch language and culture test in their native countries as a condition for admission, the European Union’s first such requirement for residency, as opposed to citizenship. The government also has cracked down on illegal-alien employment and increased residency-permit fees by as much as 600 percent.
In addition, the center-right government is moving forward with a plan to expel about 26,000 people who had been allowed to stay for years after their asylum applications were rejected. The plan could include placing people in detention centers; some of those marked for expulsion have been living here as long as five years.
Nearly every European country has sought to restrict certain types of immigration, but the Netherlands’ reversal has been the most dramatic. After years of newcomers’ being allowed, 19 percent of the Netherlands’ 16.2 million people have foreign backgrounds going back one or two generations, representing more than 180 nationalities.
The concentrations are much higher in the largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where people of foreign descent — including large communities of Muslim Turks and Moroccans — are expected to become majorities within a decade.
Among the questions raised by the Netherlands’ second thoughts is whether Europe will be able to attract and accommodate the level of immigration that some experts believe is necessary to stabilize pension systems threatened by declining birthrates.
While the idea of forced expulsions has been widely criticized, many immigrants themselves support reductions in the flow of newcomers, because nearly everyone agrees that the country has become segregated and polarized.
“We do have an integration problem, especially in big cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam,” said Trees Wijn-Maatman, a senior policy specialist at the Dutch Refugee Council, which opposes blanket expulsions of asylum seekers. “People don’t talk each other’s language anymore. Many people coming from Turkey and Morocco are in a situation where they have no job, they have no education, and they’re falling behind.”
That’s indisputable, according to human-development studies. Immigrants, particularly those from Turkey and Morocco, are disproportionately represented on the prison, unemployment and disability rolls. Many live in segregated housing projects where almost no Dutch is spoken.
The disagreement comes over how to respond.
Moroccans, who started coming as guest workers in the 1970s, say they have been stigmatized for years and that that has worsened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. They argue that the majority needs to reexamine its attitudes.
“If somebody commits a felony and it’s a Dutch guy, the media says a guy killed somebody,” said Nadia Mouaddab, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Foundation for Moroccans and Tunisians. “But if it’s a Moroccan who does it, it becomes this big deal.
“They stress the nationality of a person in a sensational way. Even I myself, when I see a group of Moroccan boys, I kind of feel nervous because of what I have read in the newspapers.”
But a growing chorus of critics argues that immigrant communities are not working hard enough to integrate. They point out, for example, that a majority of Turks and Moroccans marry partners not only from their own ethnic groups, but from their native countries. That has worked against assimilation, and has allowed tens of thousands of would-be spouses to gain legal entry, whether or not they spoke Dutch.
These critics add that the Dutch combination of an open door and a generous social-welfare system is an invitation to freeload. Stefan Blok, a spokesman on immigration for the VVD, a conservative party that is part of the nation’s governing coalition, noted that when immigrants win legal residency in the Netherlands, they get access to free education, free health care, and generous disability insurance. At the moment, one of every five workers in the country is receiving disability payments.
“In the U.S., you say, ‘You’re welcome, but you’re on your own,’ “ he said. “Here we say, ‘You’re welcome, and we’ll pay for you.’ “
For years, talk about immigrant problems was outside the bounds of polite discussion. The man said to have changed that was Pim Fortuyn, a 54-year-old, openly gay former sociology professor who launched a political movement opposing Dutch immigration policies, only to be assassinated in 2002 by an animal-rights activist as he was campaigning for prime minister.
“Christianity and Judaism have gone through the process of enlightenment, making them creative and constructive elements in society,” Fortuyn said in a typical pronouncement. “That didn’t happen in Islam.”
Fortuyn’s movement has faded somewhat, but since Sept. 11, like-minded critics have wondered whether large numbers of Muslim immigrants can be compatible with Dutch traditions of tolerance in a country where marijuana, prostitution and same-sex marriage are legal.
Most people, Muslims included, were outraged last month when news reports disclosed that an Amsterdam mosque was selling a book titled The Way of the Muslim that argued for killing homosexuals by throwing them off buildings.
The disclosure led a Muslim lawmaker born in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to call for the mosque’s closure. But it was yet another blow to Islam’s image here.
Even if immigration slows to a crawl, existing populations aren’t going anywhere, and the Netherlands will remain host to one of the largest percentages of non-Western residents in Europe.
Comparative figures are nearly impossible to come by, but David Coleman, a demography professor at Oxford University, says the Netherlands’ foreign-born population ranks with, and may exceed, those of Europe’s most ethnically diverse countries: Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
And despite its problems, many immigrants argue that the Netherlands is a more hospitable place for nonwhites than any of those other nations.
“It’s not like France or something,” said Deepinder Singh, 24, who was born in India and whose family runs a clothing store in the Albert Cuyp Market. “You know, the Dutch are very nice.”