E.g., 06/30/2023
E.g., 06/30/2023
With Strict Policies in Place, Dutch Discourse on Integration Becomes More Inclusive

With Strict Policies in Place, Dutch Discourse on Integration Becomes More Inclusive

Like many countries, the Netherlands is struggling with its identity as an increasingly diverse state. The attempt to define a common vision, especially with the threat of terrorism looming large, has been played out in a starkly politicized debate on immigration and integration.

Arguably, integration has been the higher priority considering the persistent gap in educational and economic attainment between immigrants and the native born.

The country's integration policies, which date back to the 1980s, were initially multicultural in their approach: immigrants should be fully involved in society yet their differences should be accepted.

Integration did not become a major political issue until the May 2002 elections. Politician Pim Fortuyn's nascent party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), called for halting new immigration while integrating existing immigrants more effectively.

Although Fortuyn was killed before the elections, LPF won 17.9 percent of the vote and was offered the newly created post of minister for integration and immigration. By 2003, the word "multicultural," increasingly criticized as "soft," had all but disappeared from policymakers' plans, replaced with an approach that emphasized integrating into and understanding Dutch society.

Concern over integration reached a new level of urgency in November 2004, after a young, Muslim Dutchman of Moroccan descent killed Theo van Gogh for his role in making Submission I, a short film about the abuse of Muslim women (for more on the Van Gogh murder see the Netherlands country profile). Since then, the Dutch government has toughened its integration policies for prospective immigrants as well as for existing immigrants and their children, whose combined population totaled 3.15 million in 2006, or 19 percent of the country's 16.3 million people, according to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics.

This article will look at integration policies and the context in which they were developed in recent years — from Rita Verdonk's appointment as minister of immigration and integration in 2003 through the integration policy plans of the new government, which took office on February 22, 2007.

Policy Changes since 2003

After the January 2003 elections — the 2002 coalition government quickly collapsed due to infighting in the LPF — a new coalition government decided to keep the post of minister of integration and immigration. Rita Verdonk, a member of the Liberal party (VVD) that was part of the new coalition, took up the position with the promise to rigorously enforce policies in both areas. Extensive efforts were made to reduce the backlog on asylum claims and, more controversially, to enforce repatriation requirements for rejected asylum seekers.

In addition, a sweeping reform of the integration-related requirements for permanent settlement and citizenship was announced, as well as an overhaul of the system established to provide Dutch language and social orientation courses. Finally, the new approach to integration focused on shared citizenship and personal responsibility for the integration process.

The political and policy responses were multifaceted:

  • Political opposition to integration reform diminished, shifting virtually all political party agendas on integration to the right. General agreement on mandatory Dutch language testing and social orientation for newcomers and resident minorities, unthinkable several years before, became part of virtually every political party platform.
  • The discussion on integration and diversity became increasingly associated with terrorism and security following van Gogh's murder. The more attention given fundamentalist movements in Europe, particularly in the wake of the London and Madrid bombings, the more intimately the public linked debates on integration/diversity and security.
  • Both government and civil society recognized a pressing need to foster social cohesion by increasing knowledge of Dutch society and history, acknowledging the contributions of diverse groups to this history, and to cultivate a sense of participatory citizenship.

This confluence of factors produced the following initiatives:

Civic Integration Examination Abroad

As of March 15, 2006, all prospective permanent migrants from countries for which the Netherlands requires an authorization for temporary entry (machtiging voor voorlopig verblijf or MVV), must take a Dutch-language and social-orientation examination as a prerequisite for entry. Individuals can take the exam, which consists of 20 language-related exercises and 30 questions on social orientation in the Netherlands, by telephone at the nearest Dutch embassy (generally, but not always, in their country of origin).

The language exercises include repeating sentences, indicating opposites, and answering short questions. The social orientation section is based on the controversial video Coming to the Netherlands, which tries to prepare potential migrants for things they will see in the Netherlands, including nudity and homosexuality, and is available in a censored version for countries in which these scenes are legally prohibited.

All questions and answers on social orientation are provided and can be memorized prior to the test. Prospective migrants must purchase examination booklets and the film.

Civic Integration in the Netherlands

The most recent Civic Integration Act came into force on January 1, 2007. Under this act, participation and successful completion of an introductory program is required for both new migrants, "oudkomers" (noncitizen resident minorities), and spiritual leaders.

Permanent resident status for new migrants is dependent on successful completion of the integration program, as measured by the integration exam. This exam consists of both practice-oriented and theoretical sections and must be completed within three-and-a-half years if the applicant has successfully completed the integration exam in the country of origin, and five years after arrival for oudkomers, asylum seekers, and those not required to take the exam in the country of origin.

The practice-oriented section was developed in order to encourage active participation in, and interaction with, wider Dutch society, e.g., through an internship or volunteer work. The theoretical sections test language skills and knowledge of Dutch society.

The candidate must cover the costs of lessons and of the exam, although credit facilities can be extended to some applicants. Municipalities offer courses for select groups (e.g., refugees, specific groups of welfare recipients, spiritual advisors, and welfare-dependant elderly).

Spiritual leaders, whose visas are limited to three years, are the only group of nonpermanent migrants required to take an integration course. EU citizens, on the other hand, are exempt from integration requirements

Finally, the integration exam officially replaced the naturalization test for non-EU citizens on January 1, 2007. Civic integration is now a prerequisite for naturalization, and successful completion of the integration exam serves as a basic requirement for citizenship.

Naturalization Ceremony

Since October 1, 2006, foreigners who have successfully completed the integration examination and fulfilled naturalization requirements must take part in a naturalization ceremony.

The government established the naturalization ceremony to bestow a sense of pride and celebration in the acquisition of Dutch citizenship. The ceremony is also intended as a moment to pause and consider the rights and duties of a citizen, and to personalize the bond between the citizen and local government.

Many expected naturalization rates to plummet after the introduction of the new exam, and it is too soon to comment on the long-term effects (positive or negative) of the new regulations. Naturalization rates in 2006 were higher than those in 2005, most likely reflecting a rush to naturalize before the October 2006 policy came into effect. However, since the introduction of the ceremony, naturalization requests have remained fairly constant at an average of 2,200 per month.

Municipalities must hold at least one naturalization ceremony annually (on August 24, National Naturalization Day) and are encouraged to give these ceremonies a local flavor, so that new citizens feel they are joining a community of friends and feel at home in their municipality. An additional oath of loyalty is likely to be required for naturalization after 2008.

Broad Initiative for Social Cohesion

In the immediate aftermath of the murder of Theo van Gogh, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Minister Verdonk gathered leaders from the business community, as well as political, religious, and social organizations, for a roundtable discussion on the involvement of minority groups, particularly youth, in Dutch society.

The initiative was established in response to fears of (further) radicalization due in part to isolation and lack of participation but also to discrimination and lack of access to meaningful contacts with Dutch society and on the job market.

These fears focused primarily on young Dutch men of Moroccan descent, who are overrepresented (in relation to their percentage of the population) in criminal activity, and on the Dutch-Moroccan community, which is more divided and less organized than the Dutch-Turkish community.

Roundtable participants were asked to make concrete commitments that were directed at all youth from an ethnic minority background. Included among these initiatives were, for example, internship positions for ethnic minority youth, who are often the victims of discriminatory hiring practices.

A second gathering highlighted popular community initiatives dedicated to intergroup understanding. Since then, the country has seen an increase in grassroots activism on diversity issues and the establishment of the "16 million people" initiative (i.e., the total population of the Netherlands), through which small-scale initiatives can be shared across the nation.

In addition, myriad social organizations have stepped up their activities, particularly those directed at young people and that encourage further education, employment, and leadership/involvement in wider Dutch society.

Building on these initial efforts, both government and civil society focused on concepts of "citizenship" and "bonding," with initiatives to encourage interaction between different sectors of the populations, as well as to stimulate local and individual initiatives for social change.

Prevention of Radicalization

The backdrop for the Broad Initiative for Social Cohesion was fear of radicalization among Muslim youth in the Netherlands. While the number of actual Islamic extremists is small (approximately 4,000 according to the Dutch Intelligence Service (AIVD)), its support base is perceived to be large, fueled in part by the poor socioeconomic standing of many minority groups, discrimination, and their outsider status in mainstream Dutch society.

Also important is the sense that most members of Dutch society do not understand the tenets of Islam and that many of the young radicalizing Muslims adhere to an "amalgam" brand of Islam, gleaned from fundamentalist websites and often only tangentially related to the fundamental pillars of the religion.

The government, in a cross-ministerial initiative, responded by establishing an Action Plan for the Prevention of Radicalization. This plan is linked to efforts to prevent terrorism but focuses on increasing the resilience of youth to radical influences. Efforts in this area focus primarily on increased attention to citizenship, active involvement in the community, and education (of the general public and of youth susceptible to radicalization) about Islam.

In addition, efforts to combat discrimination have been strengthened, particularly in the area of hiring and internships. Two goals of this comprehensive program are to encourage religion as a force for positive change and to promote constructive engagement within secular Dutch society, if citizens choose religious affiliation.

Context for the November 2006 Elections

Verdonk and her policies sparked broad, and often contentious, political debate in the Netherlands. Verdonk projected a public persona that focused on speaking plainly and implementing the rules, deriding past governments for their accommodating stance on immigration and integration policies.

For a large portion of the right, this made her wildly popular, a politician who could be relied upon to speak the truth and to follow through on her political promises. In addition, her policies spoke to a broad range of the population, who worried that real challenges in dealing with diversity, immigration, and integration, such as lagging educational and economic progress among ethnic minority groups, had been silenced in the public debate for too long.

On the left, however, she was known as "Iron Rita," and was accused of catering to populist, racist, and exclusionary tendencies in order to win votes. Her policies were criticized within these circles for deepening social divisions in the Netherlands.

During her tenure, Verdonk also stood at the focal point of several cabinet crises. In October 2005, she was called before Parliament for deporting a group of Congolese asylum seekers and of informing the Congolese authorities that they had applied for asylum. By telling the Congolose government about the asylum applications, Verdonk violated international law and potentially put the asylum seekers at risk of torture.

In March 2006, Parliament questioned her decision to return homosexual asylum seekers from Iran, despite widespread public dissent. She later announced that all claims would be considered on an individual basis.

Finally, criticism of Verdonk took place within a broader context of distrust of and discontent with the policies of her cabinet, which focused on broad, free-market-driven economic reform.

The cabinet ultimately fell in June 2006, due mainly to Verdonk's actions regarding the status of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a naturalized Dutch citizen and member of the Dutch parliament who was born in Somalia and had come to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker. A controversial figure, Hirsi Ali is best known for collaborating with Theo van Gogh on the short film for which he was murdered; she had been under government protection since the filmmaker's death.

On a Dutch television program broadcast in May 2006, Hirsi Ali discussed the circumstances surrounding her naturalization. That she had naturalized under a false name had long been public knowledge, but she had never explicitly admitted to lying about her date of birth.

As a result, Verdonk ordered a new investigation into the facts surrounding Hirsi Ali's naturalization, publicly doubting the validity of Hirsi Ali's status. A month-and-a-half later, one of the coalition party members resigned from the cabinet when the two other partner parties refused to ask Verdonk to step down.

Although Verdonk initially retained her cabinet position, she lost the immigration mandate in early December 2006 after a dispute over a general pardon for asylum seekers. She remained in power as the minister for integration, juvenile protection, prevention, and probation until the November 2006 elections.

Integration and the November Election Contest

There was a marked retreat from polarizing rhetoric about integration and immigration in the political party platforms created for the November elections. This can be partially attributed, particularly on the left, to a sense that criticism of Minister Verdonk's immigration and integration policies was best placed within a broader critique of the government's weakened commitment to the welfare state.

For the Social Democrats (PvdA) and the Socialists (SP), for example, the election provided a chance to reclaim a sense of solidarity and a commitment to the social welfare system that had been lost in a liberal-economic/free-market-leaning cabinet.

A new position on integration policies was a part of this general return to a solidarity model. According to the PvdA campaign platform, the previous cabinet focused too heavily on "personal responsibility" and a reduction in government support for both integration and basic social welfare, to the detriment of a sense of national unity.

The SP platform focused on the promotion of democratic values, a reduction in racial and ethnic geographical segregation, and education support for children from an ethnic-minority background.

Even former coalition parties, which are on the right side of the political spectrum, focused on unity and community because of perceived widespread discontent with the social climate in the country. The Christian Democrats (CDA) concentrated on shared norms and values, openly embraced religion (including humanism) as a force for moral good, and encouraged active involvement in the community, stating that "being a citizen is more than being a client of the government."

The Liberals (VVD) focused on giving Article 1, which guarantees equal treatment, priority above other articles of the constitution. The party believes this will ensure equal access and chances, and reduce the need for government invention in the integration process.

In general, the major political parties concentrated less on integration and immigrants as a separate group (in response to a sense of political fatigue with the issue) and more on issues of general social cohesion and welfare. Indeed, the approach of most major parties to the integration debate in these elections seems to point to a shift in political discourse.

The far right and some of the smaller parties (of which there are many), however, maintained their calls for more clarity about the position of immigrants in Dutch society and about Islam's role in a country guided by the European Enlightenment. The primary message was one of restrictive or no new immigration and a concentration on assimilation for those migrants already present in the country.

Finally, in a new development, most parties openly discussed the changing face of the Dutch workforce and addressed concerns about aging populations, increasing levels of emigration, and economic competitiveness. An approach to integration that focuses on the contributions that immigrants can make to society was part of most political party platforms.

Integration Plans of the New Government

Dutch voters went to the polls on November 22, 2006. The Christian Democrats (CDA) received 26.5 percent of the vote, followed by the Social Democrats (PvdA) (21.2 percent), the Socialists (SP) (16.6 percent), and the Liberals (VVD) (14.7 percent).

The new government, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's fourth cabinet (known as Balkenende IV), was sworn in on February 22, 2007. It is a coalition of the CDA, the PvdA, and the ChristianUnion, an orthodox Protestant party founded in 2000 that takes a conservative stance on ethical issues and a center-left stance on social and economic issues (including migration). Together these three parties hold a majority of 79 out of 150 seats. The cabinet consists of 16 ministers and 11 state secretaries.

In general, the coalition agreement, entitled "Living Together, Working Together," focuses on cooperation and consultation. It embraces change and reform, and foresees a large role for the social partners in the formulation and implementation of policy. While it addresses a number of the challenges of integration, it focuses less on specific "problem groups" and more on the amelioration of general social welfare hurdles, including those facing nonimmigrants.

The tone of the coalition agreement responds in many ways to criticisms of the last cabinet, namely that it was closed, noncommunicative, and divisive on social issues, particularly integration and diversity.

The integration portfolio has been transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment. Ella Vogelaar, former vice-chair of the Federation Dutch Labor Movement and chairwoman of the Taskforce on Civic Integration, has been named the minister for housing, communities, and integration; she shares the ministry with the minister of the environment and spatial planning.

Some integration competences have been transferred to the newly created minister for youth and family affairs and some, such as the prevention of radicalization, remain under the minister and state secretary of Justice.

A Social Democrat, Vogelaar is well-known for her union experience, and well-respected for her background in education and civic integration. The placement of her portfolio within the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment reflects a desired shift in focus from integration as "problem" that immigrants have to take care of, to a more holistic approach that aims to combat general socioeconomic disadvantage.

The coalition agreement and Vogelaar have expressed the following goals in integration policy for the coming four years:

  • Create a long-term plan for civic integration: eliminate all wait-lists for language and social orientation services within the next four years; increase the level of the integration test.
  • Further stimulate access to, and use of, the master's course offered in the training of spiritual leaders. Launched in 2006, these courses are directed at future imams. The courses aim to increase the number of imams with the language capacity and requisite knowledge of Dutch society to play an active role as a spiritual leader in the Dutch-Muslim community.
  • Devote financial and political resources to economic participation, both on the labor market and through volunteer work (e.g., for those unable to work).
  • Increase the livability of disadvantaged neighborhoods and involve the community in urban redevelopment efforts.
  • Devote additional resources to combating discrimination and improve the reach of and public access to the services of Anti-Discrimination Offices across the country.
  • Further stimulate the economic and social participation of women from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

For all of the focus on unity and social reconciliation, however, the new cabinet immediately faced criticism over its selection of Nebahat Albayrak (Dutch citizen of Turkish descent) and Ahmed Aboutaleb (Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent), both dual nationals, to the positions of state secretaries of Justice and Education, respectively.

The Party for Freedom (PVV, formerly Group Wilders and led by Geert Wilders), a conservative, anti-immigration and anti-Islamic party, challenged the nomination of Albayak and Aboutaleb, claiming that dual nationality leads to divided loyalties. The PVV introduced a motion of no-confidence in the new cabinet, demanding that all dual-national members of Parliament give up their second passport or resign from political office. The motion was rejected because no other party supported it.

That the discussion centered on a dispute about dual nationality and loyalty, however, is an indication that the debate about diversity and integration has not disappeared completely from the political scene.

As such, the new cabinet faces a formidable task in maintaining its focus on social unity and, with increasing worries about aging populations and their impact on productivity and economic growth, tackling the next policy challenge: initiating and helping to promote popular initiatives that focus on the potential positive aspects of migration and that seek to deal effectively with the integration challenges that it presents.

Chavi Keeney Nana worked in the Minorities Integration Policy Department at the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands from 2003 to 2006. During this period, her dossiers included European Union cooperation on immigrant integration policy; the legal position of Dutch-Moroccan women in the Netherlands; entrepreneurial activity among ethnic minorities; and EU network on Islam and the position of the Muslim minority in Europe. 


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