Dutch government says immigrants must pay for 'integration'
Moroccan-born Rahmouna Lakdhari was still living as an outsider after 13 years in her adoptive Netherlands, prevented by language and cultural barriers from working and making new friends.But last year, the life of the 33-year-old who followed her husband to the land of windmills, bicycles and tulips changed dramatically thanks to a state-sponsored integration course--a privilege the new, rightist government plans to take away.
"Only now am I learning what one needs to know about the Netherlands," Lakdhari told AFP in halting Dutch at the school where she spends 10 hours a week on lessons in language and socialisation--how government works, how to befriend neighbours, open a bank account and register a birth.
The Netherlands was long seen as a land of multi-cultural tolerance. But the Dutch, like their neighbours in Germany, have shifted towards promoting greater social integration as European Union states rethink their response to continued waves of immigrants.
The country introduced integration courses in 2007, obliging all non-European adult immigrants--workers and their family members--to attend classes and pass an exam. Those who fail to do so do not qualify for permanent residence and cannot claim social benefits.
As Lakdhari arrived before 2007, her course was not compulsory but she took it voluntarily at the government's expense. About 40,000 people successfully completed the course last year, according to the Dutch Centre for Foreigners (NCB).
"I can now go to the doctor and explain what is wrong with me. I no longer need my husband, my child or a neighbour to help me," Lakdhari said proudly as her classmates--mostly women in headscarves from Turkey and Morocco--nodded in agreement as they copied grammar from a black board.
"I can look for work, I can talk to people, I can help my children with homework."
The new minority coalition, which took over in October backed by a controversial anti-Islam party, is bent on halting rising public debt and aiding long-term recovery after the global economic crisis.
One target is slashing the integration budget of about EUR half-a-billion in incremental amounts, to culminate in an annual savings of more than EUR 300 million as of 2014.
The plan must still be put to parliament, where a coalition of the Christian Democratic Action (CDA) and conservative liberal VVD, backed by the Party for Freedom of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders, hold a joint majority.
"Immigrants and asylum seekers are responsible for their own integration in our country," states a policy document of the CDA-VVD coalition.
It wants newcomers to foot the bill for the compulsory course, which training centres told AFP costs up to EUR 5,000 (USD 7,000) for up to 18 months of lessons.
'We teach people how to live together'
Under the plan, those who fail the exam will lose their temporary residence permit--meaning they must leave the country.
Today, about 3.4 million of the Netherlands' 16.6 million inhabitants are of immigrant origin--.8 million from "non-Western" countries.
"We cannot continue to allow so many people without prospects to come to the Netherlands," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after last month's inauguration.
NCB director Ilhan Akel, for one, opposes making immigrants pay for the course, calling it "short-sighted" and indicative of a "broad shift to the right".
"It is imperative that as many people as possible complete these courses," he said.
"With our ageing workforce, we need more young people to work in the care and production sectors. But if they have no language skills and sit on the margins of society, they will cost us money instead of contributing to the economy."
The Netherlands: women walking on a saturday afternoon
Ahmet Azdural, director of the non-governmental organisation Turkish Participation in the Netherlands (IOT), argued that most immigrants "don't have this kind of money".
"Most people who move to a new country do so exactly because things are not great where they come from," he said.
People like Azdural fear the harsher measures will break up families--forcing people moving to the Netherlands for work to live apart from loved ones who cannot afford the integration.
Others fear the changes will drive a deeper wedge between people in a country where Wilders' anti-immigrant rhetoric has found increasingly fertile soil.
"We teach people how to speak to each other and live together," said integration teacher Corine Kobes. "Without it, I fear that attitudes on both sides will harden; there will be less understanding for each other."
For Geert de Vries, a sociologist at the Free University of Amsterdam, "the message is clear: the government only wants highly skilled immigrants with money in their wallets."
"Immigrants will be made to feel more and more unwelcome," he said. "This can only add to the tension."
Lakdhari said she was grateful to have taken the course.
"I am sorry for those people who will not have the same opportunity. It's a pity."
AFP/ Mariette le Roux/ Expatica
Photo credits: zoetnet