Tolerance v xenophobia

4th December 2006, Comments 0 comments

The Dutch government has waged a tough anti-immigration policy over the past four years, but tolerance is staging a comeback.

When talking about 26,000 asylum seekers, the Dutch government found it easy to be clinical.


For the public, the number has no personality, it is not individual. It is simply a number: a number that according to the Cabinet simply had to go.

But in finding that one of those 26,000 people lived next door to them or went to school with their children, many Dutch people found their sudden uprooting and deportation to be catastrophic.

And the electorate eventually decided they should stay.

And it is an issue that must be resolved in the coming weeks if the Netherlands is to find a new government.

Back in 2002, the fear of even letting new foreigners into the country propelled the xenophobic LPF party into government.

The LPF later disintegrated and the anti-immigration baton was passed to its one-time coalition partner, the Liberal VVD at the 2003 elections.

VVD Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has since been very diligent in carrying out her task: in 2004 she told 26,000 families who had been living here for five years of more that their time was suddenly up.

These 26,000 entered the country prior to tougher new immigration laws in 2001 and were still waiting for their applications for asylum to be processed.

But the government wanted to make a clean sweep of the backlog: those with 'distressing' stories could stay. The others would simply have to go.

In the end, just 2,000 people with distressing stories were given residency and 24,000 others given their marching orders, 12,000 of whom have since left the country. The last 12,000 are still living here.

And now, with the long-awaited re-emergence of Dutch tolerance finally in sight, these 12,000 people are caught in the cross-fire of a new political dogfight.

Their fate will largely decide the nation's future government.

The Socialist SP — the big winner from last month's national elections — and the Labour PvdA are demanding that they be granted a residence permit via a general amnesty.

In the opposite corner is the ruling Christian Democrat CDA, which emerged largely unscathed from the elections to remain the nation's largest party and is compelled to finish the work of its coalition partner VVD and deport those families out of the country.

In doing so, the CDA risks alienating those who voted (en masse) for change last month and further dividing the nation rather than offering itself as the bridge: a bridge to cross the divide between the anti-immigrant far-right and the pro-amnesty far-left.

But hand in hand with the VVD, the CDA has waged a crackdown on immigration in the past few years and has been left holding the last element of that political hot potato.

When it first came to power, the CDA-VVD coalition government (along with its third partner, the Democrat D66) was confronted with the looming 2003 recession, a threatened flood of new EU workers, overcrowding fears, terrorism and social polarisation.

It took up what the ill-fated Pim Fortuyn sloganised: that the nation was 'full' and immigrants had to integrate into Dutch society.

Compulsory Dutch language and culture lessons were imposed on new arrivals, minimum wage and age requirements raised to restrict family migration and a decision taken to deport 26,000 asylum seekers, some of whom had been here 12 years and whose children did not speak the language of the violence-torn countries they were being deported 'back' to.

And in a post-9/11 world full of terrorism fears, the public bought it, lock, stock and barrel. Close the borders, they yelled.

But times have changed. The economy improved, higher emigration rates eased fears of overcrowding, integration classes became accepted, new EU workers became economically attractive and the D66 abandoned the government in an immigration row with Verdonk over her treatment of Somali-born asylum seeker and Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The government collapsed and as the nation grew tired of the whole anti-immigration debate, the fate of those 26,000 asylum seekers returned to haunt the nation.

And though their numbers have dwindled to 12,000 people, a large swathe of Dutch voters is now finally asking the same question: Why in heaven's name kick them out?

Because in the meantime, these 26,000 people have gained an identity.

From the initial protest campaign '26,000 faces' to the haunting images of the man who sewed his eyes and lips together during a 2004 protest in The Hague, the group of asylum seekers have been recognised as members of local communities.

They have become known as families trying to make homes in the Netherlands, families who have had children here, work and pay taxes, who have integrated and are contributing to society.

The association of Dutch municipalities VNG echoed the public's outcry and local communities banded together to say no: don't take our neighbours away.

This shift of public opinion and the re-emergence of a Dutch 'social conscience' led to a dynamic shift in the balance of power.

The 75-74 vote in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament last week urging the government to stop the expulsions until a general amnesty can be legislated is a clear indication that the government has been outgunned.

Instead of accepting this, it is widely expected that the coalition CDA-VVD caretaker cabinet will defy the parliament and proceed with expulsions. That message will be delayed by letter on Tuesday.

It will be a direct affront to the PvdA and SP, a message of: 'You're not in government yet'. It is a high-stakes political battle against a backdrop of coalition talks to determine the make-up of the new government.

And yet, caught in the middle are 12,000 asylum seekers holding their breath, hoping for a dream.

But now, they've finally got a parliament majority on their side.

Yes, tolerance won out.

Aaron Gray-Block
Expatica Netherlands

4 December 2006

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[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Dutch immigration policy, general amnesty, 26,000 asylum seekers

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