Life as a non-native in the Netherlands: Nederland voor Nederlanders?

Life as a non-native in the Netherlands: Nederland voor Nederlanders?

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Expat Rhiannon Meredith questions what is happening to the 'Dutch openness and tolerance' as she observes that politicians and policymakers seem 'sadly focused on the negative impact of immigration.'

Throughout the world, the Netherlands has fostered a reputation for its openness and tolerance, illustrated by many of its liberal social policies.

Lately, it seems these times are a-changing and in the realm of immigration, the door is no longer wide open to all immigrants and expats. The comments by Expatica readers posted below a recent Expatica Expat Voices interview with Pakistani expat, Jehanzeb Khan, made me pause and think about the changes in policy and perception of foreigners in Dutch society and whether Nederland is really just for the ‘Nederlanders’.

Across Western Europe, the rise of the political right in government is apparent: the economic crisis, opening of EU borders and the effects of an ageing population are key issues having a direct effect on national policies towards immigration. At a political conference in Germany last year, Angela Merkel highlighted the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ and poor integration of the foreign workers and their families who were invited to work in Germany in the 1960s and 70s.

The Netherlands has similar issues with immigration and integration, with a quick look at the country’s demographics showing that just less than 20 percent of the country has non-Dutch ethnic origins. As a non-native Dutch resident for the last six years, the change in political debate and media headlines in this, my adopted country are showing small but worrying trends.

PHOTO © zoetnet

 People in the stadshart, Zoetermeer, The Netherlands

And it seems I’m not alone in noticing this: as an inhabitant of the Netherlands for the last 11 years, Jehanzeb Khan1 voiced his unhappiness about the recent changing attitudes he finds towards immigrants and the “supporting (of) political slogans and a racist agenda”. In just the last two months, the Dutch home affairs minister, Henk Kamp has proposed to deport Poles who lose their jobs, and the latest offensive diatribe from the PVV’s Geert Wilders is to build ‘tuig dorpjes’ to house persistent offenders and their families. Given the statistics showing a high proportion of crime committed by Dutch youth is of Moroccan origin, it’s not difficult to see who this last policy would affect3.

At what point do these political sound-bites become government policy? Or are the media just cherry-picking these politicians’ comments to generate a frenzy of activity in the general population concerning nationality and Dutch identity? When it comes to expats and immigrants, it seems that there are touches of an Orwellian society creeping into the Netherlands, where “All immigrants are equal but some are more equal than others”. It may seem a distant part of European history but a stark reminder of the rise of nationalism can be seen at Het Verzetsmuseum in Amsterdam.

Compare the political rhetoric and later propaganda about migrants and Jews during the economic gloom of the 1930s across Europe with today’s headlines about Islam or Moroccan immigrants and the similarity is disturbing. Migrants were blamed for problems of unemployment, housing shortages and social unrest. Whilst Europe has not yet reverted back to this dark period in its history, the issues of immigration and integration hang in a precarious balance. Like other western governments, the Netherlands is now publicly debating the effects of immigration and the impact upon society of having invited foreign workers to occupy the jobs the native Dutch population would not or could not fill. The short-term economic gain of immigration from the last few decades are bearing long-term consequences, which have been largely ignored or tackled ineffectively it seems. And so the Dutch government should be debating the issues of immigration in the present day, but with a clear awareness of the past when migrants were welcomed to these lowlands, and actively encouraged to contribute to the economy of the Netherlands.

As a European migrant in Amsterdam, I find the subject of race and nationality to be a somewhat sensitive topic. It seems to be a common theme, with the crass replies to Mr Khan’s Expat Voices last month, including one telling him to “pack your bags and return to Talebanistan”1.   From dual-nationality to different names of referral for ‘buitenlanders’ or ‘allochtonen’, it can be difficult to talk about such important issues with friends or colleagues.

AFP PHOTO Maartje Blijdenstein

 Netherlands, Amsterdam : Youngsters chat in a street of the Slotervaart neighborhood in Amsterdam

In my native UK, criticism and debate of one’s own culture, politics and less appealing aspects of daily life is common, and is rarely interpreted as being unpatriotic or unappreciative of British culture. At what point am I permitted to voice any criticism of this, my host country? Should I heed the old proverb that warns “not to bite the hand that feeds you”? As an expat who chose to come to this country, it is all too reasonable that if my criticisms become too great and the appeal of the Netherlands has faded, I should take my trade and skills elsewhere. But for many migrants, relocation to another country is not such a simple matter of choice and their voice of critical opinion over their adopted homeland is a valid one.

As I see it, whether expat or immigrant in name, a foreigner working and living in the Netherlands has a contribution to make to the constantly-evolving notion of ‘Dutch society’. Whilst politicians and policymakers seem sadly focused on the negative, the positive impact that immigration has had and continues to exert within the Netherlands is largely ignored and certainly under-rated and the Netherlands would be culturally and economically poorer without its migrant influences.


Rhiannon Meredith

3 “Tijdschrift voor Criminiologie”, themanummer 'Criminaliteit, migratie en etniciteit' 2010.

Photo credits: Flickr by zoetnet and AFP


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3 Comments To This Article

  • Abigail posted:

    on 30th March 2011, 12:09:47 - Reply

    The "tolerance" has been a myth from the start, and it's only that the truth is starting to be more apparent that makes people say things like this. To the above poster - it's impossible to live in this country, at least if you read the newspapers, and think for one second that there is no integration problem. When the cry among Muslim immigrants is "assimilation is rape," you know you've got a problem.

    Anyone interested in this might want to pick up a copy of my book, which describes the last 20 years in Holland (including my friendships with Hirsi Ali and van Gogh): Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West. I haven't been able to get it into many bookstores in NL, but you can find it at Amazon and B
  • Laura posted:

    on 28th March 2011, 10:55:41 - Reply

    I think this is exactly the problem the author is talking of - distinguishing some groups of immigrants as "bad" or "less equal." I personally do not see the problems related with the integration of specific groups you mention. Can you please clarify? I live amongst many immigrants and have never noticed these problems.

    Moreover, there is no such thing as one everlasting "Dutch culture". Thus, it is impossible to demand that immigrants accept "our culture." Culture is a dynamic, eclectic mix of many different influences and is thus always changing. This is a good thing that adds to the resilience and appeal of a culture. Things that are now considered to be stereotypically Dutch (think Tulips or, in Utrecht at least: fresh mint tea) have been brought to the Netherlands by immigrants (Tulips from Turkey, mint tea from Morocco).
  • DiMaria posted:

    on 26th March 2011, 11:34:06 - Reply

    I find normal the conservative reaction in Europe. Multiculturalism has indeed failed, but only related to some cultural groups. If you observe most of European countries, there are problems related with the integration of specific groups. It does not happen with Asiatics, Swedes or Southern European, but it clearly happens with other groups. I think the Dutch society has all the right to say: you can come if you adapt. Otherwise the boat will sink soon. Summarizing, I think the move to more conservative stances is normal and totally acceptable. i do not see it as Nederlands voor Nederlanders, but as Necederlands voor all those who accept our cultural side.