Frisians still face discrimination

Frisians still face discrimination

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Frisians are the only group in the Netherlands officially recognised as a national minority yet it seems they can still face discrimination, most often in relation to their language.

A delegation from the Council of Europe toured the Netherlands this week to see if the government is respecting international agreements aimed at curbing the discrimination of minorities, and Friesland was one of the places they visited.

"One's first visit to a country is always something special," says Giorgi Meladze. On the way back from the Frisian capital, Leeuwarden, this Georgian man keeps asking questions about Dutch cheese farmers, immigrants and the upcoming legal proceedings against Geert Wilders.

Tip of iceberg
Back home in Georgia, Mr Meladze is writing a doctoral thesis on religion. He is in the Netherlands as a member of an advisory body of the Council of Europe, the oldest political organisation on the European continent.

The Council of Europe delegationGeorgia has just been through a war with Russia. In Friesland, feelings are not running anywhere near as high. Of the 170 cases reported last year to the Tûmba discrimination reporting centre, only three related to the Frisian language. The centre decided, nonetheless, to raise the issue during the Council's visit to Friesland.

Tûmba's Brenda Ottjes says there is more than meets the eye about the discrimination situation in Friesland. Frisians, known generally for their sullen, closed character, hardly ever complain. "They tend to shrug their shoulders." So the few complaints reaching Tûmba are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

The wrong way
Gerlof Kooststra from the small Frisian village of Buitenpost is someone who did not shrug his shoulders. The complaint he filed is one of the discrimination cases the Council of Europe is now going to examine:

"I called the employment office in Dokkum to give them details about my son," Mr Kootstra recalls. "The lady answering the phone immediately asked me to switch from Frisian to Dutch. I didn't want to make a fuss, so I said 'OK, I'll switch to Dutch'. But then she said: 'That's more like it'."

Her sharp reaction rubbed him up the wrong way, he says. Mr Kootstra knows his rights: "The law gives you the right to expect that people at least understand Frisian."

When he phone another official at the same office who didn't know Frisian either, he started suspecting this was deliberate policy on the part of this particular government-run office. This is why he approached Tûmba with his complaint.

Radicalised environment
So, what is a Georgian - who has just been through a war - likely to think about language quibbles involving government officials answering the phone?

"I come from a very radicalised context, where identity is threatened by external enemies. But this is radicalised; let's not look at that as a normal situation. I think that always, issues that are connected to identity are equally important and need to be respected. Friesland has a very interesting history and it is one of the old identities. So it is very interesting to me to observe how people care about their language, and I think this is an important signal."

Mr Meladze has also looked with interest at Frieland's bilingual education system. In Georgia's split society bilingual education is set to become more and more important, he thinks. Friesland is far ahead in this respect.

Different perspective

Tûmba's Brenda Ottjes can understand that: "From their point of view things are pretty well organised here". Even so, she insists the Council of Europe does have an important role to play in Friesland too.

"Dutch law recognises Frisian as the country's second language. Anti-discrimination rules, however, make no mention anywhere of language being an aspect about which people may face discrimination. This is something that calls for a broader discussion." But does this require European involvement? Ms Ottjes is convinced it does. In the Netherlands there are all kinds of bodies that deal with the discrimination of minorities, yet there's no single person or organisation with responsibility for or knowledge of the entire field: 'the overall picture'.

"Europe, after all", she says, "has a totally different perspective to the one seen from inside a particular country itself. Sometimes it's useful to find out how things look from that different perspective."

Listen to the report: click here

Perro de Jong
Radio Netherlands



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