15 May 2008

"Integration" in the Netherlands

Some of you may not be aware of my minor obsession with immigration policy in the Netherlands. In the good times (when I don't follow the news), it's a research interest. In the bad times (when I do) it's really an obsession and more than a couple people have been subjected to rants crudely and ineffectively cloaked as discussions. Given all that, you can imagine my delight today when the Expatica.com news feed posted an item about Human Rights Watch finding the integration exam discriminatory.

Why is this grounds for celebration? Because I've been running around like chicken little about that sky falling for nearly four years now. The exam they are referring to is one that some immigrants are required to pass if they want to enter the Netherlands. The exam takes place in the country of residence (so, in your home country) and costs €350 every time you sit it. It has effectively reduced immigration into the Netherlands since its introduction. Of course, that the official policy doesn't say is that it's a move to keep certain people (especially the Muslim and the poor) out of the Netherlands. Instead, it and other restrictive immigration policies have been introduced under the guise of integration. That means, the Dutch government claims that requiring this test is good for immigrants because it insures that those immigrants who do enter the country will be more successful upon arrival. In fact, it should read "less likely to be a burden on our wonderful welfare state."

While I'm willing and happy to celebrate this report (anyone want to print all 45 pages for me?), I still have some major concerns. The Dutch integration project doesn't stop outside the country's borders. Once inside the country, some immigrants are required to complete an integration course in order to stay. Obviously this does not apply to tourists, but it does apply to individuals from some countries (and the USA is included) who want to reside either temporarily or permanently in the Netherlands. Keep in mind, this is not related to applications for citizenship, it is a requirement for residents. Again, the official reason for the course is to help resident effectively integrate into Dutch society by giving them the skills they need to effectively negotiate Dutch bureaucracy and society. I challenge this claim.

The course is made up of two parts, a language part and a "knowledge of Dutch society" part. The language section makes sense. I do believe every country has the right to expect and possibly even require people who want to reside there to speak the language. However, the level of fluency required is so low an individual can successfully complete the program with a level of Dutch that would allow them to keep up only a very basic conversation. In more technical terms, it's A2 of the Common European Framework. The knowledge of Dutch society aspect, in so far as I have been able to learn much about it, is more problematic. In addition to addressing important issues like how to contact emergency services, insurance, and banking, it is also concerned with questions of Dutch identity. This aspect of the course requires participants give the right answers to questions about, for example, homosexuality and how to interact with your neighbors. In other words, questions to which even within the Netherlands, there is no clear consensus.

Needless to say, I could go on for hours (pages) about this, and I have in the past and in other places. So, I'll just leave you with one final tidbit of information. One individual I know, an American, recently successfully completed his exam. The course work took one year, 35 hours a week, to complete. Those participants who were employed had to follow night courses. Is this a fair requirement for people who want to live in your country in order to join their families (husbands, wives, partners, children)? Will it help them to integrate into Dutch society? What is Dutch society today, anyway? So you see, while I'm very happy with the Human Rights Watch report, as they say in the Netherlands, there's still work in the store!


  1. i am not even sure i agree with the requirement to speak the language before taking up residence (though it would obviously be useful) mainly because, how in the world are you supposed to learn if you can't even get into the country? (again, i agree language proficiency is a different matter for citizenship.)let's face it, dutch courses aren't exactly a dime a dozen abroad, and i believe i read an somewhere that there are no plans by the dutch government to set up cultural and language agencies such as the goethe institute or the alliance francaise. the mind boggles that this hasn't been talked about... unless it's the whole point?

  2. Dutch law on these "integration" requirements change so often that it's enough to figure out what's required at which point. Yes, discriminatory, yes, annoying and condescending, and yes, with a PhD I was told I was an illiterate woman, and dependent on my husband, by immigration people (officials and lawyers) coming into Holland. Yes, they talk a good "liberal" talk, but it IS a bit insane. Then again, all immigration is a bit of a trauma, isn't it?


    complete stranger


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