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Bad Idea, or Very Bad Idea?: Government Regulation of Marriage in Minority Communities in The Netherlands

“Moroccans want to marry other Moroccans, simply because we share the same background. Everybody wants to be closer to what they know, what they are familiar with, and the importance of the shared traditions.” Mohammed

Introduction & Preliminary Discussion

The term ‘community,’ while widely used, is not a definitional one.  While no word in any language provides a positivist meaning, ‘community’ is a very contested term, across both time and populations.  Indeed, its meaning is largely derived from the individual who uses it, rather than a definitional, shared, or canonical understanding.   This is important to consider, since this term is a loaded one for our inquiry.  Even individual members of a shared community often define the term in sharply divergent ways.

The larger community of the Netherlands contains many smaller communities, two examples of which are its Turkish and Moroccan communities.  Both Turks and Moroccans often wish to marry individuals who live outside the Netherlands, and then live with their partner in the Netherlands.  The Dutch government has enacted restrictions on these ‘migration marriages.’  This report explores the implications of this social phenomenon for the relationships of the Turkish and Moroccan communities to the Netherlands, and in particular the integration (or lack thereof) of these communities into the larger, dominant polity that is named ‘Kingdom of the Netherlands.’

We write about ‘migration marriage’ and explicitly reject the term ‘import marriage’ as well as the increasing frequency of the use of that term; we disapprove of the implication that human beings are commodities.  A man or woman that comes from Turkey or Morocco to the Netherlands to marry someone they love is not a commodity; they are not ‘imported.’  They are travelers, from a place where they are apart from their loved one, to a place where they are unified with their partner.

In like manner, we are uncomfortable with the implications of this term.  It is part of a larger vocabulary often utilized in discussions of the Turkish and/or Moroccan populations in the Netherlands.  The tone is often clinical and dry, and consistently returns to the rhetoric of “issues” and “obstacles.”  This mode of discussion—and perhaps of thought—is likely borne out of a desire to be polite and respectful, and to avoid offense, in discussing sensitive issues of race, integration, wealth, and social status.  However, the clinical tone suggests that Turkish and Moroccan populations are aggregated groups of problems that are to be solved, that they are elements that need treatment.  We reject this tone, and its high-minded—though perhaps intended as technocratic—connotations.

The political, social, and cultural contexts in which the linked debates over integration and migration marriages are occurring are fraught with tension.  As addressed at the outset, one of the drivers of this distress is the contested character of the keywords that participants in these debates call upon to express themselves.  A Dutch politician’s conception of the term ‘community’ or ‘integration’ is not necessarily consonant with that of a Dutch citizen of Turkish or Moroccan descent.  In interviews with Dutch citizens of Moroccan, Turkish, or Dutch descent, this dissonance emerged as a key driver of disagreement over the migration marriage issue, and over the overhanging concern of achieving integration in the Netherlands.

In particular, those of Moroccan and Turkish descent who agreed to be interviewed uniformly expressed an ambivalence concerning the prospect of integration in the Netherlands.  We paid particular attention to each interviewee’s attitude toward the concept of ‘integration.’  This conscious analytic choice was driven by the recognition of a rare domain of strong agreement between Moroccan communities, Turkish communities, and the Dutch decision-makers who, through their words and actions, are attempting to drive towards an endpoint of integration.  They all agree that the issue of migration marriages is very much a part of, and linked to, the larger issue of integration.

This is the broader context for the conversation that is currently occurring within Moroccan and Turkish communities concerning their rights to marry and live with whomever they wish.  In order to take the pulse of this conversation, and to briefly include ourselves as modest participants, we spent time in Turkish and Moroccan neighborhoods, listening to the real thoughts of real people.

While these communities are suffused with beautiful and endlessly multifaceted individualized cultural and social histories, one point of stark uniformity emerged: men and women possess the right to marry and live with whomever they choose.  Every respondent we spoke to asserted this unequivocally; they believe the Dutch government does not possess the right to restrict emigration marriages. As the thirty-five year old Dutch-Moroccan, Mohammed, living in the west of Amsterdam, points out: “Holland, the country I spent most of my life, has changed from being traditionally tolerant to a country which is increasingly intolerant towards its Muslim population.”  

The interviewees were uniformly engaging and intelligent.  In numerous instances their descriptive answers to the questions posed by the authors quickly became analytic.  Multiple Moroccan interviewees shared their inner feelings while discussing why they would be more comfortable marrying a woman of Moroccan descent, rather than a Caucasian Dutch woman.  Hamid Marghich, a kindly smiling Dutch-Moroccan man in his early thirties, says the following: “The more restrictions put in place on Muslims in The Netherlands by the powers that be, the more the Muslims would turn to their communities.”  Their answers point to the possible failure of Dutch governmental policy to encourage integration.  The government has restricted migration marriages in an effort to encourage marriage outside of Turkish and Moroccan cohorts, many of which consist of a majority of people who have recently arrived in the Netherlands, or are not entirely familiar or comfortable with Dutch culture.  This effort is a tactic in the government’s larger strategy to encourage ‘integration’ in the Netherlands.

In light of the responses gleaned by the authors, this tactic does not appear likely to succeed.  Restricting human rights is an intrinsically risky enterprise.  Restricting human rights as part of a governmental cultural effort, as opposed to as a reaction to threats to national security or military forces, appears to be a response that is out of proportion to the problem.  One of the most apparent facts to emerge from the interviews conducted by the authors is that the Turks and Moroccans are fundamentally decent people.  While a minority group may become embittered by restrictive government policy, no available research indicates that any existing group threatens the national security of the Netherlands.  Given that reality, restricting their human rights by controlling migration marriages is clearly ill-considered policy.

It is also important to consider the efficacy of the tactic of restricting emigration marriages.  Aside from the fact that it is a violation of individual rights, it is not at all clear that the policy could be successful.  The costs are apparent; the benefits remain relatively inchoate.  What is the utility of a policy that stands to alienate a significant majority of the populations about which Dutch policy-makers are explicitly concerned?  The Dutch government is attempting to influence the behavior of certain population groups within its borders.  Alienating them is not an efficient first step, especially if the desired endpoint is to profoundly change the behavior of the Turkish and Moroccan communities in the Netherlands in order to integrate them into Dutch society, culture, and daily life.  Many Turks and Moroccans are fairly ambivalent in their attitude toward the Netherlands. Hamid, a young Moroccan man, made this interesting statement: “When you feel that you are under attack from all corners, then it’s very normal that people want to marry people from their own communities.”  The unformed collective opinion within Turkish and Moroccan communities represents an enormous opportunity for the Dutch government to work towards its hugely ambitious goal of integration.

Marriage Patterns

It would hardly be an overstatement to say that marriage is considered one of the most important events in most cultural contexts of the world. The institution of marriage is suffused with meaning and emotional weight. Despite this commonality, however, people from different backgrounds attach dissimilar meanings and values to marriage. Relying on previous work, we claim that one can tell a great deal about the culture of a certain group just by analyzing the rituals and customs surrounding marriage in that society.

It is often argued, among the social scientists’ communities at least, that one of the ways to determine the level of integration of an immigrant group in the host nation is to examine the marriage patterns of that particular immigrant group. A distinguished scholar from Utrecht University, Frank van Tubergen, argues that if the intermarriage rate of an immigrant group with the native population is high, this clearly indicates “frequent social interaction and strong social acceptance between these groups.”  Consequently, the opposite is also true, as another Dutch social scientist, Erna Hooghiemstra, argues.  She notes that those immigrant groups that not only show a big preference for marrying partners of the same origin, but also put emphasis on seeking the potential partners in their countries of origin, are considered to be least integrated into the host society. 

In the year 2001 the overwhelming majority of all the marriages of these ethnic communities were the so-called migration marriages.  In other words, the majority of Dutch-Moroccans and Dutch-Turkish married partners from their respective countries of origin.

In recent years, patterns have shifted.   Since 2004 the rates of migration marriages have been sharply declining for both these communities but the number of marriages with partners from the same ethnic group already residing in The Netherlands has been concurrently and drastically increasing. This sudden shift is most likely largely due to the passage of stricter laws regarding migration marraiges, introduced to Tweede Kamer by the former Dutch Minister of Immigration, Rita Verdonk. These restrictions, which came into force in 2004, implemented the following changes: 
a) the legal age for the migration marriage went up from 18 to 21; 
b) persons wishing to bring a partner from a foreign country to The Netherlands should have an income of 120% or higher of the minimum wage; 
c) the foreign partner should also take up a language test in the country of origin. 

Finally, it must be noted that although there are many similarities between Turkish and Moroccan communities when it comes to marriage patterns, some vital differences remain.  For instance, for years the Dutch-Turkish men have married partners from their country origin at much higher rates than the Dutch-Moroccan men do. In addition, official data for the marriage patterns for the four largest ethnic communities in The Netherlands (Turkish, Surinamese, Moroccan, and Antilleans), indicates the interethnic marriages for the second generation compared to the first generation immigrants increased for all these ethnic groups.  The lone exception is the Turkish ethnic community. This finding suggests the Dutch-Turkish community is more traditional than the three other largest ethnic groups in The Netherlands. 

Migration Marriages?

Any Dutch public policy maker in the field of immigration would likely acknowledge the surprising volume of migration marriages in The Netherlands.  Indeed, some believed—naively, in turns out—that the issue of immigration would fade away after provisions allowing ‘guest-workers’ (mainly from Turkey and Morocco) to obtain family reunification.  Hooghiemstra underlines that as a great number of second-generation migrants sought partners from their countries of origin, another wave of immigration occurred in the country of beautiful tulips.  An immanent question arises: what are the main reasons for the migration marriages?

First, it is an error to underestimate the importance of the so-called social ties. Experts argue that the less an immigrant is attached to her ethnic group, the higher the chances that person will marry a partner with a different ethnic background. Thus, Moroccan and Turkish communities tend to be spread across the Randstad – a concentration of four biggest cities of the country. Interestingly enough, these migrant groups are clustered in ethnically segregated wijks. Length concerns obviate a long discussion of the primary drivers of this demographic phenomenon.  It should be noted, though, that the Dutch government’s housing policies in the 1960s and 70s are one driver.  The Dutch authorities did not at all expect migrant worker populations to remain in The Netherlands for a lengthy time period.  Therefore, they did not encourage integration into Dutch society. Following this logic, the vast majority of the guest-workers were provided housing in various areas across the Randstad that almost exclusively were inhabited by other guest-workers.  

To return to the previous discussion about the roles that social networks play in these immigrant communities, there is virtually no room left for choosing a partner outside these social networks. When these networks are heavily oriented toward their ‘mother’ countries – if judged by the concentration of satellite dishes present in these wijks - then, suddenly, the high rates of migration marriages becomes less surprising. It is important to remember that marriage (in the Moroccan and Turkish communities) involves the physical act of marriage, and also creates very powerful—though not necessarily overt—bonds between different families. In that sense, migration marriages, Hooghiemstra argues, bridge the gap between families and communities in The Netherlands. Furthermore, it is often forgotten, as Hooghiemstra notes, that a huge number of these marriages are arranged by the families of the future couples. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that these informal social networks play a key role in the decision whether to marry someone from the mother country.  Indeed, in some instances the magnitude of the effect of these networks may well outweigh the effect of love or attraction.  This illustrates the sharp divergences that exist between the Turkish and Moroccan communities, and the larger, dominant native Dutch community.  This divergence is evinced in the suboptimal policy solutions that have been—and in some cases, are currently— pursued by high-level Dutch policy-makers.

Of course, one should not ignore the fact that the world has inexorably entered an era of globalization. One of the effects of globalization relevant to this topic is that it has become less problematic for an individual to visit his country of origin on a regular basis. This implies that there is more space to explore for potential partners in the original country of one’s parents. This is especially true for young women from the Turkish or Moroccan background growing up in The Netherlands.  Erna Hooghiemstra claims that due to the static and limited nature of the social encounters with other young men in the host country, and given the great opportunity for the social contact in Morocco or Turkey, it’s no wonder why the concept of migration marriage has been such a hit for the past few years.

Perhaps the least apparent motive of all the reasons behind opting for migration marriages in The Netherlands is the difference between the young women and men in the Moroccan and Turkish communities. According to Hooghiemstra, girls from these ethnic communities put a lot of emphasis on education by stressing the issue of gender equality in family life.  In contrast, boys from the same backgrounds often lead a “free life.”  They tend to prefer to have a “traditional family” as they think of marriage. This situation inevitably leads to a certain degree of tension between the girls and the boys from these communities.  Occasionally, the boys consider the girls to be too free and negatively influenced by the larger society.  On the other hand, the girls view the boys as hypocrites who demand virginity from the girls before the marriage, but do not behave accordingly themselves. Nevertheless, both boys and girls from similar backgrounds share one crucial aspect when it comes to marriage – they predominantly want to have a Muslim as a partner. This commonality may appear self-evident, but the failure of Dutch policy-makers to recognize it as a factor in their decision-making processes is a primary driver in the lack of success of integration policy in the Netherlands.

Indeed, the native Dutch population is often not a significant variable in the life of the potential marriage partner. 


In sum, it is clear that the issue of ‘migration marriages’ is quickly becoming one that touches all residents of the Netherlands.  Social commentators, government policy makers, and concerned citizens groups all are correct in their assessment of this issue as one whose scope encompasses many parts of the Netherlands.

However, discussions of this social phenomenon overlook one crucial element: at its core, the issue of ‘migration marriage’ affects people. People.  The happiness, satisfaction, and life goals of thousands of people are affected by this issue and, specifically, the Dutch government’s response to it.  

In discussing integration, social cohesion, and cultural identity, the Dutch government is aiming for laudable goals. But we all must remember that at the end of the day, this policy profoundly affects ordinary humans.  For this reason, it is important that the Dutch government does not place any restrictions on migration marriages, and immediately removes any and all that already exist.  It is the only fair and just decision, given the profound costs and affects such a policy has not only on cultures and communities, but on people. 


Central Bureau of Statistics, the Netherlands (2008). Population Data.
Dagevos, J. (2001) Perspectief op integratie: over de sociaal-culturele en structurele integratie van etnische minderheden in Nederland, WRR, Den Haag.

Hooghiemstra, E. (2001). Migrants, Partner Selection and Integration: Crossing Borders? Journal of Comparitive Family Studies, Vol. 32, Issue: 4, pp: p601-627. 

Hooghiemstra, E. (2003), Trouwen over de grens. Achtergronden van partnerkeuze van
Turken en Marokkanen in Nederland. Den Haag: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau. SCP publicatie 2003/4.

Tubergen, F., Maas, I. (2007). Ethnic Intermarriage among Immigrants in the Netherlands: An Analysis of Population Data. Social Science Research, No. 36, pp: 1065-1086. 

De Valk (2006). Pathways into Adulthood: A Comparative Study on Family Life Transitions Among Migrant and Dutch Youth. Dissertation, Utrecht University
-We did numerous interviews with adult males in the Turkish and Moroccan communities of The Netherlands.  We traveled to various neighborhoods and spoke with many different people.  We were able to garner little substantive info on our interviewees, due to privacy concerns, as well as the personal nature of the topics we asked them to discuss.  

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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