Pardon Me? Does Anyone Know How to Integrate 26,000 Refugees?

“When I look at my peers, I see that they have had more chances than I have had in my whole life.”

- Olga Matondo, age 19, Asylum Seeker since 1994

Olga Matondo was 6 years old when her family fled Angola and arrived in The Netherlands seeking asylum. Eager to start a new life, her parents hoped to resettle quickly. Thirteen years later, Olga is 19, her parents have not been allowed to seek consistent employment or learn conversational Dutch in the Asylum Seeking Centers in which they live, and the family is still waiting.  “I was raised here and my siblings were born here,” she says, “I have big dreams for a life in The Netherlands but there are so many obstacles. We don’t even know if we will receive the general pardon. But if we do, there will still be uncertainty for a long time about housing and jobs.”

The General Pardon that was passed earlier this year is expected to grant approximately 26,000 asylum seekers residency in The Netherlands.  But little is known about how the integration process will proceed.  Once refugees receive residence permits from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), they are deferred to municipal governments, who in turn collaborate with social service institutions locally.  Who exactly is responsible for integration becomes unclear: Is it the refugee? The government? The social service sector? Or the Dutch Refugee Council (DRC)? This confusion is further compounded by the impossibility of generalizing about these ‘26,000 faces.’ Harry van den Bergh, Chairman of the DRC, emphasized that “when discussing the integration process, it is essential to recognize that this is not a group. It is just a number of people with very different characteristics who share the same fate.”

Background on the General Pardon

In the 1980s, when refugees began trickling into The Netherlands, they received a decision about their status within a few months. But in the 1990s, as the world witnessed a surge of displaced peoples, the influx of asylum seekers overwhelmed the Dutch immigration system.  The central government reacted by becoming stricter:  asylum seekers were no longer

allowed to hold full time jobs, volunteer or learn conversational Dutch.  On 1 April 2001 the controversial Aliens Act 2000 law came into effect. The law expedited the decision-making process but it did not apply to those refugees who had arrived prior to April 2001.  

Six years later, these estimated 26,000 asylum seekers are still waiting for a decision. The central government has responded by passing the General Pardon, which is expected to grant Conditional Residence Permits to most of the pre-2001 refugees within the coming year.  With a residence permit, the road to citizenship is opened and refugees are eligible for passports within five years.  José Bravo, a Senior Policy Official with the IND explains that the “General Pardon was a humanitarian decision to clear the backlog of the old system so that the new immigration laws can be implemented more smoothly.”  

Regarding the integration process of all immigrants, the central government also passed a new law called the wet inburgering.  It stipulates that in order to receive social security, immigrants must take a compulsory inburgering, or integration, exam for which optional courses will be available through private education centers.  To pass, they must demonstrate that they are conversational and literate in Dutch, as well as familiar with Dutch culture and society. 

So Who Is Responsible for Integration?

Aside from the wet inburgering, the government takes a decentralized approach toward integration. Bravo explained that “from an official standpoint, once they are legal it is the responsibility of the municipal governments and existing social services to accommodate these new civilians.”  Addressing drawbacks of this policy, Roswitha Weiler, a Senior Policy Officer for the DRC, stated that “there is a lot of confusion because the responsibility does not fall on any specific entity. Moreover, this is the first time such a big group has received asylum at once and it is not clear how integration will proceed.”  Certainly, the question of whether the current system is sufficient to integrate refugees becomes even more glaring given that 26,000 of them will become residents at the same time.

Harry van den Bergh, Chairman of the DRC, stated that the DRC has not yet discussed capacity to handle the influx of new permit holders.  Xanter Wilhelm, Project Leader for the Banenoffensief Vluchtelingen, an organization that helps permit holders obtain employment, stated that “the government should be more centralized, as there is little grasp on what the integration process for the 26,000 will look like.” Some municipalities are more prepared than others.  Concerning the central government’s demands for the content of inburgering courses, Annemarie Nuwenhoud, the Curriculum Developer for Prins & Heida, a firm providing inburgering courses noted that “Now it is not completely clear on which basis the language schools are contracted and how their quality is checked. Municipalities get their money from the central government only for someone who passes the test, so it could be that the interest of municipalities and test takers differ.”  In Amsterdam, the municipality will pay for inburgering courses but in other municipalities, refugees will be responsible for payment.  All in all, no clear system exists to accommodate General Pardon recipients.  Consequently, concludes Harry van den Bergh, “integration will greatly depend on the individual refugee and on the municipal government where he or she lives.”

Taking a coordinated approach toward the General Pardon recipients is further complicated because these individuals have little in common besides their asylum seeker status.  Ulas Atli, an asylum seeker from Turkey who arrived in 1999, received asylum in 2001 and now lives and works in Amsterdam, explained that “asylum seekers do not feel like a group, although they do identify with refugees from the same background. Overall, there is a lot of distrust because they are suspicious that other asylum seekers will harm their asylum process in some way. Consequently there is a lot of secretiveness, people don’t get to know each other very well, and a group identity does not form.” Thus, due to individual and cultural differences, the degree of integration will vary for each refugee, making it difficult to develop a coordinated program to target the General Pardon recipients as a whole. Integration will also be difficult for other reasons: unemployment, discrimination, generational gaps, unavailable housing, and an inadequate social safety net system. 

Economic Integration

In reality, integration will require more than inburgering courses. Aside from minors, who are allowed to attend schools, General Pardon recipients have been isolated for at least 6 years—they have been forbidden to seek employment or even volunteer, and conversational Dutch language courses were not offered by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA).  Such highly restrictive government policies make it almost impossible for asylum seekers to integrate before a final decision is made.  Nonetheless, after receiving residence permits, they are expected to integrate economically and socially.

Research indicates that employment and linguistic competence are essential to integration. In the DRC’s Integration Barometer report, one refugee stated: “Speaking Dutch and having a job are the keys to integration, because then a social network develops automatically.”  However, obtaining employment is exceptionally difficult for refugees. Xanter Wilhelm stated that “while 95% of the Banenoffensief’s job placements are successful, we are unable to help 80% of the refugee population.” Why is it so difficult to find jobs for asylum recipients?

In fact, job experience and degrees obtained abroad count for little in The Netherlands, and employers are hesitant to hire individuals who have not worked for several years. It is clear that refugees who obtain Dutch qualifications have a much greater chance of finding a job, but it is almost impossible to acquire such degrees because current policies compel refugees to find employment as quickly as possible. It is thus no surprise that refugees are at great risk of falling “into a vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty, and limited integration” (Integration Barometer).  Once an individual falls into the unemployment cycle, escaping can be extremely difficult. Wilhelm explained that “the government has little incentive to invest in a group that is already dependent on social security because doing so would require additional tax dollars and is a high risk investment, and employers have little incentive to invest in a group they deem risky. As a result the government looks to employers and employers look to the government and the cycle continues.” 

Discrimination also impedes integration, added Wilhelm. “The hardest part of the Banenoffensief’s work is convincing the employers to hire refugees. Once they do, they’re almost always happy, but then they face discrimination from their employees toward the refugee. Even small things, like exclusion during coffee breaks, can have a very negative impact on social integration.”  The Integration Barometer found that 29% of refugees feel regularly discriminated against. More disturbingly, amongst young people and those with good qualifications, rates of discrimination are higher. Considering the positive impact young and well-educated refugees can have on Dutch society, this news is worrisome. “Out of ignorance,” says Olga Matondo, “people yell at us for not paying taxes and working. It’s ironic and extremely frustrating because we want to work more than anything, if they’d only let us.  All asylum-seekers are stigmatized, and most people don’t know much about us. They think I’m a Surinamese Dutch person and they are shocked when I tell them about Angola.”  For successful integration, steps should be taken to educate Dutch society about asylum seekers. Atli elaborated that “It is terrible that people call asylum seekers ‘fortune seekers.’ If they tried to understand, they would realize that these people have been through so much horror. If they were empathetic, it would be easier to integrate.”

The age of refugees greatly affects the integration process.  Wilhelm notes that “the younger generation is very motivated. They know they are at a disadvantage and they are often more determined than the Dutch youth because of this.”  Such determination is evident in Olga Matondo’s mindset. She says, “I want to be taken seriously. When I look at my peers I see that they have had more chances than I have had in my whole life. I have big dreams that I will go for, but I will have to fight harder for them.”  However, adult refugees who have been waiting idly and isolated from Dutch society for many years, may find the transition process more difficult. Matondo continues: “my parents want to be strong role models for us. But after 13 years it’s difficult for them to maintain their energy. I know they get discouraged.” The challenges facing adult refugees are a big concern for those working with asylum seekers. “It’s tragic for the adult refugees,” says Harry van den Bergh. “In their professional lives they almost never reach the potential they would have had if the process were shorter, education were more accessible and expertise from their home countries was valued.”

Despite pressure from the government and the refugees’ desire to work, the employment process will take a long time.  “We can’t plan yet,” explains Olga Matondo, “we don’t even know if we can stay. If we do receive permits, first we have to look for housing and only then can we concentrate on jobs.”  Getting settled in as citizens will not happen overnight. In fact, says Jan-Willem Anholts, spokesman for COA, “it’s a big question for the 26,000: what will happen with housing? There simply isn’t enough housing available. By 2009 everyone who receives residency under the General Pardon is supposed to have housing, but I suspect there will be some delays.”  Until the refugees have a permanent place to live, uncertainty will continue.  “If they find employment,” continued Anholts, “we can only guarantee housing in that location 50% of the time.”  The Integration Barometer states that uncertainty is the greatest obstacle to integration. Clearly, uncertainty about starting a new life will not end with a conditional residency permit.

Social Integration

Mental health of the refugees is one of the biggest obstacles to integration. According to Harry van den Bergh, “the psychological impact is great and it is estimated that 45% of refugees suffer mentally.” Erick Vloeberghs, International Project Leader of Pharos, an organization focusing on healthcare for refugees explained that, “many of them suffer greatly because of what they have undergone before arriving here and during the asylum-seeking process. They have been waiting for years, isolated and unengaged, which has resulted in social death—a loss of identity and self-worth.  This can lead to low motivation, depression, and sometimes more serious psychological problems.”  When we asked Xanter Wilhelm why the Banenoffensief Vluchtelingen can only find jobs for 20% of its target group, he sighed and said, “We are greatly limited by psychological problems that many of them face, insufficient government funds, and the lack of a coordinated approach toward mental health.” 

“The existing system can take care of them,” Vloeberghs commented. “They are not victims and they don’t want to be pitied.”  While the refugees should not be treated as victims, the current system is not designed to accommodate the specific needs of this group (psychological, residential, and vocational).  The only centralized program that exists—the inburgering process—is not capable of providing social safety nets.  “Each center that offers inburgering is different,” explains Ms. Nuwenhoud, “many of our students need psychological help. Prins & Heida tries to connect them with social services, but we are not social workers so we are limited in how much we can help.” There is not a specific program to monitor the mental health of at-risk refugees when they are transferred from COA to their new residences.  According to Harry van den Bergh, lacking coordination between COA and those responsible once residency is obtained means “the system can create victims because many of them fall through the cracks. Greater bureaucracy in this case is not a bad thing; a coordinated approach toward mental health could empower refugees who are suffering mentally and enable them to integrate more successfully.” 

A more centralized approach toward asylum recipients is needed to address the problems facing asylum seekers.  Consolidation of the sort employed by COA during the asylum seeking process is also needed after refugees receive legal status. A central body could coordinate with the central government, municipalities, refugees, NGOS and social service providers to address integration linchpins such as employment, housing and social support. 

Presently, the inburgering course is the only program that will affect every General Pardon recipient. Fortunately, it has the potential to make a positive impact. Nuwenhoud explains that “the exam is good for a vulnerable group because it is useful for navigating Dutch society and since the refugees often suffer from low motivation we can also focus on empowerment so that it is easier to be proactive and integrate. Moreover, since the test requires competency in Dutch language, illiterate refugees have the opportunity to learn to read and write.” But Ms. Nuwenhoud is concerned about the implementation of the wet inburgering: “The General Pardon is a test case in which there will be a large influx of refugees at one time that will need inburgering courses.  We design each course for the target group but we are limited in our ability to prepare because the municipal government will decide where to send refugees for inburgering, so we might receive none or we might receive several. But the municipality cannot tell us if we will receive refugees until the IND hands out residence permits.”  Still, overall, says Harry van den Bergh, it is likely that “the stricter policy of inburgering creates more opportunity for integration because it really requires knowledge of the language, both written and spoken, as well as familiarity with Dutch society. These two things lead to employment and social networks and those two things lead to integration.”

Conclusion

The Dutch government, local organizations, the media and the Dutch population have not paid enough attention to the integration process of General Pardon recipients as they transition into citizen life. Those working with this group—government officials, Dutch citizens and NGOs—have good intentions, but the shared responsibility of social services means that a coordinated approach does not exist. One reason for this is the diversity among the refugees—they have very different needs and will undergo distinct integration processes.  Still, there are numerous holes in this decentralized system through which many, even the majority, of permit recipients will fall.  The wet inburgering may help with integration but it will not solve key problems such as the difficulty in finding stable employment and the treatment of psychological problems induced by experiences at home and in the asylum seeking process.  Younger refugees who have received a basic education in The Netherlands are more likely to integrate successfully, but they are also more likely to experience discrimination.  Furthermore, it is difficult to obtain Dutch qualifications that will enable refugees to reach their full potential because the current system pressures permit holders to seek employment, not education. Even when advanced degrees are obtained, refugees face discrimination in the labor market. All this means that refugees are almost always unable to rise to their full professional potential. Although the General Pardon stipulates that all recipients must have housing by 2009, this deadline is unrealistic as not enough housing exists. Until housing can be found, it will be difficult to hold a steady job and the integration process will be severely impeded.

Ultimately, integration is a collaborative process between the refugee and society.  The Integration Barometer concludes that “asylum seekers should be given the opportunity to work and learn Dutch during the asylum procedure. In that way, they will stay active and their later integration will proceed much smoother.” Moreover, both refugees and Dutch citizens would like more contact with each other, so according to the Integration Barometer “for the local and national government, there is an enormous opportunity to stimulate and mobilize contact between refugees and Dutch people.”  If the Dutch population is more knowledgeable about the reasons for seeking asylum, there will be less discrimination toward and resentment of refugees and greater possibilities for integration.  A more comprehensive and centralized approach toward integration would mean fewer losers and better opportunities for refugees and the local population to work toward a brighter future as Dutch citizens.

References

Interviews:

Annemarie Nuwenhoud, Curriculum Developer for Prins & Heida, 22 June 2007.

Erick Vloeberghs, 25 June 2007.

Jan-Willem Anholts, Spokesman for The Central Agency for the Reception of 

Asylum Seekers (COA), 21 June 2007.

J.M. Bravo, Senior Policy Official for The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service

(IND), 21 June 2007.

Harry van den Bergh, Chairman of The Dutch Refugee Council, Treasurer of the Board of Humanity in Action, 26 June 2007.

Olga Matondo, Asylum Seeker, 25 June, 2007.

Roswitha Weiler, Senior Policy Officer for The Dutch Refugee Council, 21 June 2007.

Ulas Atli, Asylum Recipient, 26 June 2007.

Xanter Wilhelm, Project Leader for Banenoffensief Vluchtelingen, 21 June 2007.

Sources:

Bram Tuk. “Health, Safety, and Developmental Conditions of Young Asylum Seekers in The 

Netherlands.” Pharos, December, 2004.

COA Annual Report, 2005.

Dutch Council for Refugees Integration Barometer 2005: A Study into the Integration of 

Refugees in The Netherlands. 

-Inburgering Information: 

www.inburgering.net 

www.blikopwerk.nl

Letter to the Chair of the Dutch Lower House of the States General from the Junior Minister 

of Justice: Settlement of the estate of the ‘old’ Aliens Act scheme and the agreement concluded with the Association of Dutch Local Authorities, 25 May, 2007.

‘Settlement of the ‘old’ Aliens Act’s estate’ Scheme, IND, Spring 2007.

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