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Fortress Holland: Sending the Message Abroad

In a similar fashion to other Western European states, the Netherlands does not consider itself an “immigration country” (Penninx, 1996). The reality is, as is often the case, quite different and is reflected in the Dutch immigration policy which has undergone many changes in recent years. These changes have mainly been implemented to address the large number of asylum seekers that come to the Netherlands each year to request asylum, based on the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1951. During the post-war reconstruction phase of the 1950s and 60s, guest workers were invited to come to the Netherlands to work as unskilled or low-skilled laborers. Most of these workers came from Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, and later Turkey and North Africa. This type of economic immigration persisted into the 1970s. Simultaneously, the Netherlands experienced an influx of people from its old colonies, such as Indonesia, New Guinea, Surinam, and most recently, the Dutch Antilles. In the late 1980s and 1990s, requests for asylum in the Netherlands replaced “traditional” immigration, and a shift in Dutch immigration policy can be detected. 

In 1994, 52,576 people applied for asylum in the Netherlands, one year later this number was almost halved as applications fell to 29,256.  By 1998, applications had risen again to 45, 217, compared with 39, 299 in 1999 (Het vreemdelingenbeleid kent z’n grenzen). This last figure does not include refugees from Kosovo. These figures compare to other European countries who were also forced to accept more refugees, most notably the UK and Germany. Like these other countries, the Netherlands have accepted an unprecedented number of asylum seekers (and thus given them the status of refugees), nevertheless, the country was ill prepared to deal with the large numbers of people trying to enter the country. Additionally, the Netherlands had experienced some problems with repatriates who were Dutch citizens by law yet have had difficulties integrating into Dutch society. The primary example is the Moluccans, who were frustrated by their status in the Netherlands and the fact that their independent state of the Moluccas was never established. In the late 70s, Dutch society was completely surprised by the outburst of violence perpetrated by Moluccan youth. The increase of refugees worldwide has put a strain on all potential host countries, not only on the Netherlands. The bureaucratic process that is involved in fairly reviewing the status of refugees and the financial resources necessary to provide things such as adequate housing as well as public support have their limits. For these reasons, the Dutch are trying to limit the number of asylum seekers or, as the government says, to provide shelter for “real” refugees, but not for those motivated by economic reasons.  

But how exactly have the Dutch tried to limit the entry of asylum seekers? Have they been successful? As Kader Abdolah, a Persian writer living as a refugee in the Netherlands, said, “When your house is on fire you just run, without thinking about where you are going to go.” Arguably, it seems that the Netherlands is not such an accidental choice. After all, it is one of the wealthy, stable, European welfare states- characteristics anyone would like to ascribe to their own country. In this paper, we will address the measures taken by the Dutch government as well as attempt to assess whether its policy of deterrence is working or not. We will try to answer this question through interviews as well as information provided by the governmental agencies that are actively involved in immigration policy.

When asylum seekers arrive in the Netherlands, they will go to an “application center” to have their case reviewed. After 48 working hours, they are informed whether or not they can enter the rest of the asylum procedure in the Netherlands or have to leave immediately. If they are admitted, they go on to a “reception and screening” center. They can remain there from three to six months, but they were created for a “stay of seven weeks only” (NRC Handelsblad, 14.8. 97). After this center, asylum seekers move on to an “asylum seekers center”, which are run by the “Central Organ for Asylum Seekers” (COA). There are currently 75 asylum centers in the Netherlands and they typically house from two hundred to fourteen hundred people. The inhabitants are encouraged to live independent lives, they can come and leave the centers as they please, but they have to register with the immigration police every week. They receive a small stipend, there is a possibility to participate in activities or in Dutch language lessons, and the children have to attend schools, located either in the neighborhood or, if no space exists for them there, a school in the center itself. If the asylum request is accepted, then the asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee and receives a residency permit and will also be helped with finding a permanent residency in the Netherlands. If the request is rejected, the applicant has to return to his/her country of origin as soon as possible. Recently, some new measures have been added to this procedure and some will go into effect as of 2001. Integration courses, for example, have been made mandatory nationwide for people who have refugee status. These courses include language lessons, social orientation and vocational orientation. Although the courses are mandatory, in practice, people are not penalized yet if they do not attend the lessons. In this way, the Dutch government does not only confer rights, but also duties on its refugees and promotes their integration into Dutch society. 

Secondly, since 1998, all databases of governmental agencies have been connected to prevent the distribution of benefits to illegal immigrants. Refugees who are registered in the database can receive social security, a housing subsidy, and public health insurance benefits. By cutting off the possibility of benefits for illegal immigrants, the Dutch government wanted to discourage the influx of illegal immigration. Nevertheless, local municipalities have tried to circumvent these measures to help illegal immigrants, so its effectiveness has to be doubted. As one of our interviewees put it: “No Dutch doctor will ever refuse you as a patient; no school will send away a pupil”. An estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants are currently living and often working in the Netherlands today (NRC Handelsblad, 22.6.00).

Another tightening measure is that due to increased air travel worldwide, the Dutch Ministry of Justice signed a contract with KLM Airlines to reduce the number of people entering the Netherlands without sufficient travel documents. Therefore, KLM is required to make copies of passports and other travel documents at high-risk airports and to increase the number of pre-boarding checks. These changes came into effect in 1997, however, an estimated 75-90 percent of asylum seekers still arrive in the Netherlands without recognized documentation (NRC Handelsblad, 22.6.00). KLM is penalized by the government for allowing passengers with out valid passports to fly with them. 

A fourth attempt to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers has been a new policy targeting lone minor asylum seekers. Previously, they had better chances of being accepted as asylum seekers, so abuses of this advantage had become quite common. Therefore, the Dutch government insists on age examination tests to verify that the applicant is truly a minor. These tests can either be X-rays of wrists or collarbones to determine the age of the asylum applicant.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan of the Dutch government has been its “Integral Repatriation Policy” (Ministry of Justice website). Not only are asylum seekers told from the very beginning of the procedure that they might be turned away, but the Dutch government has developed projects with countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Angola to facilitate the voluntary return of people whose requests have been rejected. These projects include a reorientation program towards repatriation already given in the Netherlands, a reception program for the repatriates and the prospects of loans to start businesses in the country of origin to facilitate reintegration. The Ministry of Justice also “set aside a special budget to encourage private initiatives in the field of voluntary repatriation. For 1997 this budget amounts to five million guilders… ten million guilders is envisaged from 1998 onwards” (Ministry of Justice, 03.06.97).

As the Netherlands is one of the founding members of the European Union, Dutch immigration policy is heavily influenced by policy developments in Brussels. Since the opening of all internal borders, the flow of asylum seekers was difficult to monitor. Therefore, it was decided that asylum seekers have to apply for asylum in the first safe European country they enter and only can do so there. If they do not adhere to this policy, the Netherlands, for example, may return an applicant to Germany if his travel documents or other proof suggests that he/she entered Germany first.

Last but not least, in January 2001, a new Aliens Act will go into effect. All recognized refugees and people who can temporarily not return to their country on humanitarian grounds will obtain a permit of residence, valid for three years. This grants them certain rights, such as the right of family reunification, the right to work, the right to obtain student loans and a (refugee’s) passport. After three years a new decision will be made, which will either allow the foreigner to stay in the Netherlands permanently or will oblige him/her to leave. This procedure is meant to be much more efficient than the current system, where many applicants have waited up to five years on the final decision of their status. The new legislation also hopes to curtail the numbers of appeals that are currently slowing down the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), by making it possible to appeal to the courts directly instead of appealing to the IND first. The Ministry of Justice believes that the quicker procedure will discourage “fortune seekers” from coming to the Netherlands and expects that only twenty percent of applicants will receive this new temporary residency permit. The Dutch opposition parties, however, think that the great number of rights granted to asylum seekers will only encourage more people to apply for asylum in the Netherlands.

What we have described above is, of course, the tightening of the “official” asylum procedure. In reality, the experience of an asylum seeker may be very different and may not involve every single step mentioned. It could also involve many more, as the bureaucratic wheels turn very slowly. Therefore, it is necessary to include personal experiences or perceptions of people who have experienced the system in one way or another- as a lawyer, local politician, or an immigration officer. Through them, the procedure receives a “voice” and shows whether and to what extent the objective to decrease the number of people who come to the Netherlands really works.

“It is not easy to be granted asylum,” says Elke Evers, an immigration officer at the IND in Hoofddorp, “we are strict.” The IND building in Hoofddorp, located close to Schiphol Airport, is like many of the surrounding commercial buildings, modern and functional. Security is rather tight. We are ushered into a room on the fifth floor that is used during the appeal process of an asylum seeker, after his or her asylum request has been turned down. It is a plain room with a view of the train station across a busy highway. After receiving a degree in European law, Ms. Evers started working for the IND two years ago. She is one of the ‘decision-makers’ as opposed to an ‘interviewer.’ Decision-makers mainly deal with the laws that concern the asylum procedure, whereas the interviewers receive a different sort of training by the IND. Even after receiving the specialized training in different areas, IND employees’ decisions are supervised and reviewed very strictly. “It takes you quite a while until you work more freely,” says Evers, “decisions are never made alone”. 

The Dutch embassies abroad prepare country reports that are used to help the Ministry of Foreign make the decision as to whether or not a country is safe. These reports, however, are not always up to date and the way they are prepared is often criticized. Furthermore, they are only “a general description of what is going on,” according to Ms. Evers. Recently, the IND has started to experimentally combine the jobs of decision-makers and interviewers, but Evers emphasizes that you “don’t make the decision on your own case.” Above all, she adds that the IND wants to “prevent at all cost to be biased,” because any proof of bias could be used against the IND in the appeals procedure. Therefore, interviewers are not allowed to include their personal impressions in a report. Typically, the interviewer, the asylum seeker, an interpreter, and perhaps a lawyer are present during the personal interview. If the applicant is a minor, a legal guardian will also be there to represent him. Some applicants request the presence of a legal aid from the “Vluchtelingenwerk.”

As Ms. Evers said, “it is not fun to apply for asylum” in the Netherlands, but that does not seem to discourage people from coming here. Evers estimates that 75 percent of asylum seekers arrive here because “the agent took me here.” Another twenty percent say they have heard about the Netherlands respecting human rights and about ten percent cite family ties as the main reason for coming here. Lya Djadoenath of “Bureau Nieuwkomers,” an office that organizes the mandatory integration courses for people with a residence permit also cites family ties as an important reason for coming specifically to the Netherlands, next to finding a safe place. Relatives who already live in the Netherlands often exaggerate their personal success here and in that way make the country seem even more attractive. Rudy Speear, a local politician in the immigrant district of the Bijlmer in Amsterdam and originally from Surinam, confirms this and adds: “The information from the Dutch government doesn’t reach the poor people,” implying that the policies implemented by the government as well as the embassies have very little impact on people than often fictitious personal accounts they may be exposed to. “If there was a road from Surinam to the Netherlands, eighty percent of the Surinamese would be travelling here,” Speear says about the former Dutch colony, which is not recognized as an unsafe country by the Dutch government. When newcomers arrive in the Netherlands, contacts here provide them with a safety net and important information about jobs and housing.

Sitting in the local community club “Liberty”, located in one of the smaller housing complexes of the Bijlmer, Rudy Speear explains that this safety net also has negative aspects, particularly where integration is concerned. Since the community provides a newcomer with everything he or she could need, it is not necessary for him or her to learn Dutch and become an integrated part of Dutch society. Speear’s personal experience, however, shows that, as he says himself, “you have to know the system to be able to function in the society, to help your own community.” According to Djadoenath, so far, most people are not motivated to participate in the integration courses and are “only present to wait until it’s over.”

When Speear first arrived in the Netherlands in 1967, he did not know anything about the Dutch social security system, “on Friday I arrived, on Monday I started working.” Speear says that today, most Surinamese are very aware of what the Netherlands can offer them before they even come here. According to Ms. Djadoenath, however, Dutch society is a “complete labyrinth” to newcomers who often feel lost in the seemingly endless Dutch bureaucratic system. Concerning admittance to the Netherlands, nevertheless, some newcomers have received a lot of information as to how they should apply for asylum. Martijn Strooij, a lawyer specializing in immigration and asylum law, says that the travel agents play a crucial part in the distribution of information since they “inform people about Dutch legislation, for example, they might tell you to throw away your travel documents in order to convey that you come from Liberia rather than Sierra Leone, or the other way around.” He adds that many Kurds actually modify their involvement with the PKK, because they are aware of the fact that you can be denied entrance to the Netherlands if your participation in criminal activity such as acts of terror can be proven. In contrast, Ms. Evers says there can be no certain conclusions about whether or not “people are prepared by agents or know the Refugee treaty of Geneva by heart.”

All interviewees agreed that the asylum procedure as it works today takes too long, that the bureaucratic wheels turn too slowly. Speear described it most drastically, “it s a method to kill.” Similarly, Strooij says that “people are broken after waiting for three years.” In addition, Ms. Djadoenath says that asylum seekers are disappointed that they cannot work to start their new lives, and that they feel they are living on the edge of a normal existence. Speear adds that “it is more attractive to be an illegal immigrant than to follow the rules of the asylum procedure, because you can work.”

Both Evers and Strooij do not have high expectations for the new aliens act which will come into effect next year. The new act is supposed to shorten the procedure, but Strooij says it will only “transfer the problems directly to the courts.” There is also evidence that legislation changes do not affect the flow of people. According to the magazine “Elsevier,” the influx of Iraqis decreased in November 1998 when the Dutch government stopped regarding Iraq as an unsafe country. Momentarily after the court of last appeals nullified this decision in March 2000, the number of asylum requests from Iraqis went up again. Martijn Strooij describes a similar development by stating that the decision on not sending Kurds back to Turkey, rather than shortening the asylum procedure, would attract more newcomers from that group. Thus, there does not seem to be a relationship between the length of the procedure and the number of people arriving.

Another case in point which might have a discouraging effect on foreigners looking for a new country of residence is hidden racism in Dutch society. Jaap van Donselaar who works for Leiden University and the Anne Frank Foundation, thinks that half of the Dutch population is opposed to further immigration. Naturally, this does not necessarily imply that foreigners who already reside in the Netherlands are treated badly, but it does show a tendency of limited tolerance towards immigration in Dutch society. A recurring example of hidden racism has been “a Dutch birthday party.” Kader Abdolah, Rudy Speear, and criminologist Frank Bovenkerk all mentioned that behind closed doors at such an event, the true feelings of the Dutch with regards to foreigners is revealed- and they are not positive ones. Rudy Speear adds that he also felt that initially, as a black man, he was not taken seriously when he went into politics, “they saw me as a marionette.” The general feeling is that Dutch people are not open about their feelings regarding foreigners. “The Dutch can smile and put you in your grave,” Speear says. Probably, the Dutch refusal to speak freely about this topic is due to political correctness and possibly even out of a sense of guilt towards people from former colonies and other deprived countries. In general, the Dutch lack knowledge about their asylum policy and therefore, do not make a distinction between asylum seekers, people from former colonies who are Dutch, and relatives coming for family reunification etc.; they just lump all of these different categories together and see them as one of the main causes for problems within Dutch society.

If we do take a closer look at the statistics of asylum requests, the perception of “all these foreigners coming in” might seem slightly exaggerated. The acceptance level of the submitted requests has been in decrease for years. Within the five year period between 1995 and 1999, the acceptance level went from 37 percent down to 25 percent (Elsevier, 27.05.2000). From 1998 to 1999, there was also a 13 percent drop in application numbers which could indicate many things: that the strict Dutch policy is in fact deterring people, thus leading people to choose illegal immigration or immigration to another country.

“The treatment of asylum seekers in our country is sober and humane. It is so sober that in itself it gives no reasons to come to the Netherlands, but at the same time, it is so humane that people who have left everything behind will find relief” (Government information service: Het vreemdelingenbeleid kent z’n grenzen). In this paper, we have explained the official Dutch asylum policy and it can be considered to be “sober” as well as “humane.” The length of the procedure clearly shows that applying for asylum is not done lightheartedly, and whatever reasons they may have, people often leave their countries of origin with nothing more but a one-way ticket to Europe. Despite tightening its measures, it seems clear that the Netherlands will continue to attract many people- and they will find a way to enter the country, whether by legal or by illegal means. “I would do everything to come here, if I lived in Ghana,” Speear says. The most negative aspect of being an asylum seeker, besides the reality of losing ones country, family, and livelihood, is the length of the asylum procedure. Living in uncertainty of your status for years is cruel. Therefore, it can hypothesized that if the new aliens act really speeds up the procedure that the number of applicants is likely to grow rather than decrease. It can be argued that the new legislation is merely used as a window-dressing mechanism, a feel good factor for politicians and the electorate. Politicians can say that the laws are strict and the electorate will be happy with its politicians- what actually happens is another matter. Changes in Dutch policy, such as the new aliens act have little or no effect on people “whose house is on fire.” Even if people leave their country in a less panicked fashion, the strictness of the Dutch policy hardly makes a difference. 

Asylum seekers are influenced in a crucial way by their relatives and acquaintances who already live in the Netherlands and whose accounts give a glorious image of the country. Therefore, if a community exists within the Netherlands, then the integration measures implemented by the Dutch government almost become obsolete- if you have family and friends in the Bijlmer, they will provide you with housing and maybe even a job- no need to learn Dutch or even try to understand Dutch society. Thus, measures in this field do not affect the number of people requesting asylum. The same is true for speeding up the asylum procedure; as we already mentioned before, general changes in the policy do not discourage newcomers. Even though the Netherlands might be moving in the direction of becoming a fortress, it does not succeed in sending the intended message abroad, nor does it reach the people it is truly meant for.

Dutch asylum policy, like any asylum policy, can only be reactive and not proactive. Its relative inefficiency reveals that it can never be considered a solution for the huge numbers of refugees that are forced to leave their countries every year. Many factors contribute to this wave and many are rooted in the country of origin, such as in their political regimes and economic positions. There will always be people who feel forced to leave their countries, but if Western Europe wants to stem this tide more effectively, it will have to rethink its strategies that it currently employs to stabilize other countries. Real political change, of course, has to come from within a country, but Western Europe and the United States could provide more incentives for countries to become more democratic or more willing to respect human rights.




Battes, Prisco, “Machtige grensrechters”, Elsevier 27/05/00.

Bruinsma, Jet en Toine Heijmans, “Koppelingswet op geen enkele manier succesvol”, De Volkskrant 14/02/00.

Groeneboom, Jos, “Inburgeringswet schiet ernstig tekort”, De Volkskrant 03/05/00.

Janssen, Roel, “Verstekelingen”, NRC Handelsblad 22/06/00.

Ministerie van Justitie, Integral report repatriation policy, Press release 03/06/97, www.minjust.nl

NRC Handelsblad, “Asiel van aanmeld- tot verwijdercentrum”, 14/08/97.

NRC Handelsblad, “Kamer stemt in met Vreemdelingenwet”, 15/06/00.

Penninx, Rinus, “Immigration, minorities policy and multiculturalism in Dutch society since 1960”, in: Rainer Bauböck, Agnes Heller, Aristide R. Zolberg (eds.), The challenge of diversity. Integration and pluralism in societies of immigration (Vienna 1996).

Postbus 51, Het vreemdelingenbeleid kent z’n grenzen (Den Haag 1996).


Kader Abdolah, telephone interview on 21/06/00/

Lya Djadoenath, telephone interview on 28/06/00.

Elke Evers, personal interview on 27/06/00.

Rudy Speear, personal interview on 26/06/00.

Martijn Strooij,  personal interview on 23/06/00.


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