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Higher Education: Privilege or Right for Surinamese Students?

Kelvin Vrede, a young immigrant, came to the Netherlands seeking medical treatment not provided in his home country. While receiving his treatment and applying for a residence permit, he started a college education. Kelvin finished the theoretical part of his studies in the insurance and banking sector in 2010. But before he could receive his diploma he needed to complete an internship. When he found a position, however, the Dutch state denied him this possibility, claiming he did not have proper work permits. Kelvin claimed that this was a violation of his civil rights and sued the state in September 2011. Kelvin won his lawsuit in May 2012 on grounds of article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which reads, ‘No person shall be denied the right to education.’

Rights of undocumented students

Under Dutch law, undocumented immigrants have the right to begin their education in the Netherlands before they turn eighteen and complete the degree even if their request for asylum is denied. However, if their last step in the completion of the degree is an internship, which is standard in Dutch technical schools, they cannot obtain their diploma. The Dutch state categorizes all internships, paid or unpaid, as work. Proper documents and permits are necessary to work, which undocumented migrants do not possess. In this way, the state prevents undocumented youth from outside the European Union from entering the labor market. As a result, undocumented students, like Kelvin (born in 1991), cannot obtain diplomas from many universities.

On the one hand, this problem arises from a disparity between theory and reality. Conceptions of internship, work and education should be defined by the state in such a way that they correspond to reality. On the other hand, any type of labor reform requires substantial political will, which currently does not exist. For example, Henk Kamp (VVD/Liberals), the former Minister of Social Affairs from 2010-2012, created a fining system for the state in such situations. Any institution caught with an undocumented intern could get a €8000 fine on inspection. However, the current Minster of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA/Social Democrats), suspended both the law that classifies internships as work and the fine system.

At present, undocumented migrants are allowed to conclude their education with an internship, but only if they came to the Netherlands before the age of eighteen. Pieter Hilhorst, who featured a story on Kelvin as part of his television program The Ombudsman, claimed that a lack of awareness keeps young people from accessing education. He said, ‘many undocumented people are unaware of their right to start an education in the Netherlands as long as they are eighteen or younger.’ Even if they are aware of their right to an education, they often lack the knowledge about the university application process and financing options.

In the future, the right to an education may be expanded to those who immigrated as adults. The First Protocol to the European Convention may play a role, as it does pertain to all persons, regardless of age, who are denied the right to education. We have yet to see how this development will be settled in black letter law. In any case, Kelvin’s former attorney said that Kelvin has recently completed his studies, despite the legal setbacks he faced.

Unexpected twist: the Surinamese dimension

Have justice and order been restored? Can we now focus our complete attention on the rights of the irregular immigrants who ended up in the notorious Dutch detention centers near Schiphol? Not yet.

In the Netherlands. Kelvin is not like any other immigrant sans papiers, because he was born in Suriname. This casts the whole affair in a different light. Uri Rosenthal (VVD/Liberals), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2010-2012), explained in his letter to parliament on Surinamese-Dutch relations: ‘The shared history, the communal language and the social networks between the Netherlands and Suriname form the basis for a continuously strong interconnectedness between both societies.’ The Dutch West India Company created Suriname by importing between 200.000 and 300.000 slaves from Africa to Suriname in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is estimated that on average 16% of the slaves died crossing the Atlantic. The Dutch state has never made apologies to Suriname for the suffering and general depletion it caused by its involvement in the slave trade and the plantations, which, according to the modern definition of the International Criminal Court, would rank as crimes against humanity.

Taking into account these factors, the fact that Kelvin comes from Suriname is of great importance. This was also recognized by his former attorney, Jelle Klaas, from the Fischer Law Firm in Harlem:

‘For three hundred years, the Netherlands has decided over the Surinamese economy, infrastructure and educational system. Kelvin is a descendant from the slaves that we transported by the Dutch to this Dutch colony. […] Fifteen years before Kelvin was born, this country that was still a Dutch colony. Kelvin’s mother tongue is Dutch. The type of education that Kelvin follows now does not exist in Surinam. If Kelvin would want to work at a bank in Surinam, he would have to study in the Netherlands.’

A relevant document that Klaas refers to is the Declaration from the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban in 2001. The Declaration is an anti-slavery document signed by most of the countries in the United Nations. It specifically deals with the rights of people of African descent, and how the former colonizing nations have the duty to provide for the former colonies. In article 101 of the Declaration, the Conference ‘calls on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to [express remorse and present apologies].’

The Declaration also emphasizes the universal right of access to education regardless of age and background. The Conference ‘urges States to ensure access to education for all in law and practice, and to refrain from any legal or any other measure leading to imposed racial segregation in any form in access to schooling’ (article 122). In the opinion of Klaas, the Dutch state should start by not denying the Surinamese their basic rights and acknowledge the enormous role and benefits it got from Surinam.

In the end, Kelvin won his case because of his right to education. The historical ties between the Netherlands and Suriname formally did not play a role. In the period leading up to the verdict, the Kelvin case was receiving a good deal of media attention.  Had Kelvin lost his lawsuit, chances are that this would have stirred up debate on the responsibilities of the Netherlands to one of its former colonies. 

On July 1st, 2013, the Netherlands celebrates the abolition of slavery in 1863. By remembering this moment, we pay homage to the ‘continuously strong interconnectedness ’of the Netherlands and Suriname. We remember our countries’ historical ties rooted in colonialism, and think of ways to move forward while simultaneously dealing with this past. In the speeches held on the national remembrance day of the Dutch slavery past of the last three years, a recurrent topic, in the words of the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD/Liberals), is ‘the full awareness that the slavery past is a past that is alive, and it should stay this way.’ Raising awareness for what happened implies that we need to invest in the knowledge of the new young generation, tomorrow’s future leaders. For us, this prompts the question: if our societies are so interconnected, and the slavery past so alive, than how accessible is Dutch higher education to Surinamese people?

Educational Development in Suriname

The current educational system in Suriname has left many students with few opportunities for professional success. From the primary school level onwards, many schools lack the basic facilities and materials necessary to provide students with quality education. Many schools in rural areas lack plumbing and electricity, and buildings that were damaged during the 1986 civil war remain unrepaired three decades later.  Quality of education varies enormously from coastal regions to the poverty-stricken interior as well. Whereas about half of students in the Paramaribo area qualify for entrance to the academic track of junior secondary school, only about 30 percent of students in the interior do so.

In response to this educational crisis, the Inter-American Development Bank recently approved a US $13.7 million loan intended to improve the quality of Surinamese schools. This stimulus money will be used to modernize curriculum and facilities in primary and junior secondary schools (schools serving children ages 4-16). IDB project team leader Annelle Bellony said, ‘Improving the learning outcomes in core subjects of Dutch and mathematics, training all of Suriname’s approximately 5,000 primary school teachers, supporting efforts to streamline the education system, and exploring the use of information and communication technologies in schools will dramatically improve graduates’ ability to access the labor market.’

This loan from the IDB is part of the latest attempt to save a school system that is often portrayed as outdated, understaffed, and lacking basic facilities and materials. However, while Suriname has invested millions of dollars into its primary and secondary education systems, its higher education system continues to lack support.

In recent years, as demand for university education has increased greatly, the number of spaces at the Anton de Kom University of Suriname has remained unchanged. This has forced popular university departments to become increasingly selective, granting admission only to students with the best exam scores. The result of this is that average students—perhaps not the brightest scholars but certainly capable of attending a university—are left to fall through the cracks. Without space at the University of Suriname, and without the financial resources to study abroad, many grudgingly abandon their dreams of higher education and enter the labor market instead.

Even those lucky enough to enroll at the University of Suriname will find their academic options fairly limited. Compared to the University of Amsterdam, which offers more than 200 fields of study, students at the University of Suriname must select from fourteen areas of study, with most being concentrated in engineering or social work. Students wishing to focus on even slightly obscure topics, like Art History or foreign languages, cannot take courses in Suriname. They are left with two options— choose from the very limited number of degree programs offered at the University of Suriname, or complete a degree overseas. Given the fact that all Surinamese schools conduct classes in Dutch, the Netherlands is the most logical place for students to come if they do choose to study internationally.

Trials and tribulations of Surinamese students

According to Bharti Girsjasing, lack of financial opportunities and bureaucratic difficulties have begun to make the Netherlands a less attractive option for Surinamese immigrant students. Born in the Netherlands, Girsjasing spent her adolescence in Suriname, before she returned to attend university in 2007. Today she is part of the youth commission of the umbrella Organization for Surinamese Participation (SIO, Surinaams Inspraak Orgaan). On behalf of the Surinamese community in the Netherlands the SIO advises the government on integration policies through the National Consultation Platform on Minorities (LOM, Landelijk Overleg Minderheden).When asked about the situation of undocumented Surinamese students, Girsjasing remarked that these people are not part of the SIO target group. The last information on the size of this group known to her via the Central Bureau of Statistics is from 2001. At that point, some 8.200 undocumented Surinamese lived in the Netherlands, of whom an estimated 1000 to 3000 people were students. The SIO is more closely involved with the fate of the 500 to 1000 Surinamese students who come to the Netherlands every year with proper documentation. Moreover, Girsjasing, who lived in Suriname for ten years, also has first hand experience about the plight of foreign students.She recalls that amongst her peers ‘it was considered important to go to the Netherlands to study after high school,’ adding: ‘for those who could pay.’ With a Dutch passport, Girsjasing’s choice was relatively easy. Without Dutch nationality, however, the process is much more difficult.

Financing education remains a serious problem for many Surinamese students, regardless of whether they possess documentation or not. When Surinamese students enroll for university, they are not entitled to studiefinanciering: a government grant program available to Dutch students who complete their education within a certain time frame. They are also legally barred from working for more than ten hours a week. This makes it almost impossible to self-finance their education, which is not an uncommon for Dutch students. ‘Besides’, notes Girsjasing, ‘they have to go through the procedure to get a working permit first.’ In the Netherlands, the employer needs to request such a permit for his employee. Girsjasing claimed, ‘if an employer can choose between a Surinamese student and a Dutch student, it is therefore likely that he will choose for the last.’

This problem became a topic of discussion at the end of 2010. Thirty Surinamese students received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND, Immigratie en Naturalisatie Dienst) of the Ministry of Justice and Security, in which they were expelled from the country for doing unregistered work. The underlying problem, a liberalization of the ten-hour norm for Surinamese students, is one of the crucial points in the current political debate on Surinamese students’ rights.

There is also considerable debate about the deposits Surinamese students need to pay to their educational institute, to show they are financially secure. The absence of any clear government regulation in this field gives each university the agency to make its own rules. An example: Inholland, university of applied sciences, lists two methods for Surinamese students to apply. The first method involved a transfer of €2630, together with an original, personal bank statement that shows you have at least another €9760 at your disposal—enough to cover a year of studying. The second method asks students to make the full deposit of €12.390 at once. What happened to quarterly installments? What if the parents can channel money every month, but cannot transfer the whole sum at once?

Girsjasing claims that lack of financing options, a stringent and exhaustive IND procedure in order to obtain a study visa, and the rigid attitude of the Dutch government, ‘has made the Netherlands much less attractive than it once was. It becomes more and more clear to the Surinamese students that they need to work twice as hard as regular students just in order to survive. The Netherlands is no longer the Walhalla.’

Surinamese students do still have one privilege above all other non EU citizens that wish to study in the Netherlands. The pay the same tuition fee, as if they were Dutch students, an exemption granted by former Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk (PVDA/Social Democrats) in 2007. In his motivation for his decision, Plasterk mentioned that ‘the longstanding relationship between the Netherlands and the former colony of Suriname, even though it became an independent state, still affects the way in which we give meaning to our present connections, not just in terms of development aid and culture, but also on the field of education.’

Tanja Jadnanansing grew up in Suriname and is involved with the rights of Surinamese students as a Member of Parliament (PVDA/Social Democrats). ‘Because I am from Suriname, I understand where the struggle of Surinamese students comes from. I think some extra rights, such as the exemptions on tuition fees are good. I asked the minister if she could give these students the right to work, but there was very clearly no option to do that.’ On the other hand, says Jadnanansing, ‘I find it hard to put one group above the others.’

Personal Perspectives of Two Surinamese Students 

Despite the many struggles they face in obtaining documentation to come to the Netherlands, some Surinamese immigrant students do manage to achieve success through hard work. One such example is the story of Eva*. She first decided to pursue a degree in the Netherlands when she was eighteen, attracted by the country’s many quality universities and professional opportunities. ‘I knew I wanted to study Chemistry, and those opportunities just didn’t exist in Suriname,’ she explained. Eva also realized that the Netherlands would be the best place for her to study, because she knew the Dutch language and had family members living in the country. She was confident that she could excel in her university classes and adjust to life in a new society.

When her acceptance letter from the University of Amsterdam arrived, the only thing obstructing Eva’s path to the Netherlands was the visa application process. ‘I remember being shocked by how many documents I needed to show in order to apply for a visa,’ she said. ‘The [Dutch] embassy wanted to see everything: bank statements, my family’s income, and paperwork from the university proving that I was accepted to study science.’

Eva also needed to prove that she had family members living in the Netherlands who could financially support her. Eva’s application was immediately rejected. ‘Since my aunt who was living in the Netherlands did not have a permanent job, the embassy rejected my application and said that my family did not have enough money to support me’, she said. Still determined, Eva filed another application, this time listing the names of her Dutch family members with higher incomes. This time her visa request was granted. Eva remarks: ‘I lost a whole year, a year I could have been studying Chemistry and improving my life, just waiting to hear about my application,’ she said.

Fortunately, the visa application proved to be the most difficult part of Eva’s move to the Netherlands. She arrived and immediately immersed herself in her university classes. Although she was the only Surinamese student in the Chemistry department, she said she was able to adapt to university life without much trouble. She also remembers being startled by the fast-paced Dutch lifestyle. ‘I would see people running to catch their trains at the metro station, and I thought it was so strange, especially since trains come every few minutes.’ Overall though, she claims her transition was fairly smooth.

Her bigger worry was paying for school. Although she paid the same tuition rate as native Dutch students she also needed to purchase textbooks and cover her costs of living. She often worked multiple jobs in the evenings and on weekends, doing everything from tutoring other university students to cleaning houses. Since many of her jobs paid her in cash, she was able to circumvent the regulations that bar Surinamese students from working more than ten hours per week. Eva also managed to find time to participate in student council, where she served as the voice of Surinamese and migrant students.

*name has been changed to protect identity 

After seven years of hard work, Eva graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a master’s degree in Chemistry in 2010. Since then she has purchased a home with her Dutch boyfriend, and begun a PhD in Chemistry. She serves her community as a member of the ECHO Foundation—an international organization that provides financial support to distinguished university students from minority backgrounds. Despite her love and pride for her culture, Eva says she has no desire to return to Suriname. ‘I have a house, a boyfriend, a career I love, and organizations I care about. The Netherlands is now my home.’

Jo-Ann Walden’s story shares similar themes of success through education and successful integration. She first came to the Netherlands in 2005 from Suriname to pursue a university degree in Dentistry. When her application for Dentistry was rejected, she reapplied successfully as a dental hygienist. Moving to a completely new setting was not easy at the beginning. Jo-Ann’s mother has lived in Amsterdam for the past twenty years, and she was able to provide financial security to enroll at university. As a person of Surinamese descent, Jo-Ann struggled at the start of her school year because she had to settle in the city without any financial aid. 

For a lot of young people from Suriname it seems natural to migrate to the Netherlands in search of a better education. In Jo-Ann’s opinion a lot of them want to get their degrees and go back to Suriname, because of the higher rates of unemployment in the Netherlands in recent years. However, in Suriname, jobs that require highly skilled workers are hard to find and the people who want to get their Masters degree or a PhD have to stay in the Netherlands. 

At present, the situation is becoming even more difficult for students from Suriname who have received education, and want to continue their study in the Netherlands. Jo-Ann’s sister who is highly educated encountered even more problems and a strenuous process of collecting all the documents in order to continue her education in Amsterdam. ‘The process of applying and getting the permit seems easier and faster for people without any higher education from other countries, like Morocco or Turkey,’ Jo-Ann pointed out.

Although it was challenging at first, Jo-Ann was able to improve her position in the Dutch society and generally feels comfortable in Amsterdam. She got her citizenship after three years and now she works as a dental hygienist and currently does not think about returning to Suriname. The stories of Eva and Jo-Ann support a widespread idea that people of Surinamese descent are the most successfully integrated minority in the Netherlands. Both are immigrant students who managed to turn their career into a success by overcoming extensive challenges.

What the future holds

Surinamese are often considered Dutch by default. This is in great part due to the fact that they speak Dutch, and because Suriname has a place in the Dutch collective consciousness.  This is why people are shocked to hear that many of the clients of the Fischer Law Firm are in fact Surinamese undocumented migrants; it contradicts the common misconception that people can move freely between the Netherlands and Suriname. The group’s vulnerable status also makes raising awareness about immigrant rights more difficult. The risk of deportation makes people reluctant to share their stories publicly. 

Through the story of Kelvin, we concluded that his legal right to an education could not be completely detached from the fact that he came from Suriname. These rights are confirmed not just in political discourse but also in practice. The main example is the exception made for Surinamese students, who can pay the regular tuition fee like Dutch students. This led to the question how accessible the Dutch education system is for regular Suriname students.

Accessing Dutch education, as has been shown, is difficult for Surinamese students. Considering that finance is their main problem when they decide to come to the Netherlands for studies, the question is raised if, and to what extent, Surinamese immigrant students should receive more rights—e.g. a normal work permit—than other immigrant students because of the Dutch colonial history in Suriname. But, as Jadnanansing pointed out, this may be perceived as inequitable, because it “ puts one group of people above others.” Still, there seems to be a bigger opening for advancing particular rights of regular and irregular Surinamese students, rather than trying to get more rights for all undocumented and foreign, non-EU students in the Netherlands. What makes the whole situation highly unsatisfactory is that these rights should have been negotiated with the independence of Suriname in 1975. Even though this is still not so long ago, the momentum for the Netherlands to make real investments in Surinamese youths seems to have passed. The political debate will have to focus on the problem of how to weigh and manage the interests of different minority groups equally, while being mindful of their specific history and relation to the Netherlands.



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Jelle Klaas: jelle_klaas@hotmail.com

Pieter Hilhorst: pieterhilhorst@gmail.com

Bharti Girsjasing: bharti.girsjasing@gmail.com

Tanja Jadnanansing: t.jadnanansing@tweedekamer.nl






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