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Reigniting the Integration Conversation in the Netherlands

Tahmina Ashraf, Kyra Fox, Louis Lainé, and Jamila Sallali wrote "Reigniting the integration conversation in the Netherlands" as part of the 2017 Humanity in Action Fellowship in Amsterdam.

A recent report by the Dutch Council for Refugees found that there were more than 20,000 first-time asylum seekers to the Netherlands in 2016. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment of the Netherlands, integration is a “duty” that these “newcomers” to Dutch society must fulfill. But a major question remains unanswered: what exactly does integration entail? We approached law enforcement, Dutch politicians, NGO representatives, refugees to the Netherlands and people on the streets of Amsterdam with the question: what does integration mean to you?

We found that among respondents, there lacks a clear understanding of what this “duty” actually involves. Even though most respondents agreed that “people should do their best in order to be able to live together,” as stated by City Safari CEO Marjolijn Masselink, each respondent emphasized different definitions of and steps to integration. 

Reigniting the Integration Conversation in the Netherlands from Kyra Fox on Vimeo.

The importance that respondents placed on language acquisition varied. For instance, Abdelkader Salhi, founder of the NGO Stichting Attanmia, mentioned that language is the first step a refugee must take in order to “properly” integrate into Dutch society. Yet this sentiment was not shared by other permanent Dutch citizens. One respondent went so far as to say that if refugees do not want to learn Dutch,  they “do not have to, and nothing will happen.” Further, a refugee respondent pointed out that even if a refugee learns the language, the refugee’s accent may render them “not integrated” in the eyes of Dutch society. Overall, it seems that though language acquisition is an important part of integration, it is not enough to become a fully accepted participant in Dutch society.

While learning the language was generally seen as important, most respondents agreed that integration is a “two-way street” in which both refugees and host communities should take responsibility. Brigit Megens, a permanent Dutch citizen, emphasized that refugees should know “how things work” in the Netherlands, just as Dutch citizens should know how things work for refugees. The importance of mutual understanding was echoed by another respondent who articulated that “habits and customs should be learned on both sides.” However, one respondent disagreed, stating that the onus to socially acquiesce should fall on the refugees who, by entering the Netherlands, tacitly agree to not “condemn [Dutch norms]” given that they are merely “guests” in the country.

Some respondents went as far as to specify different norms and standards that refugees must follow, although prioritization of these norms varied. According to Megens, “refugees should have the ability to engage in societal activities such as volunteering.” Yet Reza Sardari, a refugee to the Netherlands, pointed out that while “volunteering is a Dutch norm,” it is not a norm for many refugees. A police officer stationed in Amsterdam West stressed adherence to legal norms as necessary for successful integration. The varying emphasis on what kind of norms refugees must adhere to reveals a discrepancy in different definitions of integration. 

In addition to these varying definitions, we also noticed that discussing the word “integration” elicited different reactions from respondents. Jamila Talla, freelance consultant on refugee issues, emphasized that integration “is a word - just that and nothing else.” Other respondents were reluctant to even engage in a conversation on integration, responding that they were “not interested” or simply that integration “doesn’t matter [to them].” Some responses left us discomfited. For instance, when we asked an undocumented asylum seeker to tell us what integration meant to him, he immediately responded, “Liberty and freedom.” Though brief, his response offered a glimpse into the the life of someone for whom integration is not merely a word, but an imminent reality. Laughing, he continued, “I guess I am already integrated here, since I love to eat herring!”

Integration, whether a “duty” or not, will remain unrealized until we pinpoint what this slippery concept means in practice. While a truly universal definition may be out of reach, the reality is that refugees need to successfully integrate. It is high time to time to revive the conversation on integration in the Netherlands.

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