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The Harsh Reality of Dutch Inclusiveness

"Passing the citizenship exam doesn't turn someone into a full-fledged Dutch citizen", Mohamed Ben Hamida concluded in his office in Bos en Lommer, one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Amsterdam. Looking out over the market square, where sentimental Dutch folk ballads played from a flower shop's speakers and diverse international food aromas blended in the air, Ben Hamida, the manager of civic integration affairs in the neighborhood, says that he wants to get rid of the "two-poles idea", because, "we have to move on to one full and inclusive account of citizenship."

The shifting conception of citizenship in The Netherlands, as reflected in the movement from a rights-based to an obligations-based discourse on civic integration, coincided with the country’s movement from a multicultural integration policy to a policy based on shared citizenship. Generally, these shifts are to be welcomed, but Dutch civic integration policies in the last decade have developed in the wrong direction. Civic integration policies increasingly serve as tools to restrict overall immigration, instead of preparing newcomers for Dutch society. From the standpoint of an immigrant - newly arrived in the Netherlands and hoping to become a citizen - what does this shift entail? 

Meet Zarina Ramsar—our fictional character whose story is based on a collection of immigrants’ experiences-a Tunisian woman hoping to move to the Netherlands to marry her Dutch partner, Henk de Vries. For Zarina to join Henk, he is first required to earn 120% of the minimum wage income. Prior to arriving in the Netherlands, Zarina is required to pass the Civic Integration Examination Abroad, which will test her language skills and knowledge of Dutch society. She will have to pay 350 euros for the test. This is in addition to the fees for her visa and a temporary residence permit, as well as for obtaining a ‘Coming to The Netherlands’ package” (including a preparation film) for 65 euros. The costs of Dutch citizenship add up; if she doesn’t pass the exam, she is not allowed to obtain a temporary residence permit. The Netherlands is the first country in the world to introduce such requirements. 

Dutch Immigration History in a Nutshell

Beginning with the independence of the Dutch colonies, Indonesia in 1949, and Surinam in 1975, the Netherlands had a brief period of relatively open borders. Guest worker programs in the sixties and seventies brought migrants, mostly from Southern Europe, Turkey, and Morocco, to fill specific work needs. However, many of the guest workers ended up staying longer than expected, which caused the Dutch government to begin considering tightening migrant-related policies. Immigration researcher Jeroen Doomernik said, "by the early 1980s, people realized that something needed to be done and integration policies came about." When the government realized that immigrants from the guest worker era relied heavily on social welfare benefits, they went on to assume that any illegal immigrants might become particular burdens to welfare services. As the Dutch government sought to tighten their borders, they restricted immigration and integration policies in three main areas: legally, socio-economically, and culturally. Admissions restrictions based on age and income were imposed on persons attempting family reunification. This era was ruled by "discomfort caused by the feeling of being out of control when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees," Doomernik said, adding that this sentiment "spilled over into other areas of immigration and integration policy." He also found these admissions policies to be illustrative of an overall shift in integration policies, as "a gradual move away from laissez-faire and leniency towards a problem-driven and uncompromising approach to newcomers." 

As part of Zarina’s preparation for taking the exam at the Tunisian embassy, she watched the film ‘Coming to The Netherlands’ which the Dutch government issued to familiarize citizenship applicants. Early on, the film teaches Zarina basic facts about The Netherlands, including information about the country’s geography and size in relation to other countries. The film hones in on the issue of immigration and notes that the certain immigrant groups, such as Turks and Moroccans, had difficulties integrating in The Netherlands. Zarina listens as a Turkish immigrant, Hakim, is interviewed. "If someone from abroad was planning to come here," Hakim said, "I would tell them to think very hard about what you’re doing, what you’re letting yourself in for. I would stay in my own country, really." 

When Zarina passes the exam abroad and arrives in The Netherlands a couple of months later, her quest for citizenship really begins with registration at the foreign police office. Next she visits the Council’s Department of Civil Affairs, where she obtains a temporary residence permit. This permit will hold her over, if she’s able to renew it each time, for the next five years, at which point she is allowed to get a permanent residence permit. However, before this happens, Zarina must pass an extended citizenship test. On average the preparation of this test takes about 600 hours. Passing this exam is mandatory within three and a half years after arrival in The Netherlands. Otherwise, Zarina will not be allowed to stay. 

Beginning in 1998, the Dutch government required immigrants to take a citizenship test to demonstrate that they were ready to become successful members of the Dutch society. 

After nearly 600 hours of preparation, Zarina arrives at the IB-groep centre to take her citizenship exam. During the exam, Zarina must demonstrate both practical and theoretical knowledge of Dutch society. For the practical half, Zarina is required to present a portfolio comprised of proofs that she had visited Dutch institutions to take care of practical business. 

Ben Hamida, who manages everyday civic integration affairs, said that there "is still a sense of indifference among the 'host society' to let newcomers integrate successfully." He went on to explain the example of the portfolio: "Some institutions send the ‘inburgeraars’ (candidates taking the exam) away, because they don’t know anything about the civic integration program. If you ask people to fulfill their duty as a newcomer, you should also ask the ‘autochtone’ people to act responsibly. They have duties too, but that is still not emphasized enough." 

Zarina’s application for citizenship does not end with the practical component of the exam. She still must prove that she possesses a general understanding of Dutch history, culture and society, can speak proper Dutch, and she must pass another electronic practical exam. Finally, after demonstrating knowledge in all of these areas, Zarina is notified that she has passed the exam. Several of the other individuals who took the exam, however, did not. They will be required to prepare for and retake the exam, as well as incur all costs yet again. 

While the requirement of the citizenship test has helped ensure that immigrants were prepared to go about their daily lives in the Netherlands and enter the workforce, it did not come about as a benevolent and practical service to the immigrants. Much of the incentive behind implementing the citizenship test came out of the government’s concern that immigrants would abuse the country’s welfare provisions. It was believed that requiring potential citizens to prove their loyalty to the ideals of Dutch society through an examination would ensure that they were ready to fully integrate into civil society. Could the applicants speak Dutch? Did they understand how to use a city’s public transit system? Were they prepared to face hardships in establishing a new life? By and large, the exam’s contents spoke to the government’s expectations of its newest citizens. 

The Promise of Shared Citizenship

Beginning in the 1990s, but especially after the September 11th attacks in the United States, the policy debate, or rather, the whole discourse on civic integration, has been strongly influenced by a number of national and international events. These include the Iraq war, the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, and, on a domestic level, the rise and murder of politician Pim Fortuyn, radical statements by the imam El-Moumni, specific media attention for crimes committed by Dutch youngsters with foreign backgrounds, threats from Islamic fundamentalists to parliamentarian of the Freedom’s People’s Party (VVD) Hirsi Ali, and, of course, by the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan terrorist. The extensive coverage and heated discussions of these events has contributed to a discourse of an alleged 'clash of civilizations' by depicting these incidents as illustrations or metaphors for a growing gap between natives and aliens, especially between Islam and Western culture. As a consequence, the sharp politicized public and media debates surrounding these incidents were often highly symbolic. They focused, for instance, on the threats of worldwide Islamic Jihad, burqas in Dutch public life, and the refusal of Muslims to shake hands with women rather than on traditional social issues, like the labor market and education. The politicization also established a strong connection to broader concerns on the national level, such as the viability of the welfare state and the redefinition of the national ‘envisaged’ community in an era of globalization and migration. The establishment of the citizenship test responded to these concerns, as it stressed a promising way of bridging migrants to their host societies and their bonding within the idea of Dutch identity that is still in the process of cautious reformulation. The concept of shared citizenship as an identity that goes beyond religious affiliation, ethnic background, or any other categorization is currently favored by a variety of sectors of the Dutch population. Ben Hamida, for example, said that it can be useful because we can only then speak about people without making distinction of “allochtoon-autochtoon”  and, consequently, we can leave behind the “two-poles-idea”. The shift in Dutch immigrant integration policies during the past decade towards a citizenship approach stressing civic integration also opened up the possibility of developing notions such as ‘good,’ ‘active,’ and recently ‘common citizenship’ of individual migrants, rather than social-cultural emancipation of migrant groups. For instance, the preparation film for the civic integration exam mentions that there is ‘every opportunity in the Netherlands to be an active citizen and to speak your own mind.’ In the section on finding employment one actor in the film says, "If I do nothing, I get nothing, I achieve nothing. You have to have an active attitude to find work. It’s all about personal responsibility." That sounds appropriate enough, but in conversations with Michael, who migrated to the Netherlands from Suriname four years ago to reunite with his family, we found that this is not the complete story. After being accused by the Dutch government of illegal residency in the Netherlands - which turned out to be ungrounded - and after he was declared ‘unfit for work’ (arbeidsongeschikt) by a doctor, the opportunities to ‘get to work’ shrank almost every time he got into contact with the Dutch bureaucracy. Michael wanted to open his own business and demanded to be tested again so he didn’t have to be dependent on the Dutch welfare state for the rest of his life. After conquering many obstacles to open his business he managed to meet all the obligations. Now he runs his own successful house-repairing company. "I felt like a number during the naturalization process and during the struggle to open my company," Michael explained, "and my feeling of being Dutch has been ruined by the years of struggling through the bureaucratic system. This system is the biggest obstacle for participation and integration. You actually get a feeling of alienation when you get struck in this system, it doesn’t contribute to what the Netherlands is all about." 

While acknowledging all of the obvious shortcomings of the current Dutch system, we nevertheless think that the old conception of citizenship, which is defined with an emphasis on passive entitlements and absence of any obligation to participate in public life, is outdated. As a result of the hard won liberation from suffocating Christian and traditional moral codes that immigrants in the sixties and seventies struggled against, almost every form of moral ‘paternalization’ or any other demands of certain forms of assimilation were considered suspicious. Moreover, well into the 1990s there was a generally shared multicultural ideal that immigration itself enhances a country by providing it with cultural diversity. This approach fit in well with the Dutch tradition of institutionalized pluralism, known as ‘pillarization,’ a nineteenth-century institutional arrangement in which Catholics, Protestants, socialists and liberals lived in separate worlds, with their own schools, newspapers, trade unions, and social clubs. This arrangement limited inter-community contacts, but in theory it made possible a process of ‘collective emancipation’ in accordance with the values of each respective community. 

The stress created by an increasingly multicultural population, as well as the responses to growing feelings of uncertainty about national identity in an era characterized by globalization, Europeanization, individualization, and migration, seem to have had significant influence on national policy making in the area of civic integration policies. The growing stress on citizenship in the context of the nation-state and on the redefinition of national norms and values is therefore not surprising. To assure feelings of membership in and attachment to a particular community of public intellectuals, social scientists and politicians have realized that the health and stability of a modern democracy depends not simply on the justice of its basic institutions but also on the qualities and attitudes of its citizens: some level of civic virtue and public spirit is required. This means that a more active exercise of citizenship responsibilities and virtues in necessary, instead of only a stress on individual rights and entitlements. Even the influential Dutch Multicultural Platform Forum now states that "shared citizenship asks for solidarity with regards to democratic practices, engagement with the organization of local communities, independence and the ability to manage on one’s own. Citizenship", according to the Forum, "is fundamentally based on the principle of reciprocity. People have rights, but also duties." 
The central place of the civic integration exam cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration the prominence of these public debates about which loyalties and capacities are required of citizens in order to fully participate in Dutch society. There has been a shift to place an emphasis on the individual rather than group, cultural, or religious rights. More than ever before, individuals’ citizenship responsibilities in integration processes are stressed. This led to new directions for policy implementation throughout the 1990s including, at one end of the spectrum, the nationally instituted courses given to newcomers as an introduction to Dutch society. The Integration of Newcomers Act (Wet Inburgering Nieuwkomers) of 1998, aimed specifically at self-sufficiency of newcomers in Dutch society. The Benefit Entitlement Act (Koppelingswet), aimed at 'linking' the enjoyment of public goods more closely to the legal status of persons. Both Acts can be seen as other illustrations of this perhaps more 'republican' approach to citizenship. ‘Integration Policy New Style’, formulated in a letter by the Minister for Aliens’ Affairs and Integration in 2003, very much follows the paradigm of the 1990s, as it is based on the leading concepts of ‘citizenship’ and ‘self-responsibility.’ Today, its emphasis is much more on the cultural adaptation of immigrants to Dutch society. 

Dutch Identity? 

From the beginning of the twenty-first century, immigrant integration has been connected to the question of whether a society needs commonly shared norms and values for the social cohesion of society. The introduction of mandatory forms of integration for newcomers and ‘old-comers’ alike suggests that it is not enough if everybody just respects the law and let everybody go his or her own way. Nonetheless, a fear still exists that every desire of demarcating a certain idea of Dutch identity will automatically lead to exclusion of others. This fear, however, is largely ungrounded. 

The "tragedy of multiculturalism," public intellectual Paul Scheffer argued in a very influential article with the same title in 2000, is that the Netherlands is creating an "ethnic underclass" that consists of people who do not feel attached to Dutch culture and society and who are unwilling and unable to integrate. To Scheffer, the cosmopolitan ideology and the cultural relativism of the Dutch elite have prevented them from demanding that the newcomers adapt. As a consequence newcomers and unintegrated old-comers were excluded by decennia of a too lenient integration policy. The only possible solution to this problem, Scheffer said, is a ‘civilization offensive,’ which demands that immigrants adapt to the principles of liberal democracy and have a thorough knowledge of ‘our’ history and culture. "Tolerance can survive only within clear limits," Scheffer said, adding that, "without shared norms, for example, the rule of law, we cannot productively have differences of opinion." Scheffer criticizes "the very idea of a multi-cultural society" as "too conservative" because it denies the fact that migration changes people. Scheffer's message was generally well received in Dutch society and as a consequence it became more commonplace to express classical nationalist sentiments such as the defense of Dutch language and culture, a commitment to common descent, and the need for a shared understanding of history as arguments against multiculturalism. However, some participants of this debate sometimes seem to have forgotten Scheffer’s original worries about a growing ethno-cultural underclass. 

On a more fundamental level, the rejection of the philosophy of preservation of own identity(integratie met behoud van eigen identiteit), which had guided the Dutch attitude towards immigrants over the past decades and granted each cultural group the right to its own social and cultural institutions, was too much an excuse for inaction on the governments part. The entangled nature of civic integration and Dutch national identity is also exemplified by the voices that call for unequivocal choices for Dutch society by giving up dual nationality. Integration is more than employment and education; today it is increasingly about loyalty to the Dutch nation-state and support of its liberal democratic principles. 

No Instrument of Exclusion 

In the last decade tougher integration policies have increasingly become a tool for restricting immigration. "When you come to The Netherlands it is hard to get into the ‘circle’ of Dutch inclusiveness," Hamida says. "A lot depends on your own initiatives. This has not changed with the Law on the Integration of Newcomers 1998. With this law a wall of bureaucracy has been raised. For newcomers this leaves the suggestion that it is really hard and difficult to pass the prerequisites for Dutch citizenship. This is also typically Dutch: it all has to be perfectly arranged within systems and models. The civic integration process nowadays works too much from the assumption of one format that suits everybody." On another level, Hamida noted, "the preparation film about the Netherlands actually gives a kind of frightening picture of The Netherlands. You must do this, you must do that. Find work! Be aware of your duties, that you have to be independent, etcetera. It is not really inviting." 

More fundamentally, most costs of admission and immigration for the state are to be borne by the immigrants themselves. Whereas originally the government funded the municipalities to organize the integration courses, the new system is such that the migrants often bear the full costs. The government explicitly retreats and puts responsibility on the migrants concerned. Most importantly, by introducing an integration requirement for prospective migrants from outside the EU before a visa is granted, integration policies have become instrumental in a more restrictive admission regime. This development of a more systemic connection between immigration and integration as a consequence of the politicization of immigration and integration policymaking over the last decade, resulted in rhetorical and symbolical policies, dominated by a negative tone. The consequence is that The Netherlands lost sight of what the original purposes of civic integration was. We welcome the shift in immigrant integration as an issue of promoting common citizenship, furthering the social-economic participation and social-economic adaptation of individual migrants to national values, norms, and language, in order to be able to flourish and succeed in Dutch society. But the use of integration policies as a tool of migration control is, in our view, an unwelcome development. Such a policy, in the words of migration scholar Rinus Penninx, "polarizes, sustains and increases the divide between natives and immigrants, feeding distrust rather than the trust among immigrants that is needed to speed up integration processes of admitted immigrants."



• Mohamed Ben Hamida, manager civic integration, Bos en Lommer neighborhood, Amsterdam / June 27, 2008. 

• Jeroen Doomernik, researcher on immigration and integration / June 28, 2008. 

• Michael …, former ‘inburgeraar’ (someone who did the basic civic integration exam) / June 29, 2008. 


• Bruquetas-Callejo, M., Garcés-Mascareñas, B., Penninx R., and Scholten, P., Policymaking related to immigration and integration. The Dutch Case. (IMISCOE Working Paper nr. 15: Country Report) http://www.imiscoe.org/publications/workingpapers/documents/IntegrationPolicymakingDutchcase.pdf (visited on June 25, 2008). 

• Carle, Robert, ‘Demise of Dutch Multiculturalism’ in: Society, Maart/April 2006. 

• Doomernik, J., The State of Multiculturalism in The Netherlands, http://www2.fmg.uva.nl/imes/books/doomernik2005.pdf (visited on June 25, 2008). 

• Huinder, C. and Krijnen, H., Het integratiebeleid na het parlementair onderzoek, FORUM, (Utrecht, 2004). 
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Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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