Background Briefing

Reasons for the Change

Previous Dutch policies towards its immigrant communities had aimed at the full and equal participation of specific groups in society, allowing space for cultural expression and development facilitated by the government. Recent policies had focused on the responsibilities of individual members of society. Civic integration courses as an introduction to Dutch society were required for certain categories of newcomers.12 These courses under the previous integration policy included Dutch language training, teaching about Dutch society, including its important institutions, as well as, to some extent, its labor market, and led to the development of an extensive infrastructure of course providers.13

The current minister for housing, communities and integration has explained integration as having occurred when "someone who has come to the Netherlands speaks Dutch and is familiar with the culture and the values and norms. People must be able to understand, comprehend and tolerate each other.

However the last decade has seen public criticism of immigration, and of some migrant communities, with allegations that certain groups do not “integrate.” Allegations of segregation, a high level of school drop-out, and of unemployment among some ethnic minority communities, and the alleged failure of immigrants to learn Dutch, have been used as reasons to declare the failure of multiculturalism and previous integration policies. The most prominent criticism was by the sociologist and publicist Paul Scheffer in his essay entitled “the multicultural disaster” in 2000.15 His critical essay on this dissatisfaction and alleged neglect of negative aspects of multiculturalism also had a great impact on the emerging national integration debate on immigration, Muslim migrant communities, and Dutch national identity and values.

The main targets for these attacks have been Muslim communities, especially Turks and Moroccans. An issue often highlighted as a threat was the common practice among Turkish and Moroccan migrants of arranged marriages and so-called “imported brides.” This was then linked to fears about forced marriage, the perceived low status of women in some cultures and their educational and economic disadvantages.

In fact, in 2004 a Parliamentary Research Committee on the Integration Policy (Blok Commission)16 concluded amongst other things that integration had actually been relatively successful and that progress had been achieved in the various fields of housing, employment, and education. But these findings of the commission at that time were largely ignored in a climate of public attacks on immigration, migrant communities, and Dutch integration policies.

In this climate, some politicians, such as the late Pim Fortuyn, espoused platforms that promoted a reduction in immigration (in Fortuyn’s case, combined with anti-Muslim rhetoric), and saw an increase in their support among the “native” Dutch population (those with both parents having been born in the Netherlands). Critics such as Fortuyn, and Rita Verdonk (who served recently as Minister for Aliens’ Affairs and Integration), other politicians in major political parties, and to some extent even the Blok Commission argued that the state should pursue a much more “active” integration policy that placed more demands on the immigrant population and emphasized the importance of essential Dutch values and standards.  The integration courses for migrants were attacked as well for failing to achieve their objectives, although others said problems with the courses were inevitable given that they were new.17

These attacks produced a government response. In 2002 a government memorandum argued that: “Immigrants are offered enough possibilities to use their rights and to fulfill their social obligations, but they have to prove themselves.”18 The 200219 and 2003-620 coalition governments under Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende transformed the policy framework, combining mandatory integration requirements with the stated aim of enhancing social cohesion with new restrictions on immigration, especially for those seeking to bring non-Dutch family members to the Netherlands. In major shift “newcomers” coming to the Netherlands for marriage or to join family members already living in Netherlands are now expected to begin the process of integration while still in their country of origin.21

The Dutch government introduced under this “Integration Policy New Style” a series of explicit policies purportedly aimed at the integration of migrant communities. The overall objective of these measures was set out in the coalition agreement presented by the second Balkenende government to the parliament in May 2003:

Anyone who wishes to settle permanently in our country must participate actively in society and master the Dutch language, become aware of Dutch values and observe the standards. Each newcomer who comes to our country voluntarily … must first learn basic Dutch in the home country as a condition for admission. Once arrived in the Netherlands, the newcomer must also deepen his or her knowledge of Dutch society.22

Following the 2006 election of a new government in the Netherlands, which came into office in February 2007, there has been a shift in the discourse and approach to integration policy and social issues, with greater emphasis given to the amelioration of poverty and alienation within society as a means of addressing lack of integration. In November 2007 the government issued an Integration Memorandum (Integratienota) presenting a 56-point plan on integration for 2007-2011, placing more emphasis on action to combat racism, discrimination, polarization, and radicalism.23

During her presentation of the memorandum, the current Minister of Housing, Communities and Integration, Ella Vogelaar, expressed concerns about the widening gap between native Dutch people and migrants. But she also signaled the government’s intention to pursue different policies than those of her predecessor, Rita Verdonk, and her refusal to join the contest among anti-immigration politicians to see who could have the strictest policy.24 She pointed out that integration also requires an effort on the part of the native Dutch population.

However, despite this change in rhetoric, the tests introduced by the previous government, and particularly the overseas integration test, remain in force, with the discriminatory outcome that is set out below.

12 See for instance M. Bruquetas-Callejo, B. Garcés-Mascareñas, R. Penninx and P. Scholten, “Policy making related to immigration and integration. The Dutch case: a policy analysis,” IMISCOE-Working Paper nr 15,, and Saskia Bonjour, “Who’s in and who’s out? The postwar politics and policies of family migration in the Netherlands,” Paper prepared for the ESSHC Conference, Amsterdam, March 22-25, 2006.

13 This civic integration system was developed and made mandatory on the basis of the Newcomers Integration Act (Wet inburgering nieuwkomers, WIN). Courses were voluntary for established immigrants, so-called “oldcomers.”

15 Paul Scheffer, “Het multiculturele drama” (the multicultural disaster/tragedy), NRC Handelsblad on January 29, 2000.

16 A Parliamentary Research Commission on the Integration Policy appointed by the lower house of parliament headed by Stef Blok from the Conservative Liberal party (VVD), to study and review the Netherlands’ integration police, which published a final report: “Bruggen Bouwen” (Building Bridges), Parliamentary Papers Lower House 2003-2004, 28 689, Nos. 8-9,  and English Summary, Chapter 10 Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations, (accessed March4, 2008). The committee applied the following definition of integration. “A person or group is considered integrated in society if their legal position is equal to that of native Dutch people, if they participate on equal terms in the socioeconomic field, if they have command of the Dutch language and if they respect the prevailing standards, values and customs. Integration is a two-sided process: newcomers are expected to be prepared to integrate, while the Dutch society has to make integration possible.”

17 Some pointed to deficiencies and insufficient results of the integration courses, such asthe relative ease by which newcomers could evade their obligations; the high drop-out rates, and the fact that only a limited number of newcomers reach the point deemed necessary for autonomous functioning and active participation in Dutch society. These results were seen by some as teething troubles typical of the initial stages of such new programs. Others claimed that the entire idea of integration courses was ill-conceived.

18 Government Memorandum “Integratie in de Context van Immigratie” (Integration in the Perspective of Immigration), Kamerstukken II, 2001–2002, 28 198, no. 2, pp. 49, 54.

19 A short lived coalition of the Christian Democratic Appeal CDA party, the Liberal party VVD, and the Pim Fortuyn LPF party.

20 In the second coalition, the LPF party was not part of the government anymore. A new coalition government was formed by the CDA, VVD, and the progressive liberal party Democrats 66 (D66).

21 Motion by Sterk et al. (CDA) approved on December 17, 2002, Parliamentary Papers Lower House 2002/03, 27 083, No. 25.

22 Parliamentary Papers Lower House, 2002/03, 28 637, No. 19, p. 14.

23 See Ministry of Housing, Communities and Integration, “2007—2011 Integration Memorandum: Make sure you fit in!” press release, November 1, 2007, (accessed February 4, 2008).

24 See Ministry of Housing, Communities and Integration, “2007—2011 Integration Memorandum: Make sure you fit in!” press release, November 1, 2007, (accessed February 4, 2008); “Vogelaar breekt met aanpak van Verdonk”, “Ook de autochtoon moet zijn best doen,” NRC Handelsblad, November  13 and 14,2007 and “Minister attacks anti-immigration MPs,”, November, 14 2007, (accessed March 4, 2008).