Discrimination in the name of integration


Discrimination in the name of integration

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Written by: Liz Fekete


The UK government should heed the lessons from a recent report criticising the Netherlands for discriminatory pre-immigration tests for migrants.

Lessons from the Netherlands

In the UK, ‘active citizenship’ is one of the shibboleths in the government’s green paper The Path to Citizenship: next steps in reforming the immigration system. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Dutch fascination with ‘active’ integration and citizenship laws has led to the institutionalisation of discrimination against minority ethnic communities in the Netherlands. The Dutch government could well be open to challenge at the European Court for institutionalising discrimination on the basis of nationality.

Integration begins abroad

The Netherlands, like the UK, was traditionally seen as following a liberal, multicultural approach to integration backed up by strong anti-discrimination laws. But following the rise of the sociologist turned media personality Pim Fortuyn in the late 1990s, Dutch policy-makers began to argue that multiculturalism threatened social cohesion. Subsequently, the Dutch government sought to recalibrate its integration measures, utilising an ‘active integration’ framework, and arguing that it was up to newcomers to ‘prove themselves’.

In 2006, the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to argue that the process of integration should begin while migrants were still in their country of origin. It introduced the Integration Abroad Act (subsequently emulated, in varying degrees, by the British, German, French and Danish governments) which stipulated that some foreign nationals (i.e. those from ‘non-western countries’; applicants from western countries were exempt) that wished to migrate to the Netherlands for marriage or to join family members living in the Netherlands must pass an integration test before entering the country. A compulsory, basic civic integration exam in the Dutch language has to be sat at a Dutch embassy or consulate in the applicant’s country of residence.

In its 45-page report, The Netherlands: discrimination in the name of integration, HRW calls for the civic integration exam to be scrapped. The Integration Abroad Act, with its blanket exemptions for certain nationalities, was from its very inception discriminatory. In practice, it has been applied predominantly to Moroccans and Turks, two of the three largest migrant communities in the Netherlands, classified as ‘non-western’ in official statistics. In fact, in an explanatory memorandum for the legislation, the Dutch government explicitly stated that it was targeting family migrants from Morocco and Turkey, with data provided to support the view that women from these national groups were a burden to Dutch society.

Disguised immigration controls?

Could it be that the true purpose of the law was not integration but immigration control? There has been a 20 per cent reduction in the number of applications for family reunification and family formation in 2006 compared to the previous year. The exam costs 350 euros (each time it is taken), with extra costs for preparatory materials and transportation costs to the Dutch embassy (in some cases located in a neighbouring country). Members of the Turkish and Moroccan community, generally from the most disadvantaged in the Netherlands, can ill-afford such costs. As HRW concludes, ‘the operation of the test, coupled with the income requirements, high costs and long waiting periods, create a strong impression, also expressed by the majority of migrant representatives interviewed by Human Rights Watch, that the measures are not about integration but rather about keeping people out of the Netherlands’. ‘The message is you are not welcome.’

In April 2008, the Dutch government will embark on a major review of the Integration Abroad Act. The British government, which announced in December 2007 that it was considering introducing similar plans to the Dutch, will, no doubt, be watching developments closely.

Related links

The Netherlands: discrimination in the name of integration: migrants’ rights under the Integration Abroad Act, Human Rights Watch, May 2008.




The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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