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Integration Policy | Netherlands |

Netherlands Introduction Historical Trends Immigration Policy Immigrant Population Integration Policy Citizenship Immigrant Integration Irregular Migration Refuge and Asylum Current Developments References and Further Reading

Integration Policy

Evelyn Ersanilli

/ 8 Minuten zu lesen

The Netherlands have attracted migrants for centuries. Initially, they were encouraged to maintain their own cultures. Since the 1990s, however, there has been increasing pressure to assimilate into Dutch culture. Successful integration has become a prerequisite to acquire political rights. The electoral success of anti-immigrant parties since the turn of the millennium has fuelled this development.

Hindus celebrating the Holi feast in The Hague: Initially, immigrants were encouraged to maintain their own cultures. Since the 1990s, however, there has been increasing pressure to assimilate into Dutch culture. (© picture-alliance)

1960-1997: Culture as an Asset

Initially both the Dutch government and immigrants believed that their stay in the Netherlands would be temporary. Given this "myth of return", it was considered unnecessary to fully integrate migrants into Dutch society; thus the government only aimed to provide them with good living conditions. Guest workers were allowed to make use of all of the regular provisions of the welfare state. Additionally, cultural and social facilities were set up. The children of guest workers could take special mother tongue classes. All measures were aimed at making the transition back "home" as smooth as possible.

System of pillarization

This provision of support for cultural maintenance fitted with the Dutch principle of "sovereignty in one’s own circle", which was part of the system of "pillarization" (verzuiling). This Dutch political system took hold in the first half of the 20th century and accorded each religious faith, and later the secular socialist and liberal groups, their own "pillar". The pillars had an elaborate infrastructure that encompassed most of public life including trade unions, newspapers, sport clubs, undertakers and, for the Christian groups, schools. The Netherlands has rapidly secularized since the Second World War, but the institutional structures of pillarization are still in place.


In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a growing realization that immigrants would stay in the Netherlands. There were also concerns that many of the members of the largest migrant groups had a weak socio-economic position; unemployment was well-above that of native Dutch and the children of migrants performed poorly in school. In the early 1980s the ethnic minority policy was introduced with the later infamous slogan of "integration with the preservation of migrants’ own identities." The maintenance of immigrant cultures was no longer seen as a means of facilitating return to the countries of origin, but as a road to emancipation, similar to the one the Catholic minority had followed. There was generous state support for immigrants’ social and cultural life; there were consultative councils for ethnic minorities at the local and national level; mother-tongue teaching was introduced in primary schools. The first Muslim and Hindu schools were erected using laws from the time of pillarization. Aside from stimulating integration through cultural activities, the policy aimed at equality before the law and equal opportunity in the labor market, housing market and education.

Change of policy

In the 1990s, it became clear that the socio-economic position of the four main non-Western immigrant groups (Turks, Surinamese, Moroccans and Antilleans) remained poor and minority youth were overrepresented in crime statistics. The policy focus therefore shifted from cultural preservation to labor market integration and equal opportunities. Mother-tongue teaching was limited and made extra-curricular, and the importance of education and learning Dutch were stressed. The change in integration policy was part of a larger change in discourse on state policy from the rights of citizens to the duties of citizens. In the 1980s and 1990s the welfare state was facing a crisis: the number of people on welfare had become too large relative to the working population, the welfare system needed a reform. A poor socio-economic position was increasingly seen as a result of people’s actions rather than a lack of opportunities. This new emphasis on people’s own responsibilities also spread to the field of immigrant integration.

1998-2014: Culture as a Problem

As early as 1989, the Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, WRR) recommended language training programs for newly arrived immigrants to support their integration. It was however not until 1998 that the law on the civic integration of newcomers (Wet Inburgering Nieuwkomers, WIN) was introduced. The law required all new immigrants aged 18-65 – with the exception of students and temporary workers – to take 600 hours of language and societal orientation classes. Citizens of the EU, the EEA, Switzerland and the U.S. who came for reasons other than marriage or family reunification were exempted. The program was meant to help immigrants find their way in Dutch society and become self-supporting. If new immigrants did not comply, their social security could be cut or they could be fined.

Since the introduction, the law has been amended several times, increasingly turning civic integration into a mechanism to discipline immigrants. Since 2007 new immigrants no longer have an obligation to attend a civic integration course, instead they must pass a civic integration exam to qualify for a permanent residence permit. This requirement does not apply to citizens of the EU, EEA, Switzerland and Turkey.

Migrants have to pay for any course needed to prepare for the exam. They can borrow money from the government for this purpose. In 2007 a civic integration duty (inburgeringsplicht) for permanent resident foreigners who arrived before 1998 (oudkomers) and who have not attended education in the Netherlands was introduced. This extended integration obligation is mostly aimed at people on welfare and spiritual leaders such as imams. The civic integration exam must be passed within five years after an oudkomer has been summoned by the municipality. If s/he fails the test, s/he can be fined.

Right-wing populism on the rise

The process of imposing increasing restrictions on family migration (Interner Link: see above) and pressures on Dutch language acquisition that had started in the 1990s accelerated after electoral success of populist far-right parties from 2002 onwards. There have been anti-immigrant parties in the Netherlands since the 1980s, but these parties initially remained marginal. While the general public grew annoyed with the poor Dutch proficiency and perceived lacking cultural adaptation of many of the former guest workers and their families, as well as the alleged delinquency of their children, few politicians responded to these complaints. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, several Islamophobic incidents occurred. At that time a new politician entered the public arena: Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn was fairly well-known for his column in the right-wing magazine Elsevier, in which he agitated against immigrants and what he regarded as lenient government policies. Rather than using the nuanced discourse of the political establishment, Fortuyn expressed himself boldly, calling Islam a "backward religion", and saying that the "leftwing church" had pampered immigrants at the expense of native Dutch. He argued that the Netherlands should close its borders to all immigrants, including refugees, until those already present in the country were fully integrated. This was received by many as a welcome reaction to years of political correctness. It was often stated that Fortuyn "said what people had been thinking all along".

Fortuyn's political career came to a tragic end when he was assassinated by an environmental activist on 6th May 2002, one week prior to the general elections. In the elections the Christen Democratisch Appel (Christian Democrats, CDA) won the most seats, but even without its leader, Fortuyn's party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (List Pim Fortuyn, LPF) came in second with 17.6 percent of the votes. These two parties along with the right-wing liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD) formed a short-lived coalition government. The LPF lost most of its seats in the 2003 elections, and after the 2006 elections disappeared from parliament. The discourse on immigrants in general – and Muslim immigrants in particular – however, remained ferocious.

In November 2004 a young Moroccan-Dutch extremist Muslim murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh. In response, several mosques were set on fire. In that same year Geert Wilders left the VVD in a dispute over negotiating EU-accession with Turkey - Wilders was fiercely opposed - and started the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV). Wilders has made very strong statements against Muslims, warning about a "tsunami of islamization" hitting the Netherlands, calling the Quran a "fascist book" and suggesting a tax on headscarves (kopvoddentax). After gaining 5.9 percent of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections, party support jumped to 15.5 percent in the 2010 elections. The media uncovered problematic pasts of several of the new PVV parliamentarians and in the 2012 elections the party dropped to 10.1 percent of the votes. Wilders remains very prominent in Dutch politics and media. Politicians from other parties struggle to deal with him. Wilders continues to express his disdain of Islam and Muslim migrants – especially from Morocco. In recent years he has also become vocally opposed to migration from the new EU Member States and the EU as a whole. In early 2012 the PVV announced a "hotline for Central and Eastern-Europe" (meldpunt Midden- en Oost-Europeanen) that people could call to file their complaints about nuisance caused by Central and Eastern European migrants (CEE). Embassies of the countries concerned objected to the hotline, but the government did not intervene. While the hotline received nearly 40,000 complaints about CEE migrants, a newspaper revealed that 135,000 calls to the hotline concerned complaints about the existence of the hotline and the PVV. The hotline has since been closed.

Focus on Muslim migrants

Most of the current debate surrounding immigrants and integration center on Muslims. There is a widespread fear that some immigrant groups' views on gender roles, gay rights and the role of religion in society are at odds with those of the liberal mainstream in the Netherlands. Throughout the post-war period, cultural belonging and difference have been important concepts in policies and political debates on immigrant integration. Dutch society's views of immigrants' cultures have, however, changed. Culture has come to be seen as something that holds people back, and civic integration courses are thus aimed at correcting this by mandating that immigrants adopt Dutch culture. There is a near parliamentary-wide consensus that immigrants can – and should – be obliged to learn Dutch and accept certain liberal-democratic values. Rather than supporting immigrant culture with public funds, policies are increasingly aimed at surveying immigrants’ conformity to what is perceived as Dutch culture. Policies and discourse have shifted from treating migrants as objects in need of care and support to overcome their disadvantaged position to objects of sanctions to correct behavior that is seen as the cause of their own problems and those of society.

Despite a change in rhetoric about immigrant integration since the early 2000s, changes to policies were initially limited. It remains possible to set up publicly funded religious primary and secondary schools – including Islamic schools. Public support for broadcasting by religion-based broadcasting corporations that air programs on the public channels was available until 2013. In 2004, a Muslim council (Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, CMO) and a Chinese council were added to the range of ethnic consultative bodies that can advise the government on policies related to immigrants. Only in 2015 will government subsidies for the consultative bodies and their member organizations end.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile Netherlands.



  1. Indonesian immigrants were an exception, as the government realized early on that their stay would be permanent. As part of an effort to assimilate them, social workers were assigned to help the families integrate into Dutch society.

  2. The Netherlands has a complicated school system. There are state schools (openbare scholen) that are entirely subsidized by the government and special schools (bijzonder onderwijs), which are based on religious belonging. The latter are entitled to the same funds as state schools plus additional funds from parents. They have the right to refuse students because they are not of the right religion. Freedom of education is part of the constitution (Section 23).

  3. A notable exception is Frits Bolkestein, the leader of the right-wing liberal party Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD), who from the early 1990s expressed concerns about the compatibility of Islam with Dutch culture.

  4. See also Michalowski (2005).

  5. Several MP’s had been accused of or convicted on assault charges.

  6. Externer Link:


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Dr. Evelyn Ersanilli is a Departmental Lecturer in Migration Studies at the International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford. E-mail: E-Mail Link: