Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Minority communities in the Netherlands include Frisians 700,000, Jews 41,000-45,000, and Roma and Sinti 40,000.
In recent years, population growth in the Netherlands has largely been tied to immigration, with 230,739 persons immigrating to the Netherlands in 2016. For example, the recent arrival of Syrian refugees has been a significant source of population growth, with government statistics showing an increase of people with a Syrian background of more than 62,000 between 2010 and 2017. As of January 2018, the key countries of origin for persons with a foreign background (both first and second generation, with at least one parent from these countries) are: Antilles/Aruba 153,469, China 71,229, Germany 356,875, Iraq 59,497, Indonesia 364,328, Morocco 391,088, Poland 161,158, Suriname 349,978, Syria 72,903 and Turkey 400,367. Regarding persons of Moluccan origin or descent, previous estimates placed the community at 42,000 – 50,000, although they are not now counted separately in the national census statistics.
Whilst the official language of the Netherlands is Dutch, Frisian has official recognition in Friesland province. Under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in addition to Frisian, the Netherlands recognizes the Lower-Saxon languages, Yiddish, the Romani languages and Limburgish.
According to the Dutch Central Statistics Agency data from 2010, an estimated 27 per cent of the population identified as Roman Catholic, 17 per cent as Protestant (including 8 per cent identifying as Dutch Reformed, 6 per cent Protestant Church of The Netherlands and 3 per cent Calvinist), with a further 10 per cent adhering to other denominations including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. 44 per cent of the population were recorded as being non-religious
Members of the Dutch Reformed Church, the largest Protestant denomination, are most numerous in the provinces of Drenthe, Groningen and Overijssel. Other reformed churches are strong in Friesland and Zeeland. Roman Catholicism is strong in North Brabant and Limburg. Other Christian denominations include Baptist, Lutheran and Remonstrant. The great majority of the Jewish community lives in the Amsterdam area, the Hague and Rotterdam.
Updated April 2018.
The Netherlands has in recent years struggled with increasing intolerance towards its multicultural and diverse population, the result of decades of immigration as well as more recent flows of refugees and asylum seekers displaced by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. These tensions are reflected in the growth of anti-migrant, particularly anti-Muslim political groups since the 1990s, with right-wing organizations now attracting a significant share of the popular vote.
In particular, the rise of the Party for Freedom under the leadership of the controversial politician Geert Wilders has placed not only challenged recent migration but also threatened the rights of many established minority communities in the country. This was especially evident in the lead-up to the 2017 general election, with the Party for Freedom adopting rhetoric that, while primarily anti-Islamic, has also targeted groups based on ethnicity including those of a Moroccan background, with the party leader Geert Wilders referring to them as ‘scum’ in the lead-up to the 2017 election.
This rising political rhetoric has been mirrored in Dutch society with an escalation in incidents of hate speech and crimes targeting ethnic and religious minorities in the Netherlands. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE – ODIHR), between 2011 and 2015 recorded rates of hate crimes nearly doubled in the Netherlands, from 3,292 to 5,288 cases recorded by the police. The most significant motivation was found to be of either a xenophobic or racist nature. While there was a drop the following year with a figure of 4,376 for 2016 (figures for 2017 were not yet available), there are indications that acts of hate are again on the increase. The mayor of Amsterdam, Jozias van Aartsen, reported in January 2018 that the city’s discrimination hotline had received 392 reports of hate based on origin, skin colour or ethnicity in 2017 – a rise of 25 per cent compared with 2016. The mayor’s comments came after a decapitated doll had been left outside a mosque, sparking widespread condemnation.
Significantly, these attitudes are at times reflected in institutional discrimination, in particular the sustained problem of ethnic profiling in Dutch policing. The institutional nature of profiling is readily apparent in the rates at which different ethnic groups are suspected of crimes, with statistics from the Netherlands Institute of Social Research suggesting that people of non-Western backgrounds are four times as likely to be suspected of committing a crime than Dutch natives.
Furthermore, the employment participation rates and incomes of those with non-Western backgrounds are significant lower than their Western counterparts, with little movement towards parity in recent years. Contrastingly, educational outcomes for children of non-Western ethnicities have been steadily improving, however they are still lower than those of a Western ethnic profile.
Shifting policies on migration have seen greater emphasis on integration while at the same time public assistance, such as language instruction, has been rolled back – measures that have only served to further sideline many migrants. In 2017, the Dutch Court of Audit released a report criticizing legislative changes to the integration of recent migrants as they found that the modified integration process failed to provide adequate support to new migrants. It found that since changes requiring migrants to pay for language classes came into force in 2013, the number of people passing the compulsory integration test had dropped by 50 per cent. Refugees were found to be worst affected by the changes, with only one third of them passing the test in the required period. Civil society representatives have further suggested that gaps in the education and employment between migrant families and the broader Dutch population have been exacerbated by these legislative changes.
Another ongoing issue in the Netherlands is the controversial practice of Zwarte Piet, or ‘Black Pete’ – a Christmas celebration that sees revellers in cities across the country painting their faces black. The practice, condemned by the UN in 2015 as a ‘vestige of slavery’, has been altered or removed in some cities in response to pressure from anti-racism campaigners, but many other municipalities continue to host Zwarte Piet festivities. Attempts by activists to protest an event in the town of Dokkum in November 2017 were obstructed by a group of far-right extremists.
Updated April 2018.
Extreme right-wing politics is ever present but came from fringe and skinhead communities to the political centre stage from the early 1990s, when three extreme-right Centre Democrat Party members were elected to the national parliament. In 1994 extreme-right political parties won around 90 seats in the local elections, most of which they lost in 1998. The parties split into factions and new parties emerged.
Factionalism was also the pattern following the success of the anti-immigration party of Pym Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn’s party won 35 per cent of the vote in the Rotterdam local elections and 24 seats in the national parliament. It formed part of the government coalition for a year from 2002 to 2003. Fortuyn was murdered by Volkert van der Graaf, a Dutch national, just before the 2002 elections. Fortuyn had attacked multiculturalism as a threat to the Dutch tradition of tolerance and opposed Muslim immigration to the country. Fortuyn’s legacy has been continued by the controversial Geert Wilders, who holds similar views. His right-wing anti-immigration Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid) holds 20 out of 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, following the 2017 elections, making it the largest opposition party.
The 1815 Constitution, and its most recent revision in 2002, guarantees that all people shall be treated equally and bans all forms of discrimination. Discrimination in economic matters has been a criminal offence since 1971. In 1981 this was tightened to include discrimination in access to business formation and the professions. The law was expanded in 1992 to cover social as well as economic activities and to include discrimination in public office. The range of discrimination includes gender and sexual orientation.
The 1994 Equal Treatment Act forbids discrimination in labour relationships (including volunteering and internships), the professions and the provision of goods and services. The Equal Treatment Commission (Commissie Gelijke Behandeling – CGB) was set up to give preliminary non-binding opinions on discrimination cases before these go to court. The process is free of charge, legal assistance is not required, and the Commission is also open to judges and other dispute settlers. The law was amended in 2004 to bring it into line with EU directives. The burden of proof now rests on the alleged discriminator rather than on the victim, and measures for the protection of victims are included.
The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights was established through the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights Act 2011. This institute is independent in its operations and tasked with conducting investigations into the protection of human rights, encouraging research and education, cooperating with civil society and making recommendations regarding the protection of human rights. As such, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights superseded the Equal Treatment Commission, incorporating its activities into its broader mandate. The Netherlands is a signatory to two European agreements regarding the rights of minorities, namely the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), ratified in 1996, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), ratified in 2005.
Dutch citizenship is acquired automatically by the child of a Dutch father or mother. Until 1985, citizenship could only be acquired through the father. From 2003 a child born to a non-Dutch mother and an unmarried Dutch father can be acknowledged after birth and still qualify for citizenship. A foreign national can apply for Dutch citizenship after five years of continuous residence in the Netherlands. There has been a push to extend the period to seven years of continuous residence. Whilst a proposed bill passed the lower house of the Dutch parliament in 2017, it was later blocked in the senate Initial government policy on economic migrants recruited for unskilled work from Indonesia, southern Europe and North Africa was based on the assumption that these workers would return home. There were no measures to facilitate integration and the immigrants were disadvantaged in housing and education. The Dutch trade unions were against integration, fearing that this would push wages down. The Moluccan community, comprising political refugees, were discouraged from working and were segregated in former Nazi concentration camps. After the 1973 oil crisis recruitment of guest workers ended and immigration policy became progressively more restrictive, consisting mainly of family reunification.
In the late 1970s the government approach changed, following violent events perpetrated by Moluccan extremists. It decided that improved housing, education and job opportunities for migrants were needed to help them integrate with Dutch society while maintaining their cultural identity. It provided support for Moluccan cultural organizations in the 1980s and later extended this to other communities. It created a government department for ethnic minorities in 1998.
The Foreign Nationals Employment Act of 1979 introduced a work permit system for non-EU nationals. The permits are issued through a central labour market authority. It was amended with tougher restrictions in 1995.
The Newcomers Integration Act went into effect in 1998, whereby new immigrants are required to learn the Dutch language and culture sufficiently to enable them to work. Failure to do so can result in fines. The implementation of the act highlighted problems of integration at the local level.
The Aliens Act of 2000, which came into effect in April 2001, sets out the conditions for the granting of temporary residence status for one year, renewable twice, to refugees and their families. In recent years, there has been a greater focus on the integration of migrants into Dutch society, including two legislative changes to the migration integration process in 2012 and 2014. These changes have placed greater emphasis on the individual to actively integrate into Dutch society without substantive government support. Of particular significance has been the withdrawal of government funding in 2013 for migrant language courses, burdening migrants with the financial responsibility of funding these courses in preparation for the compulsory civic integration exam.
Following its 2012 Universal Periodic Review, the Netherlands agreed to the implementation of a range of measures targeting racial discrimination and improvements to migrant rights. However, the government’s implementation of Human Rights Council recommendations was only partial in nature.
The Netherlands released its first National Action Plan on Human Rights in 2013, outlining government policy for the protection and promotion of human rights. However, in its submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s 2017 Universal Periodic Review of the Netherlands, Amnesty International criticised the plan for a lack of concrete policies and the government for poor progress in the implementation of the plan.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Samenwerkingsvervand van Marokkanen en Tunesiers
[Moroccan and Tunisian organization]
UNITED for Intercultural Action
Ried fan de Fryske Biweging (Council of the Frisian Movement)
Fryske Akademy (FA)
[Scientific centre for research and education concerning Fryslân and its people, language and culture]
Interfriesischer Rat/Ynterfryske Rie
Perinitis Aksi Kilat – Foundation for Keeping Moluccan Civil & Political Rights (PAK- FKMCPR)
Moluks Historisch Museum / Yayasan Museum Sejarah Maluku
[Moluccan Historical Museum]
Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid (CMO)
Al Nisa – Moslimvrouwenorganisatie
[Muslim Women’s Organization]
Nederland Wordt Beter (NLWB)