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Forty Years of Dutch Integration Policy: Rhetoric and Reality

1 Comment 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

A Moroccan and a Dutch woman embrace at a protest. Photo credit: Alex Proimos.


by Han Entzinger[1]

Shifting policy objectives

When it comes to immigrant integration policies, the Netherlands is a country of extremes (Lucassen and Lucassen 2011). Until the late 1970s, the general belief was that immigrants would stay only temporarily, with the exception of the “repatriates” who had arrived from Indonesia after its independence. Therefore, an integration policy was not deemed necessary. In the 1980s, when it had become clear that neither all Mediterranean “guest workers” and their families nor all late-colonial migrants from the Caribbean would return, a rather sophisticated “minorities policy” was developed that enabled the newcomers to preserve their original cultural identity. This policy, however, had miscalculated that some degree of immigrant adaptation is almost a necessity if one wishes to avoid social and economic marginalization of immigrants. The fact that, meanwhile, a second generation had been coming of age was also overlooked. They were born and raised in an environment that was very different from that of their parents, and their primary frame of reference was no longer their parents’ country of origin.

In the 1990s, the Dutch “minorities policy” was gradually dismantled. Facilitating immigrant cultures was no longer seen as a responsibility of the state, and promoting citizenship, employment, and equal opportunity now became the primary objectives of a new integration policy. In those years, the Dutch government was also the first to introduce mandatory integration courses for newcomers, an example later emulated by many other European countries. In 2002, yet another significant turn occurred in Dutch integration policy. In the aftermath of the electoral success of Pim Fortuyn – the leader of a newly established populist party who was murdered only days before elections – the dominant approach became much more assimilationist. Special programs for migrant communities were abolished, and integration requirements, as well as those for naturalization, became much stricter. In addition, new immigration was made more difficult by the establishment of income, age, and language requirements for those wishing to enter the country from outside the European Union. In its essence, this policy has continued until the present day, irrespective of the political composition of the government. With the exception of the mandatory integration exams, all specific measures aiming at immigrant integration have been abolished in the meantime. Integration is now broadly seen as the migrants’ own responsibility.

Why these constant changes in Dutch policymaking? There are two main explanations: first, earlier policies proved insufficiently effective in achieving immigrant integration, and second, major shifts in public opinion forced the government to embark on alternative approaches. In what follows, I will briefly examine both of these hypotheses.


Immigrant integration

Contrary to what the gradual toughening of policies may suggest, people of immigrant background in the Netherlands are faring quite well. Most data available refer to the larger communities, i.e., those of Turkish, Caribbean, and Moroccan descent. Measured by the most commonly used indicators – employment, educational level, housing, income, health, language abilities – a majority of the members of these communities have made remarkable progress, if not in the first, then certainly in the second generation (SCP 2012; 2014). This is particularly true in education: the rate of early school dropouts among students of immigrant descent has been reduced significantly, and levels of participation in higher education are now close to those of the native population. In contrast, differences in employment levels remain significant, particularly in times of economic crisis. One reason for this is that people of immigrant origin tend to have less work experience than their native peers, which makes them less in demand in the labor market. They also have smaller networks, and they suffer from discrimination, a serious but often underestimated problem in the Netherlands (Bovenkerk 2014). For a long time, the quality of immigrant housing has been comparable to that of non-immigrants of similar income levels. Yet immigrants and their offspring are strongly overrepresented in larger cities, where, on average, housing facilities are worse than elsewhere, and where they tend to be concentrated in specific neighborhoods. Overall, however, remarkable progress has been made in the past decades when one looks at most of the classical indicators for migrant participation in the major areas of society.

From a social and cultural perspective, integration can be called a success, particularly among the second immigrant generation. In many respects, they are much more similar to their Dutch peers than their parents ever were (Entzinger and Dourleijn 2008; SCP 2012). There are more interethnic contacts than before – though not as many as one would expect if these were to occur on a random basis – and the views, ideas, and expectations of young people of immigrant backgrounds have also become much more similar to those of their Dutch peers. Religion and issues related to religion, however, constitute an exception to this rule, particularly among Muslims. The secularization process that has profoundly affected Dutch society in the past half century has not had an impact on its Muslims.

Are all these achievements the effect of successful integration policies? This is very hard to say, as it is always difficult to assess the impact of policy measures, particularly on such complex and multifaceted processes as immigrant integration. Given the frequent shifts in policy objectives in the past forty years, one would assume that earlier approaches had not really produced the envisaged outcomes. This seems to be contradicted by the fact that immigrant integration has progressed significantly, as we just saw. It is also interesting to note that, notwithstanding the frequent changes in policy objectives, some essential policy instruments have remained remarkably constant over a long period. This is particularly true in education, where for more than forty years, primary schools with high numbers of immigrant children have received additional funding. Housing policies for immigrants have also been remarkably constant, particularly when it comes to upholding a “colorblind” distribution system in the social housing sector. In other words, while formally-stated policy objectives have regularly changed, there has been a remarkable continuity in some major policy instruments. Their implementation is often in the hands of local authorities, while the fiercest political debates take place at the national level.


Moroccan and rainbow flags

Protesters waiving Moroccan and rainbow flags in the Netherlands. Photo credit: Alex Proimos.


The public perception of integration

A significant illustration of this contrast between facts and political rhetoric is evident in a parliamentary investigation that took place in the years 2002–2004. This was in the aftermath of the turbulent Pim Fortuyn period and just before the equally dramatic killing of the film director Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist in late 2004. In the summer of 2002, the Dutch parliament adopted a motion urging an “investigation into the reasons for the failure of integration.” The motion did not even question whether integration had been a failure; it simply stated that it had failed, and it did not differentiate between integration and integration policies either. One and a half years later, the all-party Parliamentary Committee that had been set up for the investigation concluded: “In most cases immigrants have integrated remarkably well, and this has occurred in spite of public policies rather than as an effect of these”(Bruggen bouwen 2004). The committee had come to this conclusion on the basis of extensive research, but the political climate was such that many politicians simply denied the validity of the findings. The academic world, which in earlier days had cooperated closely with policymakers, by then had clearly distanced itself from what it had come to see as political rhetoric (Scholten 2011).

Political rhetoric – that is how many skeptical observers in the Netherlands look nowadays at public and political discourse on integration and immigration. Politicians claim that it is their task to voice growing concerns among the Dutch, who increasingly are believe that the number of immigrants is too large and that immigration should be better controlled. It is often said that the Dutch were relatively tolerant toward immigration and immigrants until the late 1990s, and that all this changed in the turbulent period of Fortuyn and 9/11. This, however, is just another myth, unconfirmed by facts. Long-term trends in public opinion surveys indicate that, even long before this assumed shift, the percentage of people agreeing with the statement “there are too many foreigners in the country” had been hovering at levels just under 50 percent, and that these have hardly changed since then. Only in the years 2002–2006 a brief high occurred, probably as a reaction to the events mentioned. The same holds true for rates of those opposed to having “persons of a different ethnic origin as their neighbours” (Gijsberts and Lubbers 2009). In the earlier days of immigration, however, it was judged inappropriate to express such feelings publicly.

It was Pim Fortuyn and a few others who broke this taboo. They qualified the immigrant-friendly multiculturalist approach that had been dominant until then as too soft, and advocated a much tougher, more assimilationist form of integration as well as stricter policies for new immigration (Wansink 2004; Buruma 2006). Their rhetoric was adopted by several of the mainstream political parties, and a climate developed in which Geert Wilders, an MP who had split from the conservative-liberal party VVD, could successfully establish his Freedom Party. This party has been able to mobilize a significant segment (up to about one-fifth) of the electorate around its populist anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-EU agenda, especially among the less educated. Although so far it has never been in the government, it has strongly impacted public and political discourse on integration in the past ten years.



The objectives of Dutch integration policy have shifted quite dramatically in the past four decades. This is not primarily because earlier approaches proved to be unsuccessful; on the contrary, we can observe that immigrant integration, measured by standard economic, social, and cultural indicators, has been gradually progressing. It is also noteworthy that, notwithstanding shifts in stated policy objectives, some of the main policy instruments that aim at achieving integration have remained virtually unchanged. And finally, negative feelings about immigration and immigrants among the general public have also remained remarkably constant in the past four decades, even though there was a relatively brief upsurge of negative feelings in the turbulent years after 9/11 and Fortuyn.

So, if the two most obvious explanations for the regular frame shifts in Dutch policymaking prove to be of very limited validity, what then is a better explanation? Why is it that so many people in the Netherlands, including politicians, have difficulty acknowledging the successes of integration and continue to see immigration as undesirable? Undoubtedly, Dutch society has changed profoundly in the past few decades, and immigration has contributed significantly to these changes. Large segments of the Dutch population perceive this as a threat, and see immigration and Islam as scapegoats for changes that may have come too quickly. Some dramatic events in the past decade have reinforced thinking in terms of us and them, especially among people who have little personal contact with immigrants, and among the less educated.

One might wonder, however, whether the multiculturalist approach of the “minorities policy” era should not also be seen in such terms. In hindsight, granting immigrants facilities that enabled them to retain their own cultural identity might have served as a ready excuse for excluding them from mainstream society. Multiculturalism may seem respectful, but it also has exclusionary tendencies, as several authors (Koopmans 2003; Vasta 2007) have observed. To the first generation, this might still have been acceptable, but as a second generation was coming of age, they tended to claim, in Lieberson’s (1980) terms, a fair “piece of the pie.” This must have come as a shock to parts of the native population, and certain political leaders have acknowledged their concerns rather than trying to persuade them that their world was changing and that immigration should be considered an expression of ongoing globalization.

Today, the belief is widespread in Dutch society that the early policies of multiculturalism must be held accountable for immigrants’ perceived lack of integration. As we have seen, this can hardly be justified by the facts, but it has served as a ready excuse for a radical frame shift toward assimilationism. Meanwhile, the process of immigrant integration has continued to advance, even though certain problematic pockets persist. This underlines the autonomous nature of integration processes and the limited impact of policymaking in this area. However, it would be an exaggeration to conclude that politicians do not have any influence at all, and that what they say and do is exclusively symbolic.


Han Entzinger is Professor of Migration and Integration Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. 


This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.


Bovenkerk, F. 2014. Marokkaan in Europa, crimineel in Nederland. Een vergelijkende studie. Den Haag: Boom Lemma.

Bruggen bouwen; Eindrapport Tijdelijke Commissie Integratiebeleid. Tweede Kamer, vergaderjaar 2003/2004, 28689, nr. 8–9.

Buruma, Ian. 2006. Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. New York: Penguin.

Entzinger, Han. 2014. ‘The Growing Gap between Facts and Discourse on Immigrant Integration in the Netherlands’; Identities 20(6): 693–707.

Entzinger, Han, and Edith Dourleijn. 2008. De lat steeds hoger. De leefwereld van jongeren in een multi-etnische stad. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Gijsberts, M., and M. Lubbers. 2009. ‘Wederzijdse beeldvorming’; Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, Jaarrapport Integratie 2009; Den Haag: SCP.

Koopmans, Ruud. 2003. “Good Intentions Sometimes Make Bad Policy: A Comparison of Dutch and German Integration Policies.” In The Challenge of Diversity: European Social Democracy Facing Migration, Integration, and Multiculturalism, eds. René Cuperus, Karl A. Duffek, and Johannes Kandel. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag.

Lieberson, S. 1980. A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants since 1880. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lucassen, L., and J. Lucassen. 2011. Winnaars en verliezers. Een nuchtere balans van vijfhonderd jaar immigratie. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.

Scholten, P. 2011. Framing Immigrant Integration. Dutch Research-Policy Dialogues in Comparative Perspective. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

SCP (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau). 2012. Jaarrapport integratie 2011. Den Haag: SCP.

Vasta, E. 2007. “From Ethnic Minorities to Ethnic Majority Policy: Multiculturalism and the Shift to Assimilationism in the Netherlands.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30(5): 713–40.

Wansink, H. 2004. De erfenis van Fortuyn. De Nederlandse democratie na de opstand van de kiezers. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.


[1] This text is partly based on Entzinger (2014).


  1. 🕔 3:26, 03.Mar 2016


    Strange conclusion(last Paragraph). Two examples: in the Dutch taxoffices you’ll find tens of leaflets in almost every language you can think of. We’ve even Communities with translaters to help migrants. It’s indeed hardly justified by the facts!

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