ROTTERDAM—Ibrahim Spalburg came to Holland as a nine-year-old boy from his native Surinam and as he matured, he grew convinced that his adoptive home was an ideal place in which to raise a family.
He married an immigrant from Indonesia whose father had fought for the Dutch against the Japanese, and together, they raised three daughters and a son. For years, the university-educated Spalburg was employed by the City of Rotterdam as a liaison to the area’s growing Muslim community.
Rotterdam was renowned for its liberal approach to issues such as immigration and the poverty that many newcomers suffered. Dominated by socialist politicians, the city offered extensive subsidized housing; it funded hundreds of ethnic community groups; immigrant children were often educated in their first languages.
But a series of seismic events, triggered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have drastically altered Dutch attitudes toward immigrants.
Spalburg and his family have watched with dismay as Islam was denigrated as a “backward religion” by a rising political star, Pim Fortuyn, a Rotterdam sociologist who declared The Netherlands “full” and demanded that the country put the needs of native Dutch people first. (Fortuyn was shot dead just days before the national election in May, 2002 by a white animal-rights activist.)
“Fortuyn and his party were openly criticizing Muslims, but the people, they voted for him anyway,” says Spalburg. “We thought we had a good relationship with Dutch citizens, but this showed us, in reality, it is not true. It was very shocking.”
Fortuyn’s legacy in Holland has been a painful reassessment of the country’s immigration and multiculturalism policies. Rotterdam has been the centre of that backlash.
The city council, now dominated by the Fortuyn-inspired Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam) coalition, has imposed a moratorium on the arrival of new refugees and low-skilled immigrants. City council is in a fight to halt the construction of a large mosque near the city’s revered soccer stadium. And older, low-cost row houses—rented primarily to immigrants and refugees—are being torn down in a controversial attempt at inner-city renewal.
For Spalburg and his wife, the rapid about-face in Dutch attitudes has led them to contemplate a new home.
“We don’t know what to do,” Spalburg says. “My wife wants to live in Malaysia. But I am also thinking about my children, my grandchildren. I don’t think I could live without them.”
The sudden change in Holland’s relationship with its immigrant population has left many in this country of 16 million struggling to understand how and why it happened—and what it means for other multicultural nations like Canada. Was it the product of pragmatism or racism or fear?
Could the Dutch experience be replicated here?
Canada and Holland share some telling characteristics, including long liberal traditions, a concentration of newcomers in a few cities and visible pockets of immigrant poverty.
But there are also important differences between the two countries that could help explain why Canada has, until now, avoided the kind of backlash that has recently swept Holland and many other immigrant destinations, including France, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Australia.
In the Netherlands, immigrants comprise about 9 per cent of the overall population, with the largest migrant groups originating from Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, Surinam and Morocco. Most of the migrants have settled in the country’s largest cities, meaning that today, about one-third of the residents in Amsterdam and Rotterdam are foreign-born. (Toronto is among the most multicultural cities in the world, with a population that is 44-per-cent foreign-born.)
Unlike Canada, Holland has never attempted to lure the world’s best and brightest immigrants. Instead, as the country’s economy boomed during the early 1970s, it went in search of temporary guest workers willing to labour in factories, on farms and dockyards. Men from poor, rural areas of Turkey and Morocco flooded into Holland.
The Dutch government was a generous host, extending unemployment benefits, welfare, health care and housing subsidies to its guest workers. Hundreds of immigrant associations were financed by the state to help them maintain their cultural identities. It was thought that this would make it easier for the workers to return home.
The assumption that guest workers would leave Holland persisted even when their families began to arrive. Their children were encouraged to attend primary schools in their first languages with Dutch authorities believing this would make their eventual re-integration that much smoother.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the government came to understand that most migrant workers had no intention of leaving. That realization coincided with shifts in the Dutch economy that eliminated thousands of low-skilled jobs.
The Dutch government responded with the liberal-minded Ethnic Minorities Policy that promoted multiculturalism, equal opportunity and social justice. Multiculturalism—and its belief that immigrants can successfully participate in society while retaining their cultural identities—seemed a natural fit for Holland, a country with a history of supporting the rights of religious minorities.
Subsidies were offered to ethnic organizations, trade unions, newspapers and schools. Generous education grants—almost twice the per-pupil grant for Dutch-born children—were given to minority children in an attempt to bring them up to speed academically with their Dutch counterparts. And a special law was introduced in 1993, modelled on Canada’s Employment Equity Act, that required large employers to report publicly on the number of ethnic minorities in their workforces.
The openness of Dutch society sped the flow of newcomers and refugees into the country, with migration peaking in the early 1990s. The newer influx drove unemployment among immigrants still higher, and despite all of the government’s efforts, the social and economic situation of minorities remained poor, says Han Entzinger, a professor of migration and integration studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
It was at about this time, he says, that “doubts began to develop about the effectiveness of facilitating immigrant cultures and of creating separate provisions for them.”
Those doubts, however, were not discussed in public until 2000 when Paul Scheffer, an author and historian, published an essay, “The Multicultural Tragedy,” in one of Holland’s major newspapers.
For Scheffer, the multicultural tragedy involved the rise of an “ethnic underclass” detached from Dutch culture and society. He argued that the insularity of immigrants, particularly Muslims, would eventually undermine Holland’s liberalism and social cohesion.
“I think our idea of tolerance was basically an attitude of indifference,” he wrote. Scheffer called for intensive integration programs that stressed Dutch culture, history and liberal democratic principles.
Professor Entzinger says that Scheffer’s views, if published a decade earlier, “would have been disposed of as conservative or perhaps even racist.”
Instead, they struck a chord with many Dutch citizens and sparked a debate that became decidedly sharp-edged with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Pim Fortuyn dominated the subsequent 2002 election campaign, warning that militant Islam and immigrant overcrowding threatened the Dutch way of life.
In the wake of Fortuyn’s murder, Holland’s mainstream political parties have adopted many of his ideas on immigration. Earlier this year, an all-party report on immigration echoed his key criticisms.
The 2,500-page report by the Dutch parliament blamed successive governments for policies that encouraged segregation rather than integration.
It was a mistake, the report said, to allow children to speak Turkish, Arabic and other native languages in primary schools rather than Dutch. And it criticized the policy vacuum that still allows between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Dutch-born immigrants to import their spouses from “home” countries, mostly Turkey or Morocco. The report concluded that Holland’s immigrants needed to become more Dutch, and spend more time learning the language.
Some in Holland contend the approach is simple pragmatism, necessary in a small country, and consistent with the open-minded Dutch approach to issues such as euthanasia, soft drugs and prostitution.
Entzinger, however, does not subscribe to the theory.
“It’s much more fundamental,” he says. “It’s not just a debate on immigration, but it’s a debate on identity: Who are we? And who are they? And how can we make them more like us?”
For Spalburg, the controversy that has attended the construction of a mosque in Rotterdam epitomizes all that is now wrong with his city. If and when it’s built, the Al-Salaam Mosque will be the largest in Europe, with minarets that rise 50 metres, higher even than the light standards on the Feyenoord soccer stadium.
“It will not be Rotterdam; it will be Mecca on the Maas (River),” Ronald Sorenson, leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam, has charged.
Spalburg, who is the director of an umbrella group that represents 44 Muslim organizations in Rotterdam, contends that Sorenson and others have simply not faced up to reality. A recent report has forecast that by 2017, almost 60 per cent of Rotterdam’s population will be of non-Dutch origin. Most of that population will be Muslim. (A Rotterdam study found that the average Moroccan woman gives birth to four children compared to just over one for her Dutch counterpart.)
“They don’t want to believe that it is true, what is happening in Rotterdam,” Spalburg says. “I think people didn’t realize that after a few years, there will be a majority of Muslims living in the city. Now, that they realize it, they are afraid.”
Surveys show that 62 per cent of Rotterdam residents support new limits on immigration.
Many of them are also voting with their feet as more and more middle-class Dutch residents abandon the city for the suburbs. Rotterdam city officials say they simply cannot handle the social welfare and housing costs associated with more immigrants and refugees. The city now receives about 60 per cent of Holland’s newcomers.
“We cannot add to our underclass,” says the manager of integration for Rotterdam, Wim Vleugels, who is responsible for implementing the city’s latest plan for integration.
Its main goals, he says, are to decrease the number of immigrants, reduce the concentration of poor people in immigrant neighbourhoods and improve the relationship between Dutch residents and newcomers. Under the plan, anyone not born in Holland will be required to take Dutch-language courses; social assistance benefits can be cut for those who drop out.
The backlash against immigrants has been particularly difficult for those, such as Nadia Mouaddab, who was born in Morocco, but has never known a country other than Holland. Like Spalburg, she is exploring a move to another country.
“I am Dutch, I have a Dutch passport so it’s strange emotionally because I’m made to feel like an allochtoon (a foreigner) here,” says Mouaddab, 34. “And then when I go to Morocco, they know I am a foreigner because I speak with an accent . . . There’s never a home. I need to seek a real home because this is not it.”
Most Torontonians would feel at home in Rotterdam.
The city’s two-line subway is clean and efficient. The city’s main sports venue, Feyenoord, has a retractable roof. In neighbourhoods, such as Delfshaven, vendors from Surinam and Morocco hawk produce and nuts from sidewalk baskets; the rich smells of Turkish coffee and Indonesian spices waft from restaurants. The world lives here, as it does in Toronto.
The Dutch were once polite hosts to the newcomers, as reluctant to discuss race and immigration as Canadians are now. That reluctance to engage debate gave Pim Fortuyn instant power and appeal when he unabashedly spoke his mind about the problems associated with multiculturalism and immigration.
Which is why some observers contend it is only a matter of time before a charismatic figure such as Fortuyn arrives on the Canadian scene and stirs debate about immigration, multiculturalism and integration.
University of Toronto’s Jeffrey Reitz believes it is possible. He argues that Canada has not yet suffered the kind of backlash experienced in Holland because of the overall economic success of immigrants in this country. That success, he argues, is a product of a strong education system and Canadian immigration policy, which has actively sought skilled newcomers while helping them adjust to the country.
(A recent Ipsos-Public Affairs poll found that in Canada 73 per cent of respondents said immigrants were a good influence on the country; in seven other western countries, including the U.S., France, Germany and Britain, more people felt immigrants were a negative rather than a positive influence.)
But the economic prospects of immigrants have suffered badly during the past decade, he says, making the future social climate less certain.
“When you have a welfare state, it’s important that immigrants are not seen as a burden,” says Reitz, director of ethnic, immigration and pluralism studies at U of T. “Canadian politicians have convinced people that is not the case here. But I think there’s an underlying problem waiting to happen because of rising poverty rates and employment problems among immigrants.”
Although Canada has yet to produce a politician like Fortuyn, someone aggressively anti-immigrant, that kind of sentiment can be overheard in pubs and other places where people gather, says Reitz.
“I think the potential is there for a backlash—and it could happen quickly. It might not happen, but it could.”
Erasmus University’s Han Entzinger admits to being surprised at the speed of the transformation in Dutch attitudes. But he also believes Canada may be insulated from the same kind of backlash because, unlike Holland, it has traditionally sought out the world’s best and brightest immigrants.
The country has also practised a different kind of multiculturalism, he says, one in which institutions such as schools and political parties embrace immigrants. “We in Holland called it multiculturalism but it was, at the same time, a form of exclusion,” he says. “What is more multicultural? To open up your own institutions to newcomers or give them their own institutions as we did?”