For years Holland was celebrated as a symbol of racial tolerance. But two high-profile murders have changed all that.
Escaping the stress of clogged roads, street violence and loss of faith in Holland’s once celebrated way of life, the Dutch middle classes are leaving the country in droves for the first time in living memory.
The new wave of educated migrants are quietly voting with their feet against a multicultural experiment long touted as a model for the world, but increasingly a warning of how good intentions can go wrong.
Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the pin-up countries for those craving the great outdoors and old-fashioned civility.
The illusion that all was well in the Netherlands died in May 2002 when Pim Fortuyn, the shaven-headed, gay populist, was shot by a Left-wing activist in the country’s first political assassination since 1584.
Fulminating home truths than nobody else dared utter, Fortuyn swept on to the political stage protesting that Europe’s most densely-populated country was full to bursting point, and that Muslim immigration, leavened with Salafist extremism, had reached a level where it was starting to destabilise Dutch society itself. His movement won more seats than the ruling Labour party in the 2002 elections.
Theo van Gogh, his friend and disciple, was next. The mischievous film-maker had his throat cut by an Islamic fanatic last month as he bicycled to work through the heart of Amsterdam, punished for a film about repression of women in the Muslim world.
A shrill provocateur, Mr van Gogh was not to everybody’s taste. He once filmed kittens being mangled to death in a washing machine, which he thought was hilarious.
But his ritual execution, apparently by an Islamist hit squad, has shocked the country. Two leading MPs known to be targets are in hiding. The political class has been chilled to the bone, while white gangs have firebombed or attacked around 20 mosques and Islamic centres. “This was our 9/11. It was the moment the Netherlands lost its naivety. We always thought that we were the country of multicultural tolerance that could do no wrong,” said Prof Han Entzinger of Rotterdam University.
Frans Buysse, the head of Buysse Immigration Consultancy, said he received more than 13,000 hits on his emigration website in November, four times the usual level. His office in Culemburg is flooded with fresh applications.
“Van Gogh’s death was a confirmation for them of what they already sensed was happening,” he said. “They’re accountants, teachers, nurses, businessmen and bricklayers, from all walks of life. They see things going on every day in this country that are quite unbelievable. They see no clear message from the government, and they are afraid it’s becoming irreversible, that’s why they are leaving.”
The tales range from exhaustion with Holland’s epidemic of road rage incidents, to fears that it is no longer safe to go shopping.
“Van Gogh was a very public victim, but there are unknown victims on streets all the time. It’s the living climate that is deteriorating. There are too many people on this one small spot of land,” said Mr Buysse.
More people left the Netherlands in 2003 than arrived, ending a half-century cycle of surging immigration that has turned a tight-knit Nordic tribe into a multi-ethnic mosaic with three million people of foreign roots out of 16 million. Almost one million are Muslims, mostly Turks and Moroccan-Berbers. In Rotterdam, 47 per cent of the city’s population is of foreign origin. While asylum claims have plunged, the exodus is accelerating, reaching 13,313 net outflow in the first half of 2004. Many retiring workers are moving to the south of France, but a growing bloc leaving the country appears to be educated, working families.
Peter and Ellen Bles have applied for visas to Australia after falling in love with the country during a trip there three years ago.
“People are so relaxed and open to each other there. As soon as we got home I just wanted to pack up our bags and leave,” said Peter, 41, a computer operations manager for ING bank.
He was weary of the daily battles, short tempers, and coarsening manners at home. “When you want to park your car here it’s almost warfare. We go to the supermarket at 8am just to avoid having to fight,” he said.
A “for sale” sign stands outside their clean, airy house in Sprang Capelle, a three-hour round-trip from Amsterdam.
House prices are one third of costs in Perth, where they plan to go, but they have no jobs lined up. “We’ve no idea at all what we’re going to do,” he said.
Ellen, 43, a lawyer and banker who votes for the free-market Liberals, said the code of behaviour regulating daily life in the Netherlands was breaking down.
“People no longer know what to expect from each other. There are so many rules, but nobody sticks to them. They just do as they want. They just execute people on the streets, it’s shocking when you see this for the first time,” she said. “We’ve become so tolerant that everybody thinks they can fight their own wars here. Van Gogh is killed, and then people throw bombs at mosques and churches. It’s escalating because the police and the state aren’t doing anything about it.
“There’s a feeling of injustice that if you do things right, if you work hard and pay your taxes, you’re punished, and those who don’t are rewarded. People can come and live here illegally and get payments. How is that possible?
“We didn’t think about how we should integrate people, to make sure that we actually talk to each other and know each other, instead of living in ghettoes with different rules.
“It’s not why we are leaving: the reason is that Australia feels different, it feels like a place where we would like to grow old,” she said.
Rob Platje, 34, a sales agent in Arnhem, is leaving in February to live in the Canadian Rockies with his partner and infant son.
“In Canada people have the space to get along with each other without stress. When I’m here in traffic, I’m terrible. I’m no better than anybody else. I lose my temper in the car, and I just hate myself for it,” he said.
“What I see here in the Netherlands is that people are becoming more frightened. A lot of things have been going on over the last two years. They don’t know if they can trust their neighbours.
“We hid the problem for a long time because we didn’t want to face up to the truth of what was happening,” he said.
Unlike most earlier waves of migration to the new world, this one is not driven by penury. The Netherlands has a per capita income higher than Germany or Britain, and 4.7 per cent unemployment.
“None of my clients is leaving for economic reasons. You can’t get a visa anyway if you haven’t got a work record,” said Frans Buysse.
Europe’s leader for much of the last century in social experiments, Holland may now be pointing to the next cultural revolution: bourgeois exodus.