Posted on April 25, 2005

‘It Just Doesn’t Feel Like Holland Any More’

Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Apr. 23

ROTTERDAM — To a visitor, the village of Nijkerk looks like a model of Dutch calm and order, its neat streets filled with cyclists and lined with tiny townhouses.

But to Bert van Ramshorst and his family, the town no longer feels like home. Its citizens now come in a variety of hues and hold a wide range of beliefs, some of them deeply at odds with the pacifism and expansive liberalism that has long characterized Dutch society.

“I’ve lived here, in this town, almost all of my life, and it just doesn’t feel like Holland any more,” the 42-year-old electrical contractor said, as he took a break from packing to sit with his wife and three young children in their narrow, cozy living room. “It doesn’t feel like the place where I want to raise my family.”

So the van Ramshorst family, troubled by the changes brought about by immigration, have decided to become immigrants themselves.

With their move to Vancouver this summer, they are joining an unprecedented number of people from the Netherlands who have decided, in recent months, to make a new home in what they see as the more comforting and less divisive Canada.

The sudden exodus to Canada has taken the Dutch government entirely by surprise.

During the past year, and especially during the past five months, the number of Dutch citizens applying to depart for faraway countries — notably Canada, as well as New Zealand and Australia — has increased to levels not seen in the tiny nation’s modern history.

Most of those emigrants, according to the people who help them make their moves, are leaving because of their complex and surprising feelings about the changes to Dutch society brought about by immigration.

For some, the desire to leave is a response to the immigrants themselves, and what many people here view as their violent, divisive, non-Dutch ways.

But just as many Dutch immigrants seem to be alarmed that immigration has turned their countrymen into angry, intolerant nationalists.

In just about every country in Europe, immigration has become the most significant political issue, by far, in public opinion, media attention and parliamentary action. In Germany, France, Britain and Italy, immigrants have become the dominant election issue.

Faced with shrinking, aging populations and the attendant economic costs, most European countries are badly in need of immigrants. In some countries, this has led to culture shock.

The ethnic cleansing and mass migration of the two world wars left many European countries with one dominant ethnic group, so the presence of large numbers of visibly different people has alarmed and alienated many residents.

Nowhere is this being more strongly felt than in traditionally tolerant, open nations such as Britain and the Netherlands.

While both countries face severe labour shortages and therefore cannot give up on immigration, the public reaction to the demographic changes has been nothing short of fury.

In the campaign leading toward the May 5 national election in Britain, polls show that immigration is by far the most significant issue to voters of all classes and backgrounds — outpacing by an enormous margin other hot topics such as crime and taxation.

Even the governing left-wing Labour Party has felt compelled to adopt the angry rhetoric of the anti-immigrant right, and has promised to cut back the number of refugees accepted (if not the number of immigrants).

In the Netherlands, the reaction has been equally heated. But there, people are voting with their feet.

“The entire society is changing and people are longing for the world of 20, 30 years ago — some people believe they can only find that by leaving,” says Frans Buysse, a former Canadian embassy employee who runs Holland’s largest agency for people wishing to emigrate to Canada.

Mr. Buysse can pinpoint the precise moment when the Dutch outflow became a full-scale flood. On Nov. 2, the libertine filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in a bloody throat slitting by a Muslim extremist while cycling on an Amsterdam street. To outsiders, it seemed a strange, passing crime. But the Dutch responded, within their tight-knit community, the way some Americans did to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Suddenly, people were noticing immigrant crimes, and committing crimes against immigrants: December saw the firebombing of several mosques and Islamic schools.

During the next four weeks, Mr. Buysse received 13,000 on-line applications from people requesting information on moving to Canada — more than four times the usual level. Since then, this increase hasn’t stopped. And, he says, the thousands of people he has helped move to Canada during the past few years have mentioned either immigration, or intolerance resulting from immigration, as a reason for leaving.

“For certain people, Nov. 2 was a confirmation of their beliefs,” he said. “As a society, we have always been very tolerant to people from other places — for hundreds of years, this has been the case — but we have become so tolerant that some groups are influencing society in such a way that it starts to become intolerant. People are fed up with this.”

While Dutch emigrants cite numerous reasons for going to Canada, including job opportunities, a desire for adventure, and especially the wide-open spaces that are almost absent from the Netherlands, Mr. Buysse and other immigration workers say it is the tension over immigration that has pushed the emigrant numbers so high recently.

According to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, 49,000 people emigrated last year, the highest number since 1954 and a dramatic increase over approximately 30,000 in 1999.

But the statistics do not reveal the strange and often contradictory motives that are driving away thousands of citizens of the Netherlands, a country that has better standards of health care, education and social services and a lower crime rate than most Canadian cities.

The Dutch, a trading people, have had outsiders in their midst for centuries. And while the past two decades have seen a more open approach to immigration from non-European countries, something about this latest wave has deeply galvanized the country against immigration.

Some blame the Dutch policy of cultural segregation, where groups such as North African Muslims are allowed to attend their own schools and not encouraged to learn the local language or culture. Others blame the simple insularity of Dutch society, which forces newcomers into such enclaves, with little hope of wider acceptance.

For two computer technicians in Rotterdam, the problem has to do not with immigration itself, but with the Dutch response to it. In the view of Ge-An Van Rossum, 36, and her husband, Bas Rijniersce, 29, Canada is a place where the tension between immigrants and non-immigrants does not exist, because that distinction does not exist.

“Canadians are all immigrants,” Mr. Rijniersce said from the austere living room of their flat in a funky corner of Rotterdam. “One or two generations back, they all emigrated from somewhere else. But here in the Netherlands there has been quite a lot of problems with this question — integration doesn’t work so well. In Canada it’s worked better, though I don’t know why. There’s a little bit more tolerance between people than there is here.”

For Mr. van Ramshorst, the small-town electrician, the problem is simply that Holland has let too many people in without any attention to their ability to fit into Dutch society.

“The last 10 years, our government’s policy was to tolerate almost everything, and that’s not good,” he said. “There’s law, and there’s respect of the law, and you can’t just let people do anything. Tolerance is very important, but we’ve reached the point where we’re tolerating people who despise our way of life and want to damage it.”

Those fleeing what they see as a degenerating society face difficulties with Canada’s immigration system. Even for the well-educated Dutch, it takes two or three years to get an unsponsored application cleared, a tougher process than most people undergo to get into the Netherlands, although Canada takes far more immigrants, as a proportion of its population, than Holland.

This difficulty has become an inspiration for some in the Netherlands, who blame their country’s ad hoc immigration system for the cultural clashes. Some favour adopting the Canadian system wholesale.

“We are only now beginning to understand that now we are an immigrant country, and that we therefore need an immigration law,” Mr. Buysse said. “Canada has understood that for a long time, and its points system seems to be a good model for us.”

So it may seem surprising, after all the effort and research involved, that both the van Ramshorst and the Van Rossum families have decided to settle in the area immediately around Vancouver. (Dutch immigration consultants say that Alberta and British Columbia are the two most popular destinations.) After all, this is a highly multicultural region that has had its own conflicts over assimilation and intolerance.

But both families said that they don’t see this as a problem — in fact, they see B.C.’s heavy immigrant population as benefiting them, as they, too, will be immigrants.

“There’s a different social consensus in Canada,” Mr. Rijniersce said. “People are more interested in becoming part of Canadian society, and nobody makes a big deal about their arrival.”

Netherlands emigration

An unprecedented number of Dutch citizens are deciding to leave Holland and seek citizenship in Canada to escape what they see as at home.

Dutch-born leaving the country

1995: 38,507

1996: 40,365

1997: 37,849

1998: 35,778

1999: 35,785

2000: 37,414

2001: 39,380

2002: 46,631

2003: 45,946