Liberal Netherlands grows less so on immigration

After a report projecting a majority nonnative population by 2017, Rotterdam voted this month to limit poor newcomers.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Within sight of this port city's historic soccer stadium, the largest mosque in Europe is going up. When complete, its 164-foot-high minarets will tower over the arena.

A decade ago, few would have objected to such a large Islamic imprint. But now, worried that the mosque is sharpening ethnic tensions in the city's working-class Dutch neighborhood, city leaders are calling for a design that is "less Arabic."

"There's no reason the minarets have to be that high - it will not be Rotterdam; it will be Mecca on the Maas (river)," said Ronald Sorenson, leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam), the largest party in the city council.

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The controversy is emblematic of larger concerns in the Netherlands that the growing immigrant population - which is mostly Muslim - will dominate more than a skyline. In a nation known for its liberal views and openness, the days of multicultural tolerance may be fading as residents question the numbers of foreigners and the social-welfare costs of integrating them.

Earlier this month, citing a need to restore long-term balance in a city projected to have a majority-immigrant population within 15 years, Rotterdam's city council approved restrictions to close the door to poor and unemployed newcomers.

"It is as if the Netherlands has realized that they are a multicultural society, and are beginning to say to themselves - 'Well, we always said we wanted this, but now we have second thoughts,' " says Jan Niessen, director of the independent Migration Policy Group in Brussels. "The time of formulating nice policies about multiculturalism is over."

The move came after a report from the Dutch government research bureau Centrum Voor Underzoek and Statistiek, which forecast that, by 2017, almost 60 percent of Rotterdam's 600,000 population will be nonnative. Now, almost half of the population in the city - the nation's second-largest - was born outside Holland.

Rotterdam's decision, which is likely to face court challenges, is extreme among immigration policies in Europe. Still, it reflects an increasingly less friendly attitude on the Continent toward immigrants.

Under the new policy, only newcomers earning at least 20 percent more than minimum wage (or about $11.15 per hour) will receive a residency permit from the city. Rotterdam has also asked that for four years the national government send no more political refugees its way. The city also plans to step up deportations of illegal immigrants and to try to stop immigrants from bringing in migrant spouses.

The main national Dutch opposition parties blasted the plan as discriminatory. Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk has criticized the plans as unrealistic, saying that Rotterdam cannot refuse entry to newcomers whom the federal government has recognized as refugees or to whom it has given a residency permit.

But city leaders estimate that Rotterdam receives 60 percent of all new immigrants to the Netherlands, and that it simply cannot cope with the housing expenses and other social-welfare costs of absorbing more. Meanwhile, city leaders say middle-class Dutch residents are leaving the city because of rising crime rates and deteriorating neighborhoods. While crime records are not kept according to ethnicity, Dutch police and government officials have publicly linked a rise in crime to immigrants, particularly youth gangs.

Recent surveys show that 62 percent of Rotterdam residents support limiting immigration. The city's non-European population has risen over the past decade, in part because of the arrival of spouses from the old country - and robust birth rates. A recent government study in Rotterdam showed that the average birth rate for Moroccan women is nearly four times that of the Dutch rate of just over one child.

The Netherlands has no quota system for accepting immigrants. The cost of sending a new arrival through the required "integration program," which includes job training and Dutch lessons, can reach almost $7,500 per person.

It's no coincidence that a blunter policy toward immigrants originated in Rotterdam. The dominant Livable Rotterdam party rode to power in local elections in March 2002 on the popularity of Pim Fortuyn, a leader who promoted the slogan "Holland is full." He was murdered by an animal rights activist two months later, on the eve of general elections that he was expected to win by a landslide. But the debate he sparked about immigration continues to influence political life in Holland.

"There are too many people coming here who don't want to work. Before long there will be more foreigners than Dutch people, and Dutch people won't be the boss of their own country," says Léon, a white Rotterdam window cleaner who wants to be identified only by his first name. "That's why this has to be stopped."

The feeling among many ethnic minorities is that the policy is not about economics, but race. "There are a lot of people who feel that there are a lot of people of color on the street - and that is disturbing," says Suzanne, a Rotterdam resident of Indonesian descent who prefers to be quoted by first name. "But, that's the way the world is now, and there is no changing that."

Sorenson says the new policy is "pragmatic," not racist, and is aimed at reversing urban blight. Part of the council's plan is to shift from building affordable housing to upscale housing, to attract wealthier families and their tax contributions.

Previous Dutch policy has focused on educating migrants - most were "guest workers" from Turkey or Morocco - rather than penalizing them. In the 1990s, the Dutch government created programs to integrate the initially temporary immigrants, but they were underfunded and voluntary. In 1998, Holland passed a tougher plan, requiring immigrants to attend Dutch-language classes and receive job training. But 20 percent dropped out, most did not learn basic Dutch, and there was no follow-up for vocational opportunities, says a report from the Migration Policy Group.

Some immigrant-rights groups warn that Rotterdam's policy signals a growing polarization in Holland. "[The city] shouldn't have made immigrants the scapegoat. There was way too much us and them in this plan," says project leader Anil Ciftci of the Rotterdam group Delmatur.

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