Justice, Amsterdam-style: an effort to improve lot of minorities

The telephone rings at City Hall. A young black woman from Surinam takes the call. A Turkish immigrant tells her he has been refused service at a downtown restaurant. She notifies the judicial authorities immediately. The restaurant owner is disciplined. Swift justice, Amsterdam-style. At any hour of the day or night, ethnic residents of Amsterdam who feel they have been discriminated against can call City Hall to complain on a special hot line set up a year ago.

The service is part of a nationwide effort aimed at easing racial tension -- and it appears to be working.

``We believe it's an effective deterrent against racial discrimination,'' says Joop Troeder, one of 30 municipal employees who have been hired to deal exclusively with the problems of the city's growing minority populations.

So far, The Netherlands has been spared much of the race-related violence that has hit other West European countries in recent years.

But many Dutch officials fear that the country's large community of immigrant workers -- which comes mainly from Turkey and Morocco, and which numbers about 500,000, or 3.5 percent of the nation's population -- could become a convenient scapegoat for a variety of social ills. These range from 13 percent unemployment (the third highest in the European Community) to the huge budget deficit, which threatens the stability of the nation's welfare system, according to some analysts.

Many observers, moreover, believe that a government policy adopted in the 1970s enabling immigrant workers to bring their relatives into the country could raise racial tensions in the coming years.

Recently, The Netherlands has moved to tackle this potentially explosive social problem head-on -- in contrast with other countries in Western Europe, where financial incentives have been used to encourage ``guest workers'' to pack their bags and return home.

Nationwide, for example, immigrant workers have been given the right to vote in local elections. In cities with large immigrant populations, like Amsterdam, community centers have been set up to assist foreign workers and their families. Special advisory panels have also been established. Fines are levied against those making racist jokes in public. Restaurants can lose their licenses for refusing to serve foreign customers. And generally, the police and city judges take a particularly hard line in dealing with racially motivated crimes.

``It's a two-pronged approach aimed at integrating those who want to be integrated, on the one hand, and fostering racial harmony, on the other,'' says Dick Houwaart, a government spokesman.

Some critics, however, wonder whether the authorities are doing enough. Others claim it is too much.

A small extreme-right political party, the Center Party, which was formed several years ago, argues that the government has appeased the country's minority groups at the expense of the indigenous Dutch. The presence of a half million immigrants in the country aggravates the unemployment problem, it insists, contributes to a higher crime rate, and endangers the ``national ecological system.''

Critics on the political left say that the government needs to do much more to counter what the European Parliament said recently is the tendency of a ``wide social strata'' of Dutch society to ``slide into attitudes of intolerance or occasionally even hostility towards ethnic minorities and especially blacks.''

Dutch sociologist Philomena Essed, the author of ``Everyday Racism,'' said recently that racism in The Netherlands is widespread. ``It can be discerned in almost every aspect of interpersonal and social relations,'' she said. What's needed, she added, is nothing short of a completely new strategy ``at the institutional level'' aimed at changing the country's ``ideological climate.''

The government says the facts speak for themselves. Racially inspired crime or acts of violence are rare in The Netherlands, it points out.

``We stand by what we've done,'' says Home Office spokesman Houwaart. ``The record's relatively good.''

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