The following article is based on the first part of a paper published in the course of a national discussion in the Netherlands, known as the "Third Chamber". The first and second chamber are the Dutch Senate and House of Parliament. The Third Chamber was an initiative of Dutch extraparliamentary groups, to discuss and connect four big issues within the (radical) left movement in the Netherlands: migration, environment, welfare state and democracy.
The second part of the paper will be published in FECL No. 39.



FECL 38 (October 1995):


In this paper, we seek to offer a political and historical approach to the issue of migration, enabling us both to judge government policies and to shape every day migrants' support at the same time. As in the rest of Europe, politicians in the Netherlands are increasingly suggesting that there is no room left for newcomers - whether refugees or those seeking work and wages. No sooner has the "Iron Curtain" between the East and West been torn down, than a new one is under construction. Western Europe is now being fenced off both to the East and South.

Migration is viewed exclusively as an "outside" threat to our affluence and assets. In the migration debates held in established political circles there appears to be no room for a historical approach to the problem. Instead, migration is being presented as a temporary phenomenon. As for the principle of international solidarity, it too seems all but forgotten.


General starting points

As members of the extraparliamentary opposition concerned with the results of migration on a daily basis, we wish to state the following:

1) The image as presented by the media and by many a leading politician - that of the Netherlands being "flooded" under a "tidal wave" of immigrants and refugees - needs to be countered by assessment of the fact that migration to and from the Netherlands is a given. People move out, people come in. The positive balance of newcomers on the sum total of migration is comparatively small. The number of Dutch citizens living abroad is fairly equal to that of foreigners living in the Netherlands.

The question, therefore, is more a matter of why so few people do turn to the Netherlands at all. Out of all the world's migration - whether compulsory or otherwise - a mere fraction, no more than a few per million, ever heads for the Netherlands.

2) All abstraction aside, and in view of our everyday experience, what strikes us is the way in which the Dutch, when settling abroad for an extended period, are often treated with a fair amount of respect by those around them for their adventurous spirit and courage. Their migration is seldom compulsory and is never conceived of as a "problem", even though economic motives (improvement of one's position) are often involved. Elsewhere, too, the departure of kinsfolk frequently involves expectations of progress and the improvement of one's lot. It is, however, self-evident that in many and large parts of the world, the backgrounds of departure or migration - aside from any such motive as social mobility - lie in the fact that war, hunger, poverty and persecution are the order of the day. The problem is not migration, it is the circumstances from which one flees.

3) Our assessment of migration is highly dependent on the question of its compulsory nature. Yet, as a matter of fact, the influx of migrants often has a positive impact on life in the "host countries". The arriving migrants deepen local culture, as well as lending dynamic and varied new elements to society.

4) By presenting migration itself as the problem, many politicians ignore or deny the interconnection between migratory flows and the world's developing economic and political power structures and environmental devastation. Particularly neglected are the effects of economic and po-litical interventions carried out by Western companies, nations and institutions such as EU, IMF, and World Bank, which influence eco-nomic, political and ecological conditions worldwide. The IMF and World Bank insist on structural spending cuts in social services and food distribution. In their programmes, they stress the export of only a limited amount of products. A surplus of these products on the world market plunges such countries still further into economic slump. Large-scale agricultural programmes and the urban concentration of industries and capital further strengthen the popular drift to the large cities, where it appears as a cheap labourers' reservoir. Such urbanisation comprises a first step in a migratory pattern. A pattern which, in fact, follows the trajectory of the global concentration of resources, 80 per cent of which are reserved on behalf of a mere 20 per cent of the world's population.

Besides economic interventions, certain Western powers are playing a crucial role in regions suffering from war and armed political conflict, in particular in relation to arms supplies. Many a criminal regime owes its continued existence to the political and economical support of the West.

Due to the unequal character of the world exchange ratio of goods and services, large sections of the population are impoverished. This inequality of exchange lies at the basis of a veritable spiral of social unrest, of revolts met in turn with repression, and culminating in inevitable migration. A clear example of this is to be seen in Morocco.

5) The world is becoming a village. It may fairly be said that virtually all countries and, in consequence, their inhabitants, are somehow integrated in world trade - a trade dominated by affluent societies. Means of mass communication have further "diminished distances". Factors such as modern communications systems support increasing migration. Alienation and consumerism are forcibly and unilaterally promoted worldwide by means of television broadcasts and advertising campaigns. The distorted representation of life and the social order in the West, i.e. that of abundance, freedom, employment, provisions, luxury, etc., exercises an irresistible appeal. Extensive air traffic has provided the technical means of moving swiftly from any given part of the world to any other. Thus, fleeing to some other part of the world is often a quicker and, above all, safer option than having to cross one's own country's borders over land.


A few causes and effects of migration

In every age, there have been large groups of people who somehow chose to leave their habitats. If, indeed, their numbers have grown nowadays, it is mostly a matter of the increasing world population. Many of the causes of migration have changed very little over the centuries. War, civil war, ethnic conflicts, all continue to send large communities into exile. Among the migrants are people fleeing from repressive regimes (sometimes supported by the West); people actually involved in acts of resistance and therefore physically threatened, but also people who refuse to live a life equalling a virtual social minefield.

A motive of increasing importance, yet thus far hardly recognised as such, involves those women who seek refuge from sexual violence (such as the women in former Yugoslavia) or from practices forced upon them (such as Chinese women resisting compulsory abortion, or African women defying circumcision). What is new about this is the fact that, for the first time ever, women choose to take refuge on these specific grounds. However, this is generally not regarded sufficient grounds for a residence permit.

Another novelty are the human-inflicted environmental disasters that drive people into exile. People have always fled from earthquakes, floods and other disasters. Contemporary disasters are increasingly caused by large-scale deforestation and consequent desertification, leaking or exploding chemical plants, landfills of chemical waste, etc.. Such migratory flows may be expected to grow immensely in the future, as ever larger areas of the planet fall at risk of becoming uninhabitable. Such environmental issues often cannot be separated from the economic issues arising from them. Environmental issues will destroy an area's economic capacities. The deforestation taking place in South America both for timber and the clearing of farmland - farmland used to feed cattle intended for North American fast-food chains. Within a few years, the soil is completely exhausted and erosion occurs. This amounts to environmental annihilation.

Another factor are the pay offs of loans from IMF and the World Bank, and the conditions that go to accompany them. The lifting of subsidies on fossil fuels has meant that many people have to resort to burning wood instead. The pay offs necessitate a growing export industry. This export consists by and large of mineral resources, timber, and agricultural products such as fodder, resulting in massive erosion and signs of exhaustion of the soil. Thus, in the Philippines, where there is access to fertile farmland, it is cultivated mainly to grow monocultural crops such as sugar cane intended for export purposes. Only a limited number of people profit from this, as a result of which there are millions of farmers who take to the forests in order to burn down their own patch of land.

Besides these more or less involuntary causes for leaving one's country, Western governments distinguish "voluntary" migration, the sole objective of which is assumed to be life improvement. Naturally, all migration is essentially directed at improvement of one's life abroad. Moreover, economic circumstances may well prove an equally pressing cause for departure. In fact, it is hard to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary, nor are such distinctions very useful. A Colombian female moving to the Netherlands in order to prostitute herself may well have made a conscious decision on doing so, yet for the purpose of sending her children to a qualified, i.e. expensive, private school, in the hope of providing them with a better future. People are less and less prepared to accept their lack of prospects and their poverty. Moreover, the mass media constantly drum it into them that life elsewhere is better. Besides the motive of poor economic circumstances, there is the question of lawlessness. Even in some so-called democratic countries, corruption, nepotism and unorganised violence have reached such proportions that for a person lacking the right or even sufficient connections, or the required family or ethnic background, it may prove very hard to get anywhere at all. Many societies slip into a state of total anarchy, in which people are at risk of being arrested because such and such a police officer is in need of cash, and where being robbed becomes a daily routine. Few local businesses manage to survive routine extortion by corrupt officials. Such lawlessness, which reigns over many so-called democracies, deprives people of all hope of ever accomplishing anything at home. To the inhabitants of these nations, migration not only represents a means of financial improvement, but above all the hope of a future lost to them in their lands of birth. Having grown accustomed to a life without any rights, restrictive measures against these illegal immigrants are of little avail.


Consequences of emigration for the countries of origin

To a number of societies in the Third World, emigration is becoming an increasingly important factor. Its effects may be observed most clearly in the Caribbean, where today between 5 and 18 per cent of the population reside abroad. There is hardly a Caribbean family without at least some relatives in the USA.

Large-scale emigration may serve to relieve the pressures of population growth, or to reduce political and economical tensions. But there are consequences less welcome. Best known of these is the "brain drain" occurring in so many of the Southern countries. More and more, the better educated will opt for a less demanding existence in the West. The sometimes substantial financial contribution to a nation's economy provided by the money returned by the migrants, has ambiguous effects. While often supporting entire families, the money also disrupts existing wage structures. Families in which one of the members lives abroad and sends home money to them, may soon have a higher income than the average physician or school teacher. There is no longer any point in undergoing a lengthy and costly education. The wise thing to do is to make it for the West. Thus, education, traditionally an important means of personal improvement, loses much of its appeal. Increasingly, the hope of a better future is projected on a foreign destination.

One side effect accompanying recent forms of migration is the fact that the costs of the reproduction of labour are transferred to Third World countries. Thus, Dominican mothers residing in the United States will often send off their young kids to their grandmothers back home, since it is cheaper than providing for day care in the US (and because they themselves need all the energy they can get to cope with appallingly long working hours). Countries of emigration are becoming both the nurseries and the old folks' homes (the repatriating elderly migrants) of the Western world. In the Dominican Republic, there exist villages without any productive population. A country's own economic activities grind to a halt. There is no-one left to engage in them.


The Dutch policy

The Dutch policy is characterised by complete ignorance of the causes of migration. As we said earlier, one important cause of compulsory migration is to be found in the economic state of affairs and political power structures. Politicians are stuck in the existing economic order's mechanisms, from which they cannot break free if they wanted to.

Dutch politics concentrate on short-term solutions designed to keep the problem out of the European context. The whole policy deteriorates into a matter of nationality. It is not the causes, but the consequences of migration which are under fire; consequently, it is the migrants who end up in the dock. The fact that migration is a constant factor is ignored. It is the same type of politics as are applied to our unemployment situation; increasing regulation and repression, used to imply that the "problem" may yet be contained.

By repeated suggestion that migration is a short-term, containable problem, whereas this is obviously not the case, a general mood of panic is being created. A mood which is further strengthened by the vocabulary used by politicians and officials when addressing the issue of migration.

To think of migration as containable is an illusion. This has become obvious over the past few decades in the increasing migration from Central America to the USA. Despite thousands of border guards, massive fences and electronic surveillance systems, hundreds of people make it to the US every day, often at risk of their own lives. It is estimated that some millions of mainly Mexicans are now staying illegally in the US.



There have been attempts since 1985 to "harmonise" European migration policies.

The objective is to contain, control and ultimately prevent migration from the outside. In fact, "harmonisation" here means the adjustment of the migration policies of the various countries involved to that of the most restrictive among them.

The nations of the European Community and their bordering neighbours sign treaties involving the automatic expulsion of refugees arriving through those countries, to those countries, based on the so-called "safe third country" assumption.

This means in effect the creation of a "safety belt" surrounding Europe. Apart from this, intensified procedures both while boarding in the countries of origin, and on arrival at Western airports render "undocumented" travel to Europe next to impossible. Finally, those who manage to overcome such obstacles face internment in detention centres such as the "border hospice" in the Netherlands.

The realisation of these harmonised migration policies takes place far from democratically. There is no democratic control on either the making or the implementation of the various agreements. Thus, we are faced with the emergence of utterly unaccountable European information networks and official working groups on migration, such as the K.4 Committee's numerous working groups, in which refugees' (support) groups and other NGO's have no say whatsoever.


Restrictive regulations

In perfect keeping with the European Community, the Dutch government is developing ever more restrictive measures, e.g. the revised immigration law in force as of 1995, and the impending adoption of the "Aliens Administration System", VAS, in 1994. Further amendments of immigration laws are in store.

Much has been said about the revised Aliens Act. One major argument of its proponents holds that it will provide the practical means to reject those refugees whose application for asylum is "manifestly unfounded". In 1992, the group in question comprised no more than eight per cent of the total number of refugees to the Netherlands.

Critiques of the law mostly concerned the various negative measures directed against the refugees, such as abolition of the right to appeal and the extension of detention possibilities against refugees and illegal immigrants. In September 1995 the government decided to re-establish the right to appeal in some cases, but the extent of this has yet to be specified. However, the law also involves severely negative consequences for all aliens other than refugees: those arriving in the course of family reunification, for studies or employment, and all other aliens residing in the Netherlands on a legal basis.

Increasingly, these and other new developments in immigration policies tend to clash with international treaties on human rights and commitments.


National surveillance of aliens

Apart from the various measures taken to enforce border surveillance, there is a development towards an "effective" national surveillance of aliens, in which the aforementioned VAS will serve a key role. The VAS, a type of highly extended automated database, will be used to register all aliens resident in the Netherlands. One of the types of data will be the Social Security Number. Thus, the VAS will serve an important function both in the exclusion of illegal immigrants from public services, as to their general location. Many government institutions have online access to the system. The public servant at the counter (of the town hall, hospital, or social security office) will become a direct extension of the Justice Department. The VAS will further be used for street patrol purposes. Officers will have to decide on their own when or when not to run a given individual through their computer. The persons checked may be expected to be mainly people of colour or with poor command of the Dutch language. The VAS here becomes a racist instrument.

As for the recently introduced, limited obligation to carry identification papers, the same applies here as with the VAS. Since it is up to the official in question to decide when or when not to ask for an ID, he or she will usually do so in said cases. All "immigrants" are registered under the VAS, yet whether a person is Dutch or illegal who will tell? That is to say: black people make sure you carry your ID.

The legal authorities are dependent for the implementation of their policies on the cooperation of the civilian population, who are expected to denounce illegal immigrants in close alliance with the public administration.

The police department alone does not have the capacity to trace every illegal residing within our borders, and depends on information provided by civilians. It is quite likely that at least some of the population and public servants will not find themselves in agreement with increasingly restrictive policies, and will tend to sabotage them.

Since June 1994 there has been an obligation to identify yourself in a "limited number" of situations; in fact, this amounts to a general ID obligation. The ID law of June 1994 primarily aims at excluding illegal migrants from the regular labour market.

Furthermore, the government plans the introduction of a new law, the so-called Koppelingswet. The Bill aims at excluding illegal migrants and refugees with a temporary permit from all public services and benefits (anything from medical care to fishing licences). Access to these rights will require permanent residence permit. The VAS will be used to carry out the controls.


Are the Netherlands "overcrowded"?

In an attempt to legitimize official policies, the Netherlands are suggested to be "overpopulated". This argument serves to create the image of migration as a disruptive force to Dutch society, and thereby contributes to an atmosphere of terror which finds an outlet in the growing support for extreme right policies. In reaction to this, we see only short-term measures taken, designed to suggest that migration may be contained through restrictive regulations.

The idea that the Netherlands are overcrowded is based on various assumptions.



The onslaught on our environment is much less a question of the population increase, as it is of waste and non-durability. The manure surplus for instance poses a far more real environmental threat. Environmental factors are not to be contained through national borders. National borders are human, artificial creations.


Lack of space

In January, 1994, the Zadelhoff agency (brokerage) predicted that during the same year, the vacant space in Dutch office buildings would further expand to 2.7 million square meters.

If it were publicized tomorrow that the United Nations had decided to move to "de Randstad", the West Netherlands urban conglomerate, requesting facilities for its thousands of employees, there would be no question of stating that we are "full". On the contrary, they would be saluted as they arrived.

The debate of whether "the Netherlands are overcrowded" is defined by the matter of national borders. Environmental action groups have developed a rather different concept: that of the applicability of environmental space - three quarters of the sum total of which appear to be reserved for one quarter of the world population.


Rate of acceptance

Any society's rate of acceptance with regard to the number of allowable migrants is naturally dependent on official policies and current opinions. Until a few years ago, nobody had even bothered with illegal immigrants - of which there were, however, plenty. There has, for instance, always been the matter of large numbers of illegal European immigrants (specifically from Great Britain). In fact, few ever perceived this as a problematic situation. It is, rather, a case of politicians creating the problem through numerous statements - statements depicting migrants, especially illegal immigrants, as the outside danger undermining our society. It naturally follows that there must be a firm response.

Instead of the development of a policy based primarily on the premises of the permanence of migration flows towards Europe, and the relation of that migration to economic, political and ecological factors which demand resolution, quite the contrary is at hand. Migration is viewed as an isolated case, a problem in its own right; a problem to Europe that is to be combated with any means at our disposal. This policy, combined with the statements of politicians in defence of it, has accelerated the spread of racist prejudice amongst the population.


Consequences of Dutch policy

The question of whether the Netherlands are "full" or not is irrelevant, since the answer to it is irrelevant. The whole world is "full", and there is little to assume that this fullness should bypass the Netherlands unnoticed. Furthermore, the question of whether the Netherlands be declared "full" or not has little to do with the actual mass of migratory flows to those Netherlands. Even if the Dutch government - in answer to said "fullness" - should further restrict its migration policies, this will not deter people from coming. Measures to stop migration are fruitless. Thick apparatuses such as the Dutch state will never match people's infinite creativity when it comes to finding new loopholes in the law. Perhaps the flow may be somewhat curbed; however, the price paid for this impediment by both the migrants and Dutch society as a whole is inordinately high. Restrictive measures will render more and more migratory channels subject to "organised crime", as the roads formerly open to migrants of their own accord are increasingly blocked. Future migrants will be driven into the wide open arms of "organised crime", demanding high fees for offering them a last resort to entrance routes. Potential migrants will willingly pay growing rates, forced by the pressure and dream of migration. We need only to think here of media images of what migrants worldwide are willing to cope with (ramshackle boats, rat-infested pipes, etc.).

Measures taken against it will only raise the costs of any intended migration. As a result, the migration mafia will find it increasingly profitable to bribe Dutch citizens involved in the admission of foreigners. Already, countless Dutch passports disappear each year prior to distribution, ready to be completed by corrupt officials. The increasing market rates are likely to tempt an increasing number of people.

The state is perverting its own system. More and more, the migration mafia will start to resemble that of illegal narcotics. More restrictive immigration policies will only force illegal immigrants into the margins of society, where they will have no option but to further have themselves exploited in increasingly appalling conditions, in order to survive.

Illegal labour is tantamount to cheap labour and thus, despite the risks, illegal immigrants will remain attractive for Dutch employers. None of this will ever rid us of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants cannot be put off by denying them basic rights such as health care and education, since their situation at home was far worse to begin with. More restrictive immigration policies not only serve to worsen the immigrants' lives, they affect the entire Dutch society. Through them, we are faced with "American situations". In the old housing districts, raids will become the order of the day. Besides alienated pensioners lying dead for weeks, there will be more and more cases of dead illegals who died simply because they couldn't afford to see a doctor. Children of illegal immigrants collected at school by the registration office (good luck explaining them away to your kid son or daughter!), or from sweatshops where they work twelve hours a day. More beggars and homeless in the streets. More tenements of illegal immigrants, jam-packed like sardines in a tin.

The boarding up of more and more of the routes out of illegality will turn a small section of the migrants into desperados, desperate at all costs to make what they can from their stay. They have nothing to lose. This development may already be observed in small gangs of North African boys in the major cities.

A more restrictive immigration policy strengthens the social segregation in our own society. Through it, society becomes more ruthless, violent, and corrupt.

There can be no question of a choice of whether the Netherlands are full or not. The migrants will continue to arrive regardless of our "choice". The question, rather, is how to deal with the fact. Put simply, it is a matter of providing a Somali with a shelter - or finding him on your doorstep one sunny morning.


Ed Hollants (Autonoom Centrum)

and Jan Muter (St. Opstand),

with advice from Gerard Eykelenboom and Lisbeth Venicz


Contact: Ed Hollants, Autonoom Centrum, Bilderdijkstraat 165-f, NL-1053 KP Amsterdam; Tel: +31/20 6126172; Fax: +31/20 6168967, E-mail: