The Dutch government announced last week that from 2013, it will no longer finance integration and language classes for newly arrived immigrants in the state. Despite an amendment proposed by opposition parties, it appears that there will be no exception for refugees in the Netherlands. The new measure is introduced as part of bill amending the Integration Act, which is currently being debated in parliament. Though under the proposed amendment, training will no longer be freely available to refugees, their ability to access a long term residence permit or citizenship status will still be dependent on whether they pass the state integration and language tests. This announcement signifies yet another obstacle for those attempting to gain long term residence and ultimately citizenship status in the state. However, it also reveals the ambivalent attitude that the Dutch Government has towards refugees living in the state.
Currently, those who wish to obtain a long term residence status in the Netherlands, including refugees, must pass a series of tests, based on their knowledge of the Netherlands as well as their competence in the Dutch language. Among those who have undergone the tests, many have reported that the questions appear unrelated to the concept of integration in the state. The relative difficulty of the test however becomes clear when one considers that in November of 2011, an Iraqi born prize-winning author resident in the Netherlands for many had failed the citizenship test, which is almost identical to the integration test for residence, by scoring 70% and not the 74% required.
The Dutch Government has nonetheless maintained that the relatively high level of success in the integration tests not only supports the idea that the tests should remain in place, but also that the tests should be made more difficult, which they gradually have over the years. However, as Groenendijk points out, these statistics hide the fact that overall there are fewer individuals gaining access to long term residence status and naturalisation, not because they are failing the tests, but because fewer people are applying for such statuses.
Without even taking account of the cost of training, the expense involved in actually taking the tests is quite substantial, particularly when the language element of the test is taken in to account. Depending on the location of the test, this can cost upwards of €1000. In terms of the amendments proposed by the Dutch Government, the cost of the integration process would be covered by a loan taken out by the person subject to the integration testing. As Groenendijk notes, the current criteria for acquiring a long term residence have deterred many from applying for such status. It is certain that this number will drop even more dramatically if there is a need for loans to be taken out to secure a better chance of successfully gaining a long term residence status in the Netherlands. The overall result of such a move will therefore be to increase the number of those who have a weaker and more vulnerable residence status in the state.
During the legislative amendment process, NGOs and opposition parties have appealed to the Dutch Government to maintain integration support for refugees living in the Netherlands. It has been suggested to the government that as a result of the amendment, refugees will tend to constitute an ever growing number of individuals who are indefinitely present in the state, but without being able to gain access to a long term residence or citizenship status.
The refugee in particular is seen as being “difficult” in terms of the creation of integration strategies in the Netherlands. This was recently emphasised in a change in Dutch law, which banned a previously legal substance, Khat, mainly used by the Somali population in the Netherlands, many of whom were refugees. Like most regulated or banned substances, there are obviously many adverse and damaging affects to taking Khat. However, it is the manner in which the government sought to ban the substance and the reasons that were given for banning it that are of interest here. According to the government, one of the key reasons for banning the drug was that it was preventing Somali refugees from successfully integrating in the state. The Minister for Immigration, Integration, and Asylum Affairs, Gerd Leers, also suggested that the use of the substance was resulting in families being neglected, and that its use by Somali refugees was contributing to broader social problems.
By emphasising the negative behaviour of the refugees, the government tends to absolve itself of responsibility towards such persons. If it is possible to blame addiction for the perceived lack of integration rather than other factors, or indeed the cumulative effect of a number of factors, the problem lies with the refugee, and not with the state. Presenting the problem in this way allows the government to embark on a “quick-fix” solution by banning the substance. According to the government, banning Khat will prevent Somali refugees from becoming addicted, thus protecting them, their families and society at large. Such a solution however does not invite one to delve too deeply into the underlying causes of the problem, or even to question whether addiction to Khat is more problematic than an addiction to marijuana, a restricted, though legally obtainable substance in the Netherlands.
The act of blaming the refugee for their lack of integration is however not limited to the Khat incident, but in a way has been institutionalized through the use of the integration testing process. This is particularly clear from the reasoning offered by the state for the establishments of the proposed amendments to the Integration Act. Owing to the fact that it is the responsibility of the individual to integrate into society, it should also be their responsibility to come up with the funds to pay for training and testing.
This description suggests that there is a level of choice and agency on behalf of the person subject to the integration process that does not really reflect the reality. It is particularly difficult to accept this position when the government took such a paternalistic approach to regulating integration when it intorduced the provisions outlawing Khat.
If the integration courses and tests are so expensive and will no longer be subsidised, it is not really fair to say that a person did not make sufficient efforts to integrate in to the state. As noted, the costs, as well as the tests themselves have proved to be prohibitive for many, not least for refugees, who face specific challenges relating to their status and the nature of their arrival in the state. However, presenting the amendment as a way of allowing the individual to take responsibility for her own integration also allows for the possibility to blame her if she fails to meet the state’s integration standards.
The case of the Netherlands illustrates how prejudices with respect to refugees are often reflected in the law and policy of a state. The recently passed, as well as the proposed changes in law also provide an opportunity to reflect on how the term ‘integration’ has come to be used by states to legitimate certain policies and how such policies ultimately may have a marginalising effect on certain groups, in particular refugees.
 K. Groenendijk, ‘From Assisting to Requiring Integration: Selective Citizenship Policies in the Netherlands’ in Naturalisation: A Passport for the Better Integration of Immigrants? (OECD, 2011)
 European Union Institute, EUDO Citizenship Observatory, Country Report: The Netherlands (European Uninversity Institute: 2009/2010)