Saturday, 31 July 2010

My expose on immigration in the Netherlands

It started out as a joke between a friend and I, everywhere I went during my short break in the Netherlands, my inquisitive read: nosey personality got the better of me and I would start quizzing 'foreign-looking' people about where they were from and what exactly they were doing there. In all honesty I found it odd to find black people in the streets, shops and restaurants of Amsterdam, the Hague and Rotterdam and what’s more they didn’t look like visitors passing-by but rather like this was their home, where they belonged. I realise it’s a clear indication of my ignorance because of course black people have immigrated to countries all over the world so why should Holland be any different. Unlike the UK, the US and France though, I find the idea of someone from Africa or the Caribbean settling in the Netherlands hugely fascinating, I mean where does an immigrant from the Gambia for instance start in such a place? You not only look different but you also sound different and have never ever spoken a language that sounds anything like the Dutch language. Settling in foreign countries is hard enough even when the language is the same because of course for many Africans the culture is completely different to what we’re used to – so you immerse yourself and hope it will get easier as time goes by. Awestruck by all this – I started quizzing people I met in the hopes of learning more about these clearly resilient immigrants who had made the Netherlands their home.

In Rotterdam I met a waiter from Cape Verde - a Portuguese-speaking island off the west coast of Africa. I asked him how he came to live in Holland and learnt that his parents emigrated there some 15 years ago. He also told me that he spoke his indigenous language at home with his family and learnt Dutch from an early age which was now his main language of communication. Apparently there are sizeable Cape Verdean, Curacaoan and Surinamese communities in Rotterdam. Curacao which is a small island off the coast of Venezuela is in fact still part of Dutch territory and part of the five islands known as the Netherland Antilles that also includes Bonaire and Sint Maarten (the Southern half of the island of St Martin). Suriname, on the other hand is a former Dutch colony and Dutch speaking therefore it made sense for these islanders to settle here. My interviewee also told me that many of the stunning Surinamese and Curacaoan girls I saw, a number of whom were pushing ‘designer prams’ were born or came to the Netherlands as very young children and were essentially Dutch now. Unfortunately as a group, the Dutch islanders have a bad reputation, perhaps unfairly so but the general view was that they were lazy and aggressive. There is also a high percentage of teenage pregnancies within their communities and disproportionately so especially as the Dutch have the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. According to official statistics, there has been a growth in the number of unwanted pregnancies among ethnic minorities in the Netherlands with women from Surinam, Turkey, Morocco and the Dutch Caribbean, accounting for considerably more abortions than 'indigenous' Dutch women - in 2004 the figure was 60% of the total number of abortions carried out compared to their relatively small population. To give you an idea of where they sit in the country’s population as a whole - online figures suggest the population in the Netherlands is divided as follows - Dutch 79.71%, Turkish 2.31%, Indonesian 2.3%, German 2.28%, Moroccan 2.1%, Surinamese 2.06%, Netherlands Antilles/Aruba 0.83% and Other 8.36%.

With interview no. 1 in the bag, I decided to pick on some poor unsuspecting boy working at a MacDonald’s in Amsterdam city centre (of course my visit there was purely for research purposes). I should have known better than to try and get a man to multi-task because I quizzed him as he served us and watched as he broke into a sweat having to process so much information all at the same time. He just about managed to give me the information I was asking for as well as handing me two sachets of tomato ketchup. He repeated my question...a little baffled using his limited school English - 'where are my parents from?' - "Yeah", I barked "...and whilst you're thinking about it can I also have the ketchup I asked for five minutes ago?” Once we'd established that he was half Jamaican and half Surinamese and spoke mostly Dutch, I thanked him and left, much to the amusement of his equally young, also black colleagues. Unsurprisingly 85% of the staff in this MacDonald’s was young and black. So I guess that was one thing black immigrants in the Netherlands had in common with the ones here in the UK.

I also spoke to friends who work as expatriates for the various international organisations based in the Hague who told me that they found the Dutch quite unfriendly and some would go as far as to say quite racist. Political correctness was non-existent in a country where the people prided themselves on their humour even if it meant laughing at the cultural differences of others. There were adverts on television portraying black people as wild and primitive and things that are no longer said or done in the UK certainly for fear of accusations of racism were done in the Netherlands and their justification was that this was their sense of humour, like it or lump it.

I came away from my mini investigations with even more admiration for Black immigrants in the Netherlands than I had started with because I realised that aside from a difference in language, culture and skin colour, there were other difficulties which immigrants had to contend with. For instance in 2006, the Dutch introduced a test that all immigrants had to pass if they want to move to the Netherlands - this included watching and being questioned on a DVD which covered nude beaches, homosexuality and the sex trade as part of Dutch culture. So if you’re coming from a conservative society then you’d better for a crash course in Dutch liberalism. I met an exchange medical student from Burkina Faso who was attending a summer programme who had been traumatized by a trip to the red light district as part a cultural tour of Amsterdam. Even I found the whole women displaying their ‘wares’ in shop windows a little hard to take so I can’t imagine how this boy who was leaving his strict Christian home in Ouagadougou for the first time in his life must have been feeling.

Living as foreigner in the Netherlands takes even more pliability than living as an immigrant in other parts of the world - you clearly have to be prepared to immerse yourself in a culture that is so strangely different, so opposed to the one you are used to and so unapologetically rigid. Overcoming these differences is no small feat so my hat is raised to the immigrant who moves to Holland and settles there raising their children and succeeding in spite of everything.

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