The Dutch government should stop keeping records of its citizens’ ethnic backgrounds, says Albertine van Diepen of the Council for Social Development (RMO). It’s ridiculous to pigeonhole people based on their parents’ country of origin, she says. But other specialists say the ethnic records can be useful.
The council has advised the government to stop using the controversial terms that distinguish between Western or non-Western ethnic minorities and ‘native Dutch’ in the national civil records.
“The classification system isn’t based on the person in question, but on the characteristics of the parents. Where were the father and mother born? If it was in another country, then in the Netherlands you’re a member of an ethnic minority. That’s a very limited outlook. It means that a person’s background is more important than the fact that they have been born and raised in the Netherlands,” Ms van Diepen says.
Publicist, journalist and integration expert Frans Verhagen would also welcome the scrapping of ethnic registration.
“Statistics Netherlands has proposed keeping records until the third generation. That would be completely absurd. It means that in the Netherlands under certain circumstances you can never really become Dutch. It means that your whole life you remain a different sort of Dutch person because of your parents’ origin.”
Queen Beatrix isn’t Dutch
According to the present system of ethnic registration, Queen Beatrix and Crown Prince Willem-Alexander aren’t actually native Dutch. Both of them have a German father, so strictly they belong in the ‘Western ethnic minority’ category. What’s more, the prince’s wife Princess Máxima belongs in the ‘non-Western ethnic minority’ category, because she was born in Argentina.
Mr Verhagen: “The way these categories are classified is highly questionable. The ‘non-Western ethnic minority’ category was created because this group were supposed to have a hard time in Dutch society. They were supposed to be eligible for policies to benefit underprivileged groups. But now the category includes countries like Brazil and Argentina, which actually get on just fine. While the World’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, falls into the category of ‘Western’. That’s totally illogical. But it’s a categorisation system that creates facts which go on to lead a life of their own.”
In contrast to what the government claims, integration is actually going pretty well, according to Frans Verhagen. "At least, if you apply the criterion of ‘the admission of immigrants’. But you can also see that the children of immigrants are generally starting to be more like the average for the rest of society. Look at education, at unemployment, at the sort of jobs they have, at housing and healthcare."
Progress has been made in every respect, but it’s no thanks to integration policy, Mr Verhagen says.
Nevertheless, the government continues to look at everything through the lens of integration. “In part it’s laziness. Because then you can analyse problems in society more easily by associating them with ethnic groups, such as the Moroccan or Turkish communities.”
Mr Van Diepen and the Council for Social Development cite the example of law and order policy: “You see the ethnic categories appearing in crime statistics.”
Han Entzinger, professor of integration and migration studies at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, finds the Council for Social Development’s argument too rigid.
“You shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says in an article in national daily Trouw. “The council behaves as if ethnic origin isn’t relevant any more, or doesn’t create any problems. If we stop recording it, we also won’t know how things are going with, say, criminality among young Moroccans. And we won’t be able to debunk myths. Registration is also necessary to monitor the progress of integration.”
This attitude is widely shared among experts. You have to take measurements to know the facts, say sociologists, educationalists and criminologists. And once you stop measuring, you won’t know the effects of ethnicity.
Frans Verhagen maintains that ethnic registration is stigmatising. “It only sharpens divisions.” You should only look at broad social issues such as education and employment, he says, and tackle them with general policies. He thinks it’s more useful to look at socioeconomic background.
The caretaker cabinet has yet to decide whether it will adopt the Council for Social Development’s recommendations.