Odé, A.: The position of immigrants in the Netherlands, 2008

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This short overview helps to explain the labour market position of foreign nationals in the Netherlands. The overall position of immigrants in this country is rather under-privileged, although notable differences within the migrant population do exist. Non-western migrants, and those from Morocco, Turkey and some so-called refugee countries in particular, take the least favourable positions. As we will see, poor educational backgrounds are largely responsible for this result. Yet, other social and cultural factors deserve attention in this field as well. For this reason, integration policies in the Netherlands have been changing noticeably during the last decade. Nowadays, all foreign nationals are submitted to so-called civic integration policies to improve both their language and social skills. So far, however, the results of these civic integration programmes are not very promising. 

Changing Immigration Patterns

When looking at the migration statistics, the Netherlands could be easily designated  as an immigration country. For many decades, at least 100,000 immigrants have settled yearly in this country (Dutch Statistics, 2007). Moreover, immigration during the last thirty years has largely surpassed the number of people moving away from the Netherlands. It has only been in the last five years that the number of immigrants has been exceeded by those emigrating from the Netherlands (ibid.). Indeed, long-term massive immigration has increased the percentage of immigrants in the total population. During the early 1970s, first- and second-generation immigrants accounted for a little less than ten percent of all inhabitants in the Netherlands. Today immigrants comprise one fifth of the total population. Together with varying immigration magnitudes, the ethnic composition has changed considerably over this period. Unlike in the past, the majority of immigrants nowadays originate from non-western countries. Among these non-western countries, Turkey, Morocco and Surinam make up the highest procentage; combined these countries account for more than one million inhabitants in the Netherlands, compared to little more than 100,000 three decades ago. To a lesser extent, several so-called refugee countries - including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and former Yugoslavia – are substantial suppliers of immigrants. Approximately one in three immigrants in the Netherlands originates from the territory of the European Union, particularly Belgium and Germany (Dutch Statistics, 2007).

These immigration flows are caused by different motives, including the search for employment, the reunification of families, and migration for political and humanitarian reasons. Nowadays, family migration comprises the most prominent immigration pattern. More than forty percent of all migration to the Netherlands takes place within the framework of the reunification or formation of families. The majority of these migrants originate from the Mediterranean region, particularly Turkey and Morocco, and still may be seen as a continuation of the previous guest workers’ immigration (Odé, 2002). Labour based migration accounts for another thirty percent. Unlike a few decades ago, Turkey and Morocco no longer serve, however, as the main sources of this foreign labour reservoir. Today, labour immigrants originate from a wide variety of places of origin – particularly the new Member-States of the European Union, Central and Eastern Asia and many less developed countries – and may be found at both the upper and lower levels of the Dutch labour market (De Lange, 2007; Ederveen et al., 2006). Asylum migrants make up a less significant share of the total migration to the Netherlands. Highest numbers of yearly demands for a refugee status in this country were reached between 1998 and 2000, when yearly more than 40,000 refugees demanded political asylum. Since then, the Dutch government has seriously altered its immigration law, intending to discourage future asylum migrants from finding their way to the Netherlands as much as possible (Minderhoud, 2004).

The Socio-Economic Integration of Ethnic Minorities

The integration situation of non-western ethnic minorities in the Netherlands is considered to be rather problematic. This situation particularly refers to low activity rates and unfavourable labour market performances.
    To begin with, ethnic minorities in the Netherlands have been facing low rates of participation for decades. The first available statistics date back to the late 1980s, and reveal that less than half of the non-western immigrants participated in the Dutch labour market (Dagevos, 2003). This situation has proved to be rather persistent, although a slight increase in activity rates may be witnessed. Nowadays, low activity rates continue to account for the Mediterranean groups, but even more for the recently arrived refugee population (Dagevos, 2007; Klaver et al., 2006). In addition, the situation is less favourable for immigrant women, whose participation rate is lower than in almost all other Western-European countries (OECD, 2008). For instance, only two out of five Turkish women are actually in the Dutch labour market nowadays. This being said, the employment rates of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands have  improved markedly over the last fifteen years, particularly during the years of strong economic growth, i.e. between 1996 and 2002 (ibid.).  
    Ethnic minorities also face a much greater risk of unemployment as compared to the native labour force. Again, non-Western minorities find themselves in a very  under-privileged position, a situation which had started with the economic downturns about four decades ago. In the early 1980s, unemployment was extremely high among the Antillean, Turkish and Moroccan labour force, reaching levels of more than 35 percent (Veenman, 1994). Nowadays, highest unemployment in the Netherlands apply to the Moroccan and refugee labour force, both reaching levels of more than twenty percent (Dagevos, 2007; Klaver et al. 2006). As compared to other Western-European countries, unemployment in Netherlands among the foreign-born is somewhere in between the extremes of low and very high unemployment. In Belgium, France and Germany, the foreign-born labour force face higher unemployment figures as compared to the Dutch situation. Yet, in Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom the immigrant labour force is confronted with much lower unemployment rates (OECD, 2008).
    Another characteristic of the immigrant labour force in the Netherlands, and non-Western immigrants particularly, is that they are largely concentrated in the very lower echelons of the labour market. Almost fifty percent of the non-western labour force is employed at a rather basic level, compared to little more than a quarter of native employed (Dagevos and Bierings, 2005). During the last ten years, average job levels have nonetheless improved significantly among foreign-born employees. Recently, the most unfavourable situation applies to the refugee labour force, of which more than two in three are employed in rather unqualified jobs, notwithstanding their comparatively high levels of education (Van den Maagdenberg, 2004). Not surprisingly, the wages earned by non-western employees are much lower as compared to the native labour force. Indeed their low median hourly earnings coincide with low quality employment, although this finding also holds in comparison with other Western-European countries (OECD, 2008).
    Last but not least, self-employment among immigrants in the Netherlands has become an important opportunity to enter the national labour market. In fact, the Netherlands stands out among other countries as the country in which immigrants’ self-employment has grown most over the past ten years (EIM, 2007). Nowadays the share of self-employment among the employed immigrants is almost eleven percent, which is only one percent-point less as compared to the native labour force. There is a particularly pronounced overrepresentation of immigrants in the hotels and restaurant sector, as well as in recreational, cultural and sporting activities.  

The Socio-Economic Position of Ethnic Minorities Explained

We may refer to several academic studies in the Netherlands to get a better understanding of the socio-economic patterns revealed. Unanimously, these studies come to the overall conclusion that education explains more than any other factor the specific position of immigrants in the Netherlands (e.g. Dagevos, 2003; Dagevos, 2007; Odé and Veenman, 2003). The simple fact that a large majority of those immigrants in the Netherlands have only achieved primary education, largely explains their overall vulnerable position in the Dutch labour market. After all, skilled immigrants take in much more favourable socio-economic positions as compared to their less educated fellow countrymen. This strong and significant effect of education can be witnessed for every single immigrant group in the Netherlands.
Education is, however, not the only factor contributing to these socio-economic patterns. What is more, language proficiency constitutes a constant and relevant factor in the understanding of economic performances among the non-western minorities. Both with regard to patterns of labour market participation and unemployment, evidence proves that the capability of speaking the native language must be considered as a significant underlying factor (ibid.). In addition, it has become apparent that a problematic social and cultural integration should not be considered independently from the socio-economic performance of ethnic minority groups either.  Those who have lost contact with the Dutch society at large, are often equally facing a difficult integration process in economic terms. In this respect, we may refer to the significance of helpful social circles, to which large portions of the immigrant population has only little access (e.g. Dagevos and Veenman, 1996). The possession of ‘deviating’ cultural and social values is also frequently referred to as partly responsible for unsatisfactory economic achievements. At least with regard to low activity rates, the role of culture seems to have a significant impact on the employment rates of women originating from many less developed countries (e.g. Dagevos, 2006; Odé 2002). Last but not least, daily practices of discrimination are likely to further deteriorate fair chances of getting a job. There is a great deal of research demonstrating the negative consequences of racial intolerance and prejudice in the Dutch labour market (e.g. Andriessen et al., 2007; Kruisbergen en Veld, 2002).

Dutch Integration Policies

For a long period of time, the Dutch government has tried to improve the position of immigrants as much as possible. Principally, initiatives were taken to improve the educational background and employability of the immigrant population, as well as to encourage employers in the Netherlands to attract more foreign-born employees. Important measures in this field were the granting of subsidies to employers when hiring a long-term unemployed worker, specific mediation activities of employment offices, and all kinds of activation measures undertaken at a decentralised level (e.g. Klaver et al., 2005). It is worthwhile mentioning that the Dutch government hardly interfered in the private lives of minorities. It was generally felt that ethnic minorities would emancipate within their own ethnic groups, which would in the end encourage their engagement in the Dutch society at large (Schinkels, 2008). Therefore, no far reaching policies were introduced with respect to learning the Dutch language, to adopt general Dutch values, or to participate in Dutch social circles.
    Today, we may notice a general shift away from these so-called multiculturalistic policies. Several factors can be held responsible for this changing view. In 2000 a well respected commentator, Paul Scheffer, wrote an article about the ‘multicultural tragedy’ in which an explicit link was made between socio-cultural diversity and socio-economic performances. This article caused a heated public and political debate about the integration of ethnic minorities. Suddenly all the existing uneasiness and friction in deprived urban areas between the native Dutch population and the ethnic minorities boiled to the surface and was discussed in the open. In addition, other events contributed to the sharpening of the debate as well. Particularly, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 fuelled the discussion about the perceived lack of identification and loyalty of Muslim immigrants to the Dutch society.
    In this changing political landscape and dissatisfaction with the integration situation, a Parliamentary Commission was installed in 2003 with the assignment of evaluating thirty years of Dutch integration policies. The rather striking conclusion of the Commission was that many ethnic minorities in the Netherlands were actually doing quite well but that this was considered in spite of, rather than thanks to governmental intervention. The Commission also added that “[…] in various domains (housing, employment, education and emancipation) some results have been achieved. However, causal links with the pursued integration policies are hard to substantiate, the only exception being the improved legal position of immigrants.” (Dutch Parliament, 2003-2004, 28 689, nr. 8-9). A prevalent opinion in those days was that the Dutch approach had fuelled the growth of ethnic diversity and even tendencies towards separation, rather than an shared and united society.  
    As a response to these firm observations, subsequent Dutch central governments have severely changed the focus of integration policies. This change has become most evident in the introduction of so-called civic integration programs, including both language and social orientation courses. The main objective of civic integration is that newly arriving immigrants are at least able to find their way in Dutch society and preferably also to enter the labour market or follow regular education. Initially, civic integration used to be targeted at newly arriving immigrants only, but since 2007 foreign nationals already residing in the Netherlands are obliged to pass a language examination as well. Only when these non-citizens can prove that they are able to sufficiently speak the Dutch language or when they have reached the age of 65, they are exempted from this obligation. Unfortunately, the results are thus far rather disappointing, with only less than one in five of all participants managing to reach a level sufficient to enter the labour market or the educational system in the Netherlands (OECD, 2008).
    Since 2006, and in addition to the civic integration requirements after arrival in the Netherlands, a new law has been introduced to oblige foreign nationals to pass a basic examination at one of the Dutch embassies before migrating to the Netherlands. This law aims to better prepare future immigrants from less developing countries for their stay in the Netherlands. Before getting a residence permit, these migrants are required to demonstrate basic understanding of the Dutch language and the Dutch society. Thus far it is unknown whether this additional requirement has reached its supposed effect. What has come about, however, is a strong reduction in the number of visa requests from the countries where these civic integration tests apply. At least, these measures have generated an import selection effect when considering the numbers of immigrants according to country of origin (Klaver and Odé, 2007).
    Not surprisingly, civic integration programs are at the very heart of modern Dutch integration policy. With regard to employment and activation policies, measures which focus on the situation of immigrants or minorities in particular have been largely abandoned over last decade. Nowadays, the immigrant population is expected to benefit from activation and employment policies, which are meant to support all residents who depend on a social security scheme. Particularly these policies are pursued by local governments, which have developed different positive and negative incentives to get this part of the labour force employed again. Municipalities may also pursue different so-called diversity policies, in order to make their own organisations and departments better accessible for all kinds of minority groups.
It is not easy to conclude whether these employment and diversity policies are successful or not. This result highly depends on the local context within which these policies are implemented. It is true that non-western minorities in the Netherlands are generally facing a more favourable socio-economic position as compared to one or two decades ago. Another positive factor is their enhanced educational achievements in relation to the recent past. All the same, national labour market performances in this country seem to be most relevant in the understanding of the social position of the immigrant population. During a strong increase of employment, ethnic minorities sooner or later benefit from this positive business cycle as well. However, when the labour market reveals a decreasing rate of employment growth, ethnic minorities are in very vulnerable positions indeed.


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Arend Odé, Regioplan Beleidsonderzoek, Amsterdam 2008