Pass This Test, Dutch Tell Immigrants

The Sunday Times June 18, 2006

Pass this test, Dutch tell immigrants
Nicola Smith, The Hague

A DRACONIAN new law is expected to force immigrants to the Netherlands to sit a tough exam on Dutch history, geography and culture or face heavy fines.

The rules, drafted by the countrys hardline immigration minister, Iron Rita Verdonk, and likely to be approved this autumn, will set a challenge for up to half a million mainly Muslim immigrants, including some who have lived in Holland for 30 years.

The legislation, which is due to come into force on January 1 next year, requires immigrants to attend 600 hours of coursework before being tested.

Failure to attend the course or pass the exam within five years will trigger an annual fine of almost 700, cuts in benefits or the termination of a residence permit.

The cost of sitting the course and taking the exam will be 4,000 per person, although local authorities will pay most of the fees.

The measure is a further signal that Holland, once one of Europes most tolerant countries, has become the toughest point of entry for foreigners after a raft of restrictions in the past few years. Several countries are looking at us, including Germany and the UK, said a spokesman for Verdonk.

The questions will be far tougher than the British test, Life in the UK, which was introduced for new citizens last November and poses simple queries such as What are MPs? Candidates in the Netherlands will be asked about the intricacies of Dutch shipping history and the countrys constitution.

Questions will be asked about its harbours, dykes and churches. The candidates will also have to show an understanding of historical sensitivities in Dutch society, including attitudes towards anti-semitism and the second world war.

Andre Krouwel, an immigration expert from the Free University of Amsterdam, said that many of his own students would be unable to explain the influence of shipping history and colonialism on todays Holland yet both subjects will be compulsory.

Krouwel suggested that a typical question could be: How many provinces are there in the Netherlands and what are the differences between them? (There are 12, each with different traditions and history.) A further question mooted by the Dutch immigration ministry is: Why do the Dutch commemorate May 4 and 5? (Remembrance Day and Liberation Day).

Much of the coursework will have moral overtones, explaining liberal Dutch views on homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.

Candidates will also be assessed on a series of role plays, including how to open a bank account.

The legislation now before parliament is so controversial that Verdonk may be forced to backtrack on her insistence that some naturalised Dutch citizens immigrants who are unemployed, parents caring for children or religious workers such as imams must also take the test.

Jeroen Djisselbloem, a Social Democrat MP, said the measures against naturalised citizens were discriminatory.

All other EU citizens will be exempted from this law, so actually being a Dutch national puts you back compared with an Englishman who lives in Holland, he said.

Even if Dutch citizens are exempted, 150,000 to 250,000 immigrants face the exam.

Verdonk, 50, a former prison warden and head of state security, has previously angered Muslims by expelling imams accused of promoting terrorism and cancelling a meeting with Islamic leaders who refused to shake her hand because she was a woman.

She has argued that a ban on burqas might be needed on grounds of public safety.

In March she introduced a compulsory Dutch language and culture test for would-be immigrants before they left their home country.

Many are being asked to watch a teaching video with provocative shots of gay men kissing and a topless woman on a beach to introduce them to Dutch lifestyles.

Famile Arslan, 34, an immigration lawyer of Turkish descent, said the crackdowns were dividing society between westerners and non-westerners, Muslim and non-Muslim. I dont feel welcome here any more, she said.

Verdonks bold approach has struck a chord with many Dutch people who feel that as a small country of 16m with more than 1.5m immigrants they have been too soft.

A poll earlier this month found that 63% of Dutch people believed that Islam was incompatible with modern life and one in 10 openly admitted to being racist.

Martijn Lampert, a research director of Motivaction which carried out the poll, said: People are longing for a local, authentic identity. They fear its being threatened.

Maurice de Hond, another pollster, said disquiet about immigration had existed in Dutch society for the past 50 years.The murder in 2002 of Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigration politician, had caused private fears to break out into the open.

Geert Wilders, a right-wing politician who has received death threats after criticising Islam, said all immigration should be stopped until the problem of integration had been resolved.