Putting Import Brides To The ‘Dutchness" Test

Putting 'import brides' to the Dutchness test

More women are coming to the Netherlands as 'import brides'. Helping them pass the Dutch integration exam has become a business.

By Sheila Kamerman
Published: 12 June 2009 16:59
Changed: 15 June 2009 16:23

Sander Bons looks at Marina Yeranosyan and says in Dutch: “Pretty blouse.” Yeranosyan (29) looks nonplussed and asks: “Pretty blouse?” Bons points to her garment and says: “Pretty blouse.” Yeranosyan looks down at the blouse and relaxes. “Pretty blouse,” she says and smiles.

Yeranosyan is one of six women present in Bons' class on the first floor of a town house in Utrecht. They all want to marry their lovers in the Netherlands. But that isn't as easy as it used to be.

Integration test

Since the Integration law was adopted in 2006 potential immigrants are required to take an integration test in their country of origin. Already in 2004, the financial and age criteria were tightened: the Dutch partner has to make at least 120 percent of minimum wage and be over 21-years old. Every month some 650 integration tests are taken across the world. Immigrants from European countries, the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan are exempt.

One reason for the integration law was to better prepare so-called 'import brides' for their new lives in the Netherlands. Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch men often choose a bride in the country of origin. Without a good knowledge of the Dutch language these women could jeopardise their children's education, was the thinking.

After the rules were tightened in 2004 family-related immigration dropped by more than a third. The introduction of the integration exam led to a further decline. Until last year. This week integration minister Eberhard Van der Laan told parliament that the number of applications for family-related immigration went up from 11,000 in 2007 to 15,330 in 2008. Seventy percent of the applicants in 2008 were women.

The statistics don't distinguish between new families or family reunification, but Van der Laan admitted that many of the women are 'import brides'. He worried about the arrival of more uneducated marriage partners, not just from Morocco and Turkey but more and more from places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

The integration exam tests the knowledge of Dutch society in thirty questions. Which country is bigger: the Netherlands or Morocco? Where is princess Mxima from? Or the student will be shown a Rembrandt painting and asked who painted it.

The second part is a language exam consisting of sentences spoken by a computer voice which the applicant has to repeat, as well as simple questions. Which is more: 15 or 20 euros? Is a ball for eating or playing? Is a bench for sitting or driving?

With or without topless pictures

The applicant is supposed to prepare for the exam in the country of origin. There is an integration package which the partner in the Netherlands can mail. The cultural questions are in a booklet and on a DVD. There is a censored version (without the topless sunbathing pictures) and an uncensored one. The Dutch government organises classes in some countries, like Morocco and Turkey, but in most countries the applicants are on their own.

The women in Utrecht have chosen a different approach. They came to the Netherlands on a tourist visa to take an integration course with Sander Bons. Sixty hours of classes cost 840 euros. Afterwards, they will fly back to their countries of origin – Colombia, Armenia, Venezuela, Sudan, Indonesia and Brazil – where they will take the exam at the Dutch consulate, or over the phone with the Netherlands. Once they pass the test, they can apply for the necessary paperwork and fly back to the Netherlands. Business is good for Bons, and he is not the only one who saw there was a profit to be made with the integration exams.

“My boyfriend is paying for the course and the trip,” says 29-year-old Margarita Ariza. She is slim and her long black hair falls on the scarf around her neck. Summers are too cold in the Netherlands, she says, but other than that she thinks it's a wonderful country. “You can have everything here: a job, a good salary. You can even buy a house.” In Colombia she works as a secretary; she lives with her mother in Baranquilla. She doesn't make enough money to rent her own apartment.

But not everybody has the luxury of hiring Bons' services. A 45-year-old man from Iraq sits in the Lelystad office of Vluchtelingenwerk, an aid group for asylum seekers. He doesn't want to see his name in print. He fled from Iraq to the Netherlands thirteen years ago, leaving his wife and three-month-old daughter behind. After years of red tape he finally got his residence permit in the 2007 regularisation. He wants to bring his wife and children to the Netherlands, but first his wife has to pass the integration exam.

Learning Dutch in Iraq

How do you study Dutch abroad without the help of someone who speaks the language? His wife has no computer or internet. Her husband bought a bunch of phone cards and, in his broken Dutch, shouted the sentences to his wife over the phone.

Taking the exam proved almost impossible. There is no Dutch embassy or consulate in Iraq. The wife had to travel to Turkey where she stayed in a hostel as she waited to take the exam. Just applying for the paperwork costs several hundred euros. The husband, who lives on disabled benefits, is having trouble keeping up with all the costs, which run in the thousands of euros. But in the end it paid off: his wife passed the exam.

Vluchtelingenwerk wants people like the Iraqi couple to be exempt from the integration exam. Family reunification makes up only five percent of all family-related applications; the remaining 95 percent are mostly import brides. It is reasonable to make demands of these new partners, says Erna Lensink. “If a man looks for a partner in the country of origin, he know there are rules you have to abide to in the Netherlands,” says Lensink.

But family reunification often applies to people from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq. Lensink: “These are places where it is extremely difficult to prepare for the exam, especially if the wife is illiterate. But we're talking about reunifying families that have been separated for years.”

Marina Yeranosyan, who is a photographer in Armenia, thinks she can teach the Dutch women a thing or two. “Some of them will wear an orange blouse with a pink shirt,” she whispers. Marina is always in high heels and make-up. “You have to show that you're a woman. Dutch men like that.”