Opinion: Citizenship

POSTED: 04/18/12 3:16 PM

Anthropologist Maja Mischke and historian Asher Ben Avraham published an interesting op-ed in the Volkskrant yesterday about how the Netherlands turned from a tolerant society into an indifferent one. Multiculturalism is dying but there is no new philosophy to replace this concept, they wrote: the government fails to promote a citizenship-ideal.

The key-question: who is Dutch? Also plays in St. Maarten. Only here, the promoters of the interests of the indigenous islanders clamor for an answer to the question: who is a St. Maartener? The government has no answer, at least not one that it is prepared to add to our country’s constitution.

Mischke and Avraham refer in their op-ed to the G500 – a movement that aims to ambush the establishment in existing political parties with a high influx of young people. The G500 wants to give young people a voice in politics. But Mischke and Avraham note that the ten-point program the G500 recently presented in the Netherlands misses an important problem that currently engulfs the Netherlands. Apparently this problem escapes the attention of young people up to the age of 35: the sneaky process of social segregation.

This process is also underway in St. Maarten where some of the indigenous islanders see the Dutch as overpaid intruders and immigrants from surrounding countries like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic as underpaid slaves that are stealing their jobs. Most immigrants keep to themselves: they don’t mix.

In the Netherlands, Mischke and Avraham note, the process of segregation occurs along ethnic, religious, social and cultural lines. The results of this process are visible in the education system in medium-sized and large cities. There is an increase in black and white schools and there is no way to stop this trend.

Several districts and neighborhoods have had a one-sided makeup for several years. Especially in the Randstad an additional important demographic shift is taking place. Within a couple of decades the population in the large cities will predominantly consist of people who have their roots outside of the Netherlands and even outside of Europe.

Does that matter? Mischke and Avraham think it does: the continued segregation does not contribute to the wellbeing and the development of individual citizens, and it stands in the way of a healthy development of the society.

And here is the key-line that also applies to St. Maarten: “What ought to bind the inhabitants of the Netherlands in a fundamental way is the citizenship. This is why this time requires a debate about what the Dutch citizenship actually implies or ought to imply.”

The difference is of course that there is no St. Maarten citizenship, but the fundamental idea is the same: what does it mean to live and work in St. Maarten? And what are the rights and obligations that come with it?

While our government is incapable or unwilling to define a St. Maartener in the state regulation, the situation in the Netherlands is not much different. What makes someone a Dutch citizen? Mischke and Avraham note that there is a meager consensus on this issue: a Dutch citizen is someone who has the Dutch nationality. Is then someone who has the Dutch nationality also a St. Maartener? That is obviously nonsense, because by this standard everybody with a Dutch passport anywhere in the world would be a St. Maartener – and that is obviously not the case.

It’s almost like citizenship in the Netherlands does not really matter, Mischke and Avraham suggest. They refer to the text on the French coat of arms Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood and to America’s The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave, as proof that citizenship in those countries matters more than it does in the Netherlands. But the Dutch Coat of Arms, established in1815, has a line of its own: Je maintaindrai (I will maintain).

Still Mischke and Avraham are of the opinion – and we do not disagree – that Dutch people are not fond of thinking about citizenship or about how a Dutchman ought to behave or to develop himself. Freedom and gladness (vrijheid, blijheid) has more or less been the guiding principle. Moet kunnen (ought to be possible) has been the predominant attitude ever since the student revolution in the sixties of last century. But Mischke and Avraham note that there is a price to be paid for this laissez-faire attitude: “Our country has drifted from tolerance to indifference. Tolerance has deteriorated into disinterest and mutual distancing.

The government’s view on citizenship – and this is where the op-ed becomes interesting – is focused on keeping people outside the country, Mischke and Avraham wrote. “Citizenship is viewed in terms of naturalization of newcomers. Fear for the foreigner, the guest worker, the refugee, the migrant and the immigrant defines the citizenship. We feel and think that we have a lot to lose, but we have a hard time describing what that is. Is it about the material prosperity, the state that takes care of us, standards and values, about “our” culture? One could say that we have dealt with these questions in an easy way by not answering them.”

For decades the Netherlands has practices “the gospel of the multiculturalism, with cultural relativism as the imagined lubricant for everything that scrapes and goes with some difficulty in the society.” Immigrants were considered as victims who had to be uplifted to become a full-fledged citizen. The debate was not about the obligations that come with citizenship, but about the rights of citizenship and about cuddling the cultural identity of the predominantly Islamic newcomers. Instead of stimulating powerful development and self-reliance the newcomers’ weakness and the disadvantageous position were the points of departure for the policy.”

Feel the difference? The Netherlands cuddled immigrants for decades – with disastrous results. St. Maarten has a policy that is equally destructive: it chases immigrants, harasses them, buries them under paperwork and does nothing to stimulate integration in our local community. We’re not making the same mistakes as the Dutch, we’re making our own mistakes.

In the Netherlands citizenship has become a frightening checklist of hard and restrictive conditions for potential immigrants. As far as that’s concerned, St. Maarten is on a par with The Hague.

The Dutch immigration policy focuses on everything that is not allowed for immigrants and on the conditions they have to meet in terms of social-economic status, family situation, education and the political situation in the country they are leaving. Restricting immigration is the main goal. Same here, but while the Netherlands is reasonably successful in bringing the numbers down, the situation in St. Maarten is a lot hazier. The Brooks Tower debacle has sufficiently shown that the government is a toothless tiger when it comes to kicking undocumented inhabitants off island. That is in itself a strong argument for shifting the focus to integration.

Without a clear vision on citizenship, Mischke and Avraham wrote, there is no significant point of orientation either – not for immigrants and not for Dutch people either.

“Citizenship says something about people’s preparedness to contribute to the society in which they are living. Citizenship is about shared social values and about the desired behavior of individuals in the public space.”

The writers paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Don’t ask what the Netherlands can do for you, but ask what you can do for the Netherlands. Replacing the Netherlands with St. Maarten in this quotation creates a good starting point for a sensible immigration policy.

At last count there were about 1,600 immigrants in St. Maarten without proper papers. Justice Minister Duncan has already made clear that he has no intention to deport these people. Our borders are leaking like a sieve and that alone would make deportation a costly undertaking with failure as an almost guaranteed result.

But leaving these people in peace and doing nothing else does not cut it either. What we need is a vision on the development of our country. The immigrants from surrounding islands are here anyway and, as recent history has shown, they are not going anywhere. Therefore they are part of our society and also part of our shared future.

A debate about citizenship should not focus on the question Who is a St. Maartener? But on broader questions like shared values, common goals and the contribution the country expects from all those who are not from here.

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