Today’s Opinion: Social benefits

POSTED: 04/15/11 12:28 PM

The Netherlands is on the war path against immigrants. Cranking the tolerance levels further down, Minister Henk Kamp of social affairs wants to kick unemployed European foreigners  out of the country if they have been out of a job for three months with no perspective for a new one. The Minister also wants to make it a requirement that recipients of social benefits speak the Dutch language.

That’ll be a problem for fanatic provincials in Friesland who have no taste for the Dutch language, but it will also pose a problem for immigrants from countries like Morocco, Turkey and for instance Poland.

Fancy that: maybe our Minister of Economic Affairs could make speaking Dutch a requirement for obtaining a work permit. That’ll chase a lot of immigrants back home, or discourage them from coming here at all.

But like Kamp’s proposal, such a measure is of course not realistic. Linking language skills to the right to social benefits feels like a low blow to people who are already at the bottom of the totem pole.

We’re not current with all the laws that could possibly get in the way of such a measure, but it somehow feels unconstitutional to exclude citizens from the most meager government support that’s available just because they are unable to say In Zandvoort zag ik de zon in de zee zakken without breaking their tongue.

But Kamp’s initiative goes well with the get-tough-on-foreigners mentality of the Dutch government. Let’s not forget that the party that keeps Prime Minister Mark Rutte in office is the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders.

There was a time when we could say with confidence that such anti-foreigners measures would never gain a majority support in the Dutch parliament. These days, we’re not so sure anymore.

We know of places – Jersey in the British Channel Islands comes to mind – where the authorities seem to have an almost perfect grip on the immigration issue. In Jersey, workers in the hospitality industry come in for the season, and after the season is over they go home. The point here is: they really leave.

That is of course a problem St. Maarten still has to solve. We’re getting people in, and we don’t know how to get them out again. Not that this should be the focus of any particular effort, but it is a systemic weakness that affects everything we do.

We tend to treat immigrants as a threat, whereas most immigrants of course contribute to our economy. The real problem is that we don’t have a grip on who is coming, who is leaving, and who is not leaving.

How to tackle that situation? Minister Duncan has implemented visa restrictions for certain countries. That sounds promising in itself but without proper control the measure  will obviously remain a paper tiger.

What we still have to learn is how to integrate all the immigrants that are working and living on our island into one community. The just departed spokesman for the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Rienk Mud, nailed it when he said: “I see people, but I do not see a people.”

So that’s what we are: a piece of land where people of many different nationalities live. We don’t live together, we all live in our own cozy little circles. We have a Chinese community, an Indian community, probably an American community, and a Dutch community. There is also a Muslim community, a Catholic community, a Dutch Quarter community and a community in every district.

Only when we come to realize that we are all foreigners will we be able to come together and become one. That requires efforts from community leaders, from politicians, from educators and many others. Until we get that movement underway, we will remain where we are today, looking at foreigners for everything that is wrong, without realizing that the solution for every situation is within our own grasp.

So instead of excluding people from social benefits who are unable to speak Dutch, or pointing fingers at those who are “not from here,” maybe we could all take a step back and ponder the meaning of life. We’re bound to discover that every human being wants the same thing: food, shelter and company.

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