Background InformationCapital: Amsterdam
Seat of government: The Hague
Official languages: Dutch, Frisian (regional)
Area: 41,528 km2
Population (2007): 16,366,134 (CBS)
Population density (2006): 484 inhabitants per km2 (CBS)
Population growth (2006): +1.5% (CBS)
Foreign nationals as percentage of population (2006): 4.2% (CBS)
Allochtonen1 as percentage of population (2006): 19.3% (CBS) (non-Western2: 10.5%)
Labour force participation rate (2006): 75.7% (OECD)
Unemployment rate: 3.9% (2006), 4.7% (2005), 4.6% (2004) (OECD)
Religions (2006): 27% Roman Catholic, 17% Protestant, 6% Islam, 1% Hindu, 48% not religious (WRR)

The Netherlands has a long history of immigration. Both refugees and economic migrants have come to the country in large numbers. Currently almost 20% of the Dutch population are immigrants or children of immigrant parents.
For a long time the Dutch took pride in the fact that many people came to their country because of its relative tolerance towards other cultures and religions. Immigrants who came after the Second World War, as guest workers or from former colonies, were initially encouraged to maintain their own cultures, even after it became clear they would stay in the Netherlands permanently. Access to citizenship was easy, and the pressure to assimilate was low. For immigrants who were not proficient in Dutch, many government services and documents were provided in their mother tongues.

However it soon became clear that the former guest workers and, to a lesser extent, migrants from the former colonies were economically marginalised. Many policies were enacted to improve their position, but to little avail. With the new century came a very turbulent time for Dutch multiculturalism, which had attempted to accommodate immigrants as culturally distinct groups. Many wonder whether the Netherlands has left the multicultural track and is now pursuing a fierce form of assimilation.

Since 1998 several new immigration and integration laws have been introduced. Without exception they have made Dutch immigration and integration policies stricter. More so than in other European countries, cultural belonging and cultural difference remain important concepts in policies and political debates. Immigrants and their descendants continue to be viewed as culturally distinct groups, but whereas early integration policies aimed at maintaining cultural diversity, this diversity is increasingly seen as something that obstructs integration into Dutch society.

Historical Trends in Immigration and Emigration

Since the middle ages, the relative freedom and wealth of the Netherlands have drawn a significant number of immigrants. Between 1590 and 1800 the estimated foreign-born population in the Netherlands was never less than 5%.345 on the one hand, and childbirth on the other.

Family migration remains the main source of settlement migration to the Netherlands, accounting for almost 40% of all immigrants.

The Immigrant Population

In contrast to most countries, statistics on the immigrant population in the Netherlands are not based on nationality or country of birth, but on ethnicity. The Dutch government distinguishes between allochtonen and autochtonen. AllochtoonAllochtonen are officially defined as persons who have at least one parent who was born outside the Netherlands. A further distinction is made between Western and non-Western allochtonen. Western allochtonen are people from Europe (excluding Turkey), North America, Oceania, Indonesia and Japan; non-Western allochtonen are defined as people from Turkey, Africa, Latin American and the rest of Asia.

Many statistics differentiate between allochtonen and autochtonen (and often further differentiate between individual ethnic groups). Most statistics, and research based on them, focus in particular on the non-Western group, as they are seen as the ones with the most disadvantaged position in Dutch society. In everyday usage the term allochtonen only denotes the non-Western group, and more specifically Turks and Moroccans. There has been some discussion about extending the definition of allochtoon to include people with foreign-born grandparents, which would enable a longer-term tracking of the population of immigrant origin. Some politicians and allochtonen, on the other hand, have argued the term should be abolished, because it creates a continuing distinction between those who are ethnic Dutch and those who are not.

The different statistical categories provide a variety of ways to depict the share of immigrants in the population: 19.3% of the population is allochtoon (10.6% non-Western), 9.8% is foreign born and 6.2% of the population does not posses Dutch citizenship. The impact of the different definitions on determining the most significant countries of origin is relatively small: Turkey, Morocco, Germany, Belgium, the UK, Poland and the former Yugoslavia are well represented in each case (see, for example, figures 1 & 2).

In addition to the groups originating from (former) colonies and guest worker recruitment countries, three neighbouring countries are present in the top 10 allochtoon groups: Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. Combined, people born in EU countries as well as the children of people born in EU countries make up 26% of the allochtoon population. The presence of over 330,000 Surinamese is notable, especially in comparison to the total population of Suriname (currently about 500,000). With 45,000 persons, Moluccans are also a significant group, but they are not among the ten largest. Especially the inflow of asylum seekers has lead to a diversification of the Dutch immigrant population; from 1971 to 1998 the number of nationalities in the Netherlands rose from 28 to 110.

The immigrant population tends to live in urban areas. A total of 29% of allochtonen (or 39% of all non-Western allochtonen) live in the four largest cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht), as compared to 13% of the Dutch population. In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, allochtonen make up almost half of the population. Some smaller municipalities have a high concentration of certain groups as well, mostly as a consequence of the industries that employed guest workers. There is not only a high degree of concentration but also of segregation: many immigrants live in neighbourhoods with a low percentage of autochtonen, and this segregation has increased over the last years. Of the four largest cities, Amsterdam has the lowest segregation index: 36.3 in 2004. This means that to get an even spread of non-Western allochtonen across Amsterdam, 36.3% of them would have to move to another neighbourhood.6 The Hague has the highest segregation index: 51.1 for Turks alone. Segregation is lower among migrant groups who have received asylum in the Netherlands, because they were deliberately housed across the country (see below).

Non-Western allochtoon groups are generally in a disadvantaged socio-economic position. Of the four largest non-Western immigrant groups, the Turks and Moroccans are the most disadvantaged: they exhibit low labour market participation, high unemployment and welfare dependency rates and relatively poor school results, even among the second generation. In 2006, only 38.7% of Moroccans and 43.9% of Turks aged 15-64 had a job (see figure 3). Unemployment7 was 17.2% among Moroccans and 15.1% among Turks, about four times the level among autochtoon Dutch: 4.3% (see figure 4). Almost 30% of Turks and Moroccans receive social security benefits, compared to 13% of the autochtoon Dutch population.

In the current political debate, Moroccans and Antilleans in particular are seen as a source of problems in Dutch society. For example, police statistics show that over 10% of Antillean and Moroccan boys aged 12-17 have been suspected of a crime, compared to only 2% of autochtonen and 5.2% of Turkish boys. Of men aged 18-24, 17.8% of Moroccans and 13.0% of Antilleans have been a suspect in a crime, compared to 3.8% of the autochtoon Dutch population.8 Though police statistics are problematic for several reasons, including racial profiling9 by the police, they are often referred to in debates surrounding the immigrant population.

The Surinamese are in a much better socio-economic position and have managed to improve their standing over the years. The position of the Antilleans has deteriorated since the inflow of many lower class Antilleans, because the latter are poorly educated and often have problems with the Dutch language.10 Nevertheless, on average, the position of Antilleans is more advantageous than that of Moroccans and Turks.

Although the level of education among second-generation immigrants shows a significant improvement compared to their parents, it is still behind that of autochtoon Dutch children. The drop-out rate for non-Western allochtoon children is twice that of autochtoon Dutch children. Approximately 50% of autochtoon youngsters are enrolled in university-level (hogeschool or universiteitautochtonen, there are a fair number of allochtoon politicians. Out of the 150 members of parliament eleven are of non-Western allochtoon descent. The cabinet includes one member of Turkish and one of Moroccan origin. Since the 2006 local elections, 302 councillors (or 3%) belong to a non-Western allochtoon group.11 This amounts to an under-representation of about two thirds, but it is a good record compared to the scarcer political presence of immigrants in neighbouring countries. Half of the 302 allochtoon councillors are of Turkish origin, which amounts to an under-representation of less than half.


In 1985 the Netherlands introduced a new citizenship law that replaced an older law from 1892. The new law facilitated access to citizenship for second generation descendents of immigrants. Dutch-born children of immigrants can opt for Dutch citizenship between the ages of 18 and 25. The third generation (second generation born in the Netherlands) automatically receives Dutch citizenship at birth.

Immigrants can naturalise after five years of legal residence, or three if they are married to a Dutch citizen. Until 2003 the naturalisation requirements were minimal: applicants had to show that they had no serious criminal record and complete a modest oral exam to test their Dutch language ability. This exam usually involved a civil servant asking the candidate to state their name, place of birth, address and year of immigration in Dutch. The low threshold to naturalization was a deliberate choice. The government believed that it was important for the immigrant population to be given equal rights, and awarding citizenship was a good way of ensuring this. In addition, it was believed that naturalisation would strengthen integration. In the 1980s and 1990s the government organized campaigns to encourage immigrants to naturalize.

Migrants who are not naturalized have several rights that other countries usually reserve for citizens. Since 1985 non-citizens have been allowed to work in the civil service, with the exception of the police force and the army. After five years of legal residence, non-nationals have the right to vote in local elections. Nowadays many municipal councils have members with an immigrant background, not all of whom are Dutch citizens.    

In January 1992 dual citizenship was introduced, which led to an increase in naturalizations. This measure was also of great symbolic value, judging by the fact that many Moroccans12 obtained Dutch citizenship after the measure was implemented. Dual citizenship was highly contested, and in October 1997 the obligation to renounce prior citizenship was reinstated, causing a drop in the naturalization rate13 from a peak of 10.9% in 1996 to 8.2% in 1998 (see figure 5). There are several exemptions to the renunciation obligation, and the law is not applied very rigidly. Dual nationality is still often granted. The number of dual nationals has continued to rise from 600,000 in 1998 to over one million in 2006.14

Integration Policy

Until the 1970s, the Netherlands lacked an integration policy, as it was believed that most migrant groups, especially the guest workers, would eventually return to their countries of origin.15verzuiling16Wet Inburgering Nieuwkomers1718

Fortuyn and his political legacy
There have been some anti-immigrants parties in the Netherlands over the years, but fewer than in other European countries. Whereas the Front National in France and the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) in Flanders have received a significant numbers of votes for some time now, such parties remained marginal in the Netherlands until rather recently.

There were, however, some prominent critics of multiculturalism in the early 1990s, such as Frits Bolkestein, the leader of the right wing liberal party19 Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (Organisation for Freedom and Democracy, VVD). Many people expressed their annoyance with the poor Dutch proficiency of many of the former guest workers and their families, as well as the behaviour and alleged delinquency of their children. But besides Frits Bolkestein and some of his fellow party members, politicians paid little attention to these complaints.

After the attacks of September 11thElsevier, which he used to agitate against immigrants and what he regarded as lenient government policies. He had been active in several political parties before becoming the leader of the Leefbaar Nederlandde Volkskrant) in which Fortuyn had argued that the equality section of the constitution should be revoked20, the Leefbaar Nederland party leadership fired him. This led him to found his own party: the Lijst Pim Fortuyn
In the elections the Christen Democratisch Appel 21Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party, PVV) was given nine seats in parliament.

The end of multiculturalism?
Bruggen bouwenContactorgaan Moslims en Overheid

Immigration Policy

Irregular Migration

An estimated 112,000 to 163,000 people are living in the Netherlands without authorisation, of whom 65,000 to 91,000 originate from non-European countries.22witte illegalenkoppelingswet

Refuge and Asylum

For many years the Netherlands had a relatively high number of asylum seekers.23

Current Developments

GroenLinks (Greens Party), Partij van de Arbeidinburgeringsexamen buitenland)24 In 2006, 90% of applicants passed the test, but the number of applicants for family formation has dropped significantly. Some politicians have suggested that the requirements for the test should be harder.

Since 2007 new immigrants no longer have an obligation to attend a civic integration course; however, they must pass a civic integration exam to be eligible for a permanent residence permit. In a further development, civic integration duty (inburgeringsplicht) has been applied to immigrants who arrived in the Netherlands before 1998 (oudkomers). The extended integration obligation is mostly aimed at people on welfare and spiritual leaders such as imams. The then-minister of integration (Verdonk) wanted to make the course mandatory for all oudkomers, including those who have Dutch citizenship. However, the advisory council on migration issues advised against this because it would have meant an unacceptable differentiation among Dutch citizens. People who have at least eight years of formal education in the Netherlands are also exempted. The civic integration exam must be passed within five years after an oudkomerIdentificatie met Nederland). The council argued that dual citizenship should be allowed in the case of both immigrants and Dutch emigrants. It also recommended that the term allochtoon be abolished, because it continues to define people of immigrant descent as not belonging to the Netherlands (niet van hier).

Future Challenges

Now that the economy is improving, it is a matter of time before the possibility of allowing labour migration will be discussed again. The discussion was opened in 1998 but was quickly halted again by the economic downturn. The question is whether the government would opt once more for a guest worker type program or accept that temporary immigration often becomes permanent and adopt corresponding immigration and integration policies.

The Fortuyn era has caused a lot of turbulence. Many second-generation allochtonen found it hard to see how negatively many Dutch looked upon immigrants. The new government has to find a way to reunite autochtonen and (especially second-generation) allochtonen. More efforts must be made to combat discrimination in the labour market, clubbing scene25 and police force.

Politicians must set a good example and stop dwelling on Islam and all its perceived dangers to society, without discouraging open and critical debate on what it means to be a multicultural society. In 2006, then-minister Verdonk launched a publicity campaign to show how people from different cultures can work together productively and harmoniously. There are also many grassroots activities and many prizes for the best integration initiative on the local and national level. These activities cannot rectify the disadvantaged position of immigrants, but they do help provide a more positive environment and nurture mutual understanding.


  1. An allochtoon is a person who has at least one foreign-born parent.
  2. Dutch statistics differentiate between Western and non-Western immigrants. Western immigrants come from Europe (excluding Turkey), North America, Oceania, Indonesia and Japan. Non-Western immigrants come from Turkey, Africa, Latin American and the rest of Asia.
  3. See Lucassen and Penninx (1997).
  4. Family reunification occurs when children and spouses who were left behind at the time of migration come to join the principal migrant. Family formation occurs when a migrant comes to the Netherlands because of his/her marriage to a resident.
  5. See Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau (SCP) et al. (2005).
  6. Unemployment is defined here as a percentage of labour market participation: it is the share of people who are active on the labour market but are not currently employed.
  7. See Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau (SCP) et al. (2005).
  8. Racial profiling occurs when a person is treated as a suspect based on his ethnicity, nationality or religion, instead of on evidence of criminal bahaviour.
  9. See Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek (2006).
  10. Before the implementation of the dual citizenship measure, Moroccans were able obtain dual citizenship, because Moroccan citizenship can never be renounced. It can only be revoked following a conviction for treason or a similar crime.
  11. The naturalization rate is the number of naturalizations divided by the number of foreign nationals, i.e. the naturalization potential.
  12. See CBS (2006).
  13. Indonesian immigrants were an exception, as the government realised early on that their stay would be permanent. As part of an effort to assimilate them, social workers were assigned to help the families integrate into Dutch society.
  14. The Netherlands has a complicated school system. There are state schools (openbare scholen) that are entirely subsidized by the government and special schools (bijzonder onderwijs), which are based on religious belonging. The latter are entitled to the same funds as state schools plus additional funds from parents. They have the right to refuse students because they are not of the right religion. Freedom of education is part of the constitution (Section 23).
  15. The abbreviation EEA stands for European Economic Area. Countries included in the EEA are Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
  16. Do Obligatory Civic Integration Courses for Immigrants in Western Europe further Integration?
  17. He believed freedom of speech to be of greater value, and told reporters that if the equality section hindered this, it should be revoked.
  18. What Is The Dutch Integration Model, And Has It Failed?
  19. See Engbersen et al. (2002).
  20. The Netherlands has an Orthodox Christian minority that also believes that homosexuality is against the will of God.
  21. The labour market and the clubbing scene are the focal points in Dutch discussions on discrimination. There have been many problems with people being banned from nightclubs due to their ethnic background, especially in the case of Moroccan youth. Former minister Verdonk was invited by an organization of nightclub owners to visit their clubs so that she could see that everything is under control. Several cities are monitoring discrimination in the clubbing scene and have hotlines for youth who wish to register a complaint.

About the author
Evelyn Ersanilli, M.Sc., studied Interdisciplinary Social Science at Utrecht University. She is currently completing her PhD in the Department of Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


References and Further Reading

    • Brug, W. v. d. (2003): "How the LPF Fuelled Discontent: Empirical Tests of Explanations of LPF Support." Acta Politica 38: 89-106.
    • Dagevos, J., Euwals, R., Gijsberts, M. and Roodenburg, H. (2006): Turken in Nederland en Duitsland. De arbeidsmarktpositie vergeleken. Den Haag: SCP/CBS.
    • Engbersen, G., Staring, R., van der Leun, J., de Boom, J., van der Heijden, P. and Cruijff, M. (2002): Illegale vreemdelingen in Nederland: omvang, overkomst, verblijf en uitzetting. Rotterdam: RISBO.
    • Gouda, F. (1995): Dutch Culture Overseas: Colonial Practice in the Netherlands Indies, 1900-1942. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
    • Hagendoorn, L., Veenman, J. and Vollebergh, W. (Eds.) (2003): Integrating Immigrants in the Netherlands: Cultural versus Socio-Economic Integration. Aldershot: Ashgate UK.
    • Instituut voor Publiek en Politiek (IPP) (2006): Meer diversiteit in de gemeenteraden.
    • With Strict Policies in Place, Dutch Discourse on Integration Becomes More Inclusive.
    • Koopmans, R. Statham, P., Giugni, M. and Passy, F. (2005): Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
    • Lucassen, J. and Penninx, R. (1997): Newcomers. Immigrants and Their Descendants in the Netherlands 1550-1995. Amsterdam/Gouda: Het Spinhuis.
    • Rijkschroeff, R. Duyvendak, J. W. and Pels, T. (2003): Bronnenonderzoek Integratiebeleid. Utrecht: Verwey-Jonker Instituut.
    • Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau (SCP), Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek en Documentatiecentrum (WODC), Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) (2005): Jaarrapport Integratie 2005. Den Haag.
    • Sniderman, P. M. and Hagendoorn, L. (2007): When Ways of Life Collide. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    • Vermeulen, H. and Penninx, R. (Eds.) (2000) : Immigrant Integration. The Dutch Case. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.
    • Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het regeringsbeleid (WRR) (2007): Identificatie met Nederland. Amsterdam University Press.
    • Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het regeringsbeleid (WRR) (2001): Nederland als immigratiesamenleving. Den Haag: Staatsuitgeverij. English summary available online at
    • Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het regeringsbeleid (WRR) (1989): Minderhedenbeleid. Den Haag: Staatsuitgeverij.

Internet Sources

    • Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, CBS
      (Statistics Netherlands)
    • Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau, SCP
      (Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands)
    • Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het regeringsbeleid, WRR
      (Scientific Council for Government Policy)
Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.