Netherlands: Discrimination in the name of integration

The Netherlands should abolish the overseas "integration test" that discriminatorily targets only migrants of certain nationalities trying to join their families, while citizens from other, "western" countries are exempt, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released.

People of Moroccan and Turkish origin - two of the three largest "non-western" migrant communities in the Netherlands - have been especially affected.

In the 44-page briefing paper, "Discrimination in the Name of Integration, Migrants' Rights Under the Integration Abroad Act,",Human Rights Watch offers an analysis of the Dutch overseas integration test in light of the Netherlands' international human rights obligations. Human Rights Watch found that people of Moroccan and Turkish origin are especially affected, while citizens from "western" countries such as Canada, Australia, and Japan are exempt.

"The overseas integration test is discriminatory because it explicitly applies only to relatives from predominantly 'non-western countries,'" said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These measures keep families apart and appear to be aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out of the Netherlands."

Over the past several years, the Netherlands has introduced a series of measures with the stated aim of better integrating its migrant population. Besides an exam that is taken by migrants in the Netherlands, another measure is the integration test under the Integration Abroad Act. In force since March 2006, the act requires certain would-be family migrants to pass the test in their country of origin before they can join spouses or family members in the Netherlands.

Under this integration test, applicants must demonstrate basic knowledge of the Dutch language and basic concepts of Dutch society before they enter the Netherlands. The test is administered in Dutch by telephone to the applicant sitting at a computer at the Dutch embassy or consulate in the applicant's home country. If the candidate fails the telephone test, the person will have to take the exam again and pay the examination fee of €350 each time the test is taken. Recently, the government decided to make the overseas integration test tougher by raising the pass mark.

The impact of the test, coupled with increased financial requirements applicable to all migrants, has fallen primarily on those wanting to join family members from two of the three largest "non-western" migrant communities in the Netherlands - Moroccans and Turks. There has been a significant reduction in the number of applications for family reunification and formation since the introduction of the test, and applications from Turkey and Morocco in particular have fallen significantly.

Exempted from the test are citizens from the European Union (EU), the European Economic Area (EEA), Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the US.

"It sends the message that certain groups are not welcome," said Cartner. "And it risks alienating these communities instead of facilitating their integration."

While international human rights law does not prohibit states from differentiating between citizens and non-citizens in immigration policies, states cannot discriminate on the basis of nationality or ethnicity (aside from a narrow exception for EU citizens) even in this sphere. Dutch authorities would need extremely powerful reasons to justify the clear difference in treatment between different nationalities in the application of this test.

The briefing paper concludes that the legitimate objective to better integrate all migrants cannot be met by a test that only some migrants trying to join their families are required to take, and from which others are exempted simply because of their nationality. A general exemption for persons from a number of countries is contrary to the alleged aim of the Integration Abroad Act, namely that all migrants should have a basic level of integration before arrival and that the test helps the ongoing integration once the person is in the Netherlands. The paper shows that no sufficient evidence has been put forward to adequately explain why for nationals of some countries, the integration program in the Netherlands is deemed sufficient for integration, and no overseas test is required.

The main argument put forward to explain this distinction in treatment is that the countries exempt from the test are similar to the Netherlands in their socio-economic and political development. The government has argued that exempting western countries would not lead to unwanted immigration and problems with integration in Dutch society. This suggests that reducing immigration, especially from certain countries, and not just achieving integration, was actually a main reason for the legislation.

"No strong evidence has been given to show that the level of a country's development is a reliable indicator of the capacity or willingness of a potential immigrant to integrate," said Cartner.

The test and financial burden, which restrict family reunification, undermine the right to family life and Netherland's obligation to give all residents the right to marry and start a family.

There is an increasing tendency by other EU member states to follow the Dutch approach on compulsory integration measures in the country of origin.

"The Netherlands is a leading model for other EU states on integration issues," said Cartner. "Developing an effective approach to integration, that does not discriminate on the basis of nationality and is fully consistent with international human rights law, would also serve as a positive example for other European states."

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