PVV leader Geert Wilders at farmers' protest in October 2019. Image: X

Dutch Political Deadlock Amidst Fear Mongering on Migration


Last year, the Dutch government collapsed over a claim that thousands of refugee families were supposedly taking advantage of the country’s family reunification policies. According to the center-right party, De Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), commonly referred to as VVD, thousands of distantly related relatives of asylum seekers were flooding into the country and taking advantage of the system that was called “stacked migration”. 

Except that it was a lie. 

The Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Authority (Dutch acronym: IND) recently published a report that shed light on the so-called ‘stacked migration’ providing concrete figures on the influx of individuals into the country. According to the report, between 2019 and 2023, a total of 350 individuals entered through this method, with only 10 arrivals registered in 2023.

In contrast to the empirical data presented, the right-wing populist campaign that has centered on migration appears to be fueled more by rhetoric than reality. This narrative has capitalized on an increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, which arguably can be attributed to the years of policy shortcomings, especially regarding housing.

The Right’s capitalization on a legitimate sense of anger from decades of policy failures has been wildly successful. Even now, over 100 days into the coalition-forming process in the Dutch Parliament, the far-right only seems to be getting stronger. A poll recently indicated that if the election were to happen now, the far-right party Partij voor de Vrijheid (The Party for Freedom), commonly known as PVV, would get more than 10 additional seats in parliament, mostly from center-right parties. 

While it is undeniable that at the center of the anti-migrant sentiment lies systemic discrimination and internalized racial animosity, understanding this current moment requires an analysis of a broad swathe of failures by dominant political forces over the past decades. 

Asylum seekers out in the cold

In the autumn of 2022, hundreds of asylum seekers were forced to sleep outside in the cold and rain in the Dutch city of Ter Apel. The city has long had the largest reception center for asylum seekers in the country and was bursting at the seams. Treatment of the asylum seekers was so inhumane that they were forbidden from setting up tents around the shelter provided by NGOs to protect them from the rain.

The Netherlands has long failed to create enough reception centers for asylum seekers. 

Until this year, no legislation in the country provided centers to take in asylum seekers with enough capacity. This caused the few reception centers that the country did have, to be large, full to capacity, and the center of contentious media attention. 

Between 2015 and 2019, asylum reception centers decreased from 105 to 62 across the country. While the number of asylum seekers did decrease throughout this time period, this meant that when there was an uptick in asylum requests, the country was poorly positioned to take in more people. 

The result of these poor policies to take in asylum seekers meant that the Dutch populace was inundated with media attention placed on these asylum seekers in the rain. Rather than initiate a public conversation on the poor treatment of asylum seekers, an alternative narrative developed that asylum seekers and refugees were being given special treatment, given bountiful social welfare programs by the Dutch state, and were abusing the system of asylum protections. 

A false narrative was created where the Netherlands was “full” and couldn’t take in additional asylum seekers, that those who were stuck in asylum centers weren’t “real” refugees, and that their housing needs were prioritized above the broader housing crisis of the country. 

The moment was ripe for the taking by the far-right Islamophobic Geert Wilders who claimed incorrectly that 75% percent of housing developments were being given to migrants. 

Back in 2016, Wilders’s virulent and racist rhetoric towards asylum seekers was on full display as he proposed that “for [men], asylum seekers should be closed institutions so not a single male asylum seeker can be on the street and our women can finally be protected.” Of course, this was explicitly in reference to asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries. 

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine again laid bare the racial lines of solidarity across the country. While asylum seekers from countries other than Ukraine were forced to wait in reception centers (or too frequently – outside of them), a special privilege was afforded to refugees from Ukraine and they were given direct access to programs that were restricted to others. 

The College for Human Rights found that this discrimination was illegal and criticized the state’s hypocrisy. Uncomfortably, a poll found that the majority of the Dutch population was in favor of the discrimination that privileged Ukrainian refugees. 

By failing to provide adequate facilities to take in asylum claims, the Dutch state itself aggravated a crisis that was then easily exploited by the far right. The same can be said of the industrial-scale exploitation of migrant workers across the country. 

Abuse of and dependence on migrant workers

It’s estimated that at any given moment there are around 800,000 migrant workers in the Netherlands, mostly coming from Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. 

It has been an open secret for years that the way migrant workers are treated in the country has been appalling. There is little housing provided for these workers, and when it is provided, it is poor quality and unsafe. In the municipality of Roosendaal, where an estimated 6,000 migrant workers work, there were only around 250 dedicated accommodations. This means that workers are often forced to sleep with many others in the same room in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Frequently, housing for these migrant workers is provided by temp agencies that hire them on contracts with bare minimum protections. This relationship, as landlord and employer, makes these workers extremely dependent on their employers and frequently results in abuse by temp agencies. Journalist Danny Ghosen visited the accommodations of migrant workers to show the state of their housing situations. In the visit, interviewees highlighted their fear of speaking out— the result of doing so might land them without work, and as a consequence, without housing. 

In the same visit, the owner of the accommodation is interviewed and outright denies the systemic abuse clearly visible throughout the video while standing in front of the unsanitary and unsafe housing complex. 

The United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, recently concluded a visit to the Netherlands and was shocked by the treatment of migrant workers. He said that the employment conditions of these workers were akin to labor exploitation. He observed that workers frequently paid their housing, health insurance, and transportation costs directly to their employment agencies and that workers could be punished, fired, or fined for small things such as not taking out the rubbish.

In one case, two migrant workers were paying 800 euros per month to share a mold-ridden room of 4 square meters in a dilapidated neighborhood. 

In this extreme system of abuse, some workers were found to take home around 50 euros per week after deductions despite working long hours. If the workers are fired, they immediately lose their accommodation and frequently find themselves on the street. Some are even dropped off by temp agencies directly to charities offering temporary accommodation for people without homes. 

Again, images of migrant workers living in dire circumstances were weaponized by the far-right to promote a narrative wherein they were seen as dangerous, rather than the victims of a system of rampant exploitation. The narrative that then developed said that there simply was not enough space to house these migrants, and hence the only solution was to limit immigration to the country. 

Some municipalities are attempting to resolve the housing issues for migrant workers by creating huge living complexes near where they work. The way this is being done is exacerbating tensions because these large housing complexes are often being made in sparsely populated villages. For example, in the municipality of Vrilkhoven with a population of around 100, there is currently a housing complex being planned for around 400 migrant workers. 

Rather than a coherent policy framework to provide long-term housing solutions, this policy of constructing enormous housing complexes in small communities is a recipe for continued animosity. 

The community of Vrilkhoven organized a demonstration against the housing complex last year. In an interview, participants stated emphatically that the protest is not against migrant workers themselves. Instead, it was against the creation of a housing complex containing four times the number of accommodations than the number of residents in the municipality. 

Under the Rutte coalition governments, the number of migrant workers coming to the Netherlands quadrupled and the number of poorly regulated temp agencies rose to 12,000. This rising dependency on labor exploitation, failure to regulate employers, and incompetence concerning the pressures they exert on the Dutch housing stock is a reflection of the failed finance-driven neoliberal doctrine of the Rutte political coalition. 

Housing is an asset, not a home.

The intertwined nature of the current anti-migrant backlash and failed housing policy is becoming increasingly clear and both crises have been decades in the making. Geert Wilders himself points to migration as the main cause of the housing crisis. 

As the UN special rapporteur on housing made clear at the result of his visit: it is crystal clear that the housing crisis is the result of significant policy failures, not migration. 

The housing policy failures themselves revolve around the increased financialization of housing. This can be understood as a turn, where the hegemonic policy concept of housing began treating housing as a financial asset and lucrative investment rather than a right and place of refuge.

While for economically privileged homeowners this has led to capital accumulation and frequent class mobility, for others it has led to increased housing costs, shrinking social housing stocks, and broadening of inequality. In a previous article authored by me, I reported on how the wealth gap between homeowners and renters in the Netherlands is gargantuan and rising rapidly.  Where for homeowners rising housing prices mean a return on investment, but for renters it means that access to the housing market becomes increasingly impossible. 

It has also led to the entrance of financial speculation, especially by institutional investors such as Blackstone from the US. Blackstone, a company with an estimated $40 billion in assets, reported owning around 1800 homes in the Netherlands valued at $782 million. By instrumentalizing a couple of financial reporting tricks, the company paid nearly nothing in taxes in 2020. 

Although some parties (notably the Socialist and Party of the Animals) put the financialization of housing at the center of their policy agendas, right-wing parties pounced at the opportunity to turn a very real crisis into their political victory by turning a housing crisis into a migration crisis. This is especially damning when we consider that the group most demonized, refugees, asylum seekers, and their families make up just 11% of the total migration to the country.

While the collapse of the coalition government was based on a lie, it’s the culmination of decades of policy failures. While the country’s future looks uncertain as the coalition talks are ongoing, it is looking increasingly dire for the communities coming to the country to escape either war or poverty. 

Wouter van de Klippe

Wouter is a freelance journalist covering EU labour and politics. He has a background in public policy and is currently living in Barcelona. His principal areas of focus are labour unions, public goods, and social welfare policies.

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