Integration Netherlands Dutch

Revisiting the 2013 Dutch Integration Law

11 minutes to read
Boudewijn Henskens

The Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek; CBS) recently investigated the obstacles that the immigrant integration process in the Netherlands is riddled with (Moen, 2018). Their results showed, for example, that 2.5 years after their arrival in the country, only 11% of asylum seekers have found a job. This might be a direct result of the country's language policy for asylum seekers.

From Integration Law 2007 to Integration Law 2013

In 2013, the renewed Wet Inburgering (Integration Law; Wi) was introduced to substitute the 2007 version of the law. Among other things, the new version introduced the privatization of integration courses. These courses are meant for people that mean to sit the integration or state exam; they contain Dutch as a second language as well as classes that help newcomers to integrate in and understand Dutch society. Privatization entailed a significant change from what coming to the Netherlands was like before 2013. Prior to 2013, individuals were invited to contact the municipality they lived in, which then decided what was the best integration track for them as immigrants. This process shifted to a "do it yourself" (DIY) mentality after 2013. The change is visualized in the following diagrams.

Before 2013:

Figure 1 - Responsibilities and roles under Wet Inburgering (Wi)2007

And after 2013:

Figure 2 - Responsibilities and roles under Wet Inburgering (Wi)2013

In this article, we will focus on the language acquisition policy embedded in the 2013 Integration Law, the effects the changes had, and how the policy shows that the Netherlands has moved away from the tolerant guiding country it once was (Maly, 2017) to a politically more right-oriented country that prefers assimilation over integration (Vedder & Virta, 2005). We will look at the changes through the lens of a policy maker, focusing on language acquisition planning, i.e. activities involving language teaching that are designed to increase the number of a language's users (Johnson, 2013; Cooper, 1989).

The level of language acquisition

The policy changes that were made in 2013 did not only revolve around the quality of immigrants' integration in the Netherlands, but they also focused specifically on how language acquisition should be approached. First, the new policy aimed at reducing costs for the government, which left fewer resources available for newcomers that started their integration courses in later years, compared to those that were available before 2013. According to the Court of Audit (De Algemene Rekenkamer), the Integration Law of 2013 was introduced without consideration of the effects of its policy changes (Algemene Rekenkamer 2017, p.14).

Besides its focus on financial savings, the new policy relied on three "pillars" (Algemene Rekenkamer 2017, p.6): the immigrant's own responsibility (for picking an integration trajectory), creating a free market in order to increase the range of courses offered, and increasing the competitiveness of course providers as well as the commitment to achieving results (i.e. passing the integration or state exam within a certain timeframe).

According to a memorandum of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK, 2011), Everyone who moves to the Netherlands should personally take responsibility for their integration into Dutch society, ensuring cohesion and participation, which does not only require a command of the Dutch language, but also being able to provide for oneself. The 2013 policy demands that people who have not obtained the language proficiency required to get a paid job should pay for their own language courses in order to acquire it. There is an obvious reciprocity between the two demands: no money for courses means little or no improvement in language proficiency, which means no job, which means no money for courses.  

The results of the policy so far, according to the Court of Audit, show that in the years 2013-2015, the success rate of integration courses has gone down by 50% (Algemene Rekenkamer 2017). In the period 2007-2012, the average success rate was 78%. This percentage has dropped to 39% for newcomers who started their integration courses in the first half of 2013.

It should be noted that the decline in success rates is most probably not just caused by one problem (the change in policy); rather, it is more likely that more factors have caused these numbers to drop. For example, 2013 was also the year in which the first signs of the “European” refugee crisis found their way into the media (e.g. NOS, 2013)—"European" in scare quotes, as it is debatable whether this truly is a crisis for Europe (Coster et al., 2018) or whether it is only framed as such (Maly, 2017). As a result of said crisis, however, there has been an increase in the number of refugees arriving in the Netherlands, which might also be a factor at play when it comes to why success rates for integration have dwindled.

Immigrants are not only required to integrate, but they also have to arrange and schedule their own integration at the same time.

As for the DIY-mentality which was the main point of departure for the 2013 Integration Law, the Court of Audit has also investigated its successfulness specifically. Out of the 38 subjects in the relevant study, 35 needed help from their network, most notably from related organizations (e.g. VluchtelingenWerkHumanitas; Algemene Rekenkamer, 2017, p.30), municipalities as well as friends and family. Further, the study shows that especially asylum-seeking and lower-educated immigrants had difficulty taking care of their integration and its financial aspects by themselves. For instance, their lack of knowledge of Dutch often led them to very practical choices, such as choosing courses that are closest to where they leave - which is no less due to potential traveling expenses, which they have to cover themselves.

The first pillar of the policy changes, the refugee’s own responsibility, appears to have been severely overestimated. As the Court of Audit made clear in its study, the effects of the policy have not been sufficiently examined (2017, p.14). The DIY mentality was supposed to take a large portion of responsibility away from the municipalities and place it in the hands of the immigrants. As a result, immigrants are not only required to integrate, but they also have to arrange and schedule their own integration at the same time. Still, the information that they require to do so is often lacking and hard to come by (Vluchtelingenwerk, 2018). This means that they often have to resort to asking for guidance from the government or government-funded organizations in order to successfully fulfill their integration requirements. As this takes more time than the policy previously required of them (when they could count on more guidance from municipalities; see Fig. 1, 2), the process does not work in favor of (their) language acquisition.

All in all, we find that the effects of the new policy are substantial. Most significantly, as shown, success rates have dropped dramatically, which also indicates that the overall language proficiency of newcomers has decreased.

When we look at the third pillar, achieving results, we find that a much smaller number of newcomers have decided to take up courses of a higher level than that required for their integration exam (Algemene Rekenkamer, 2017, p.53). This has resulted in a decrease in the number of newcomers who pass the state exam, from 22% to 2% (Figure 3). Under the new policy, it turns out that immigrants, on average, are not as proficient as they might have been if they did not have to overcome the – organizational – language learning barriers that have been put in place by the new policy.

Figure 3 - Successful newcomers per type of exam in the period 2007–2013 by first year of integration.

More specifically, the Court of Audit conducted a case study, which showed that immigrants tend to go merely for the proficiency level required for passing their integration exam, just to ensure that they won't fail it and have to face the consequences of not passing (i.e. not receiving a residence permit or risking a fine for not passing the exams in time).

However, according to Commission Franssen (2004) as well as Witvliet and colleagues (2013), the required A2 level does not qualify immigrants enough for participation in the job market. They should at least acquire a B1 proficiency level. These proficiency levels are defined by the Central European Framework of Reference (CEFR), introduced by the Council of Europe in 2001 (Council of Europe, n.d.-a). Out of the six sub-categories they outline, the A2 level is described as a "waystage" level, and the B1 level is described as a "threshold" level (Nederlandse Taalunie, 2008, p.24). The official CEFR description itself suggests that the A2 level is not enough for participatory communication: The speaker "[c]an understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need" (Council of Europe, n.d.-b). Descriptions of the remaining proficiency levels as defined by the CEFR can be found in this table on the website of the Council of Europe.

On top of the problems that immigrants already face, once they have passed their exams, they no longer get any funding for continuing with more advanced Dutch courses. Further, even when these people do find a job after passing their integration exam, their opportunities to continue studying in their own time are dramatically reduced. Both the first and third pillar of the policy have made it more difficult for immigrants to acquire the level of integration that they actually need for participation in Dutch society.

The lower success rates, owed to new policy's DIY philosophy, have been a prelude to bigger issues.

As discussed, one of the main reasons for the implementation of the 2013 Integration Law was cutting down on costs. The new regulations were supposed to save the state about €333 million per year, starting from 2014 onwards (Algemene Rekenkamer, 2017). When we take a look at not only the easily measurable effects of the newer regulations discussed above (e.g. lower success rates, lower proficiency), but also the societal effects (e.g. lower chances of finding a job, more costly integration for immigrants failing the exam), it is hard to believe that the cost savings goal was met at all.

In 2016, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid) estimated the savings from the policy to be around €215 million - nowhere near the €333 million cutback the policy change was supposed to bring. On top of that, this does not even take into account the lack of information provided by the Dutch government regarding loans, how much of them is being gifted, and how much is actually being paid off (Algemene Rekenkamer, 2017). So, not only did the policy have a negative effect on the number of newcomers passing the exams, but the justifications for the changes, which cited their future benefits, also seem to have been very much overestimated.

DIY versus Do It Together

Where does this leave the policy? The lower success rates, owed to the new policy's DIY philosophy, have been a prelude to bigger issues, including unemployment rates among immigrants. Apart from the obvious message shown by the numbers, studies show that immigrants simply need more help in their integration courses, material and choices (Algemene Rekenkamer, 2017). The responsibility that they have to take with regard to their integration process turns out to be too much, which not only disadvantages them, but also has a negative impact on Dutch society in terms of societal and ultimately economic losses too.

This goes to show that, in the end, the successful integration of immigrants (in the Netherlands) always is a matter of shared responsibility, regardless of what some public opinions might be. Right now, this responsibility falls mostly in the hands of immigrants themselves, but it would be more beneficial to split this in a fairer way, especially considering that well-integrated newcomers have a positive influence on society as a whole. A recent study by d’Albis, Boubtane and Coulibaly (2018, p.5) showed that asylum seekers are not a "burden" for Western European countries, but that their presence in the workforce results in a decrease in unfilled job vacancies. According to the researchers, this might be because of their different skillsets or the willingness to work in industries where natives do not want to work. Supposedly, this also pushes non-migrant workers to better job levels (Keulemans, 2018). What the 2013 policy has resulted in is a situation where those who are new to the Netherlands are less fit for the job market once they have finished their integration courses, which creates not only a burden for those newcomers, but one for Dutch society as well.

Ultimately, the current policy shows how language acquisition planning can have a severe impact on the actual language acquisition of those who are supposed to learn the language in question. A 50% decrease in success rates under the new law is the first, most easily measurable sign of this. Additionally, the low employment rates and the lesser capacity of newcomers to participate in Dutch – as well as any other receiving – society is at least partially an effect of this policy that has failed to meet its goals. Proper integration results in better job chances for newcomers and better prospects for participation in society in general. Because, after all, it is not during the integration track, but rather afterwards, in real life, that newcomers learn to use the language.


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