In a busy Rotterdam park one Saturday in August, hundreds of Dutch people stood by and watched as a 9-year-old Moroccan girl drowned.
She had fallen out of the rubber boat she was playing in with a friend. One bystander even filmed her death on video.
“A few people tried to help, but it should have been more,” said Rotterdam police spokesman Ger de Jong. “By the time we got to her, we had no hope of getting her out alive.”
The idea that a child at play could die because of the indifference of adults has disgusted the nation. But the event raised a more sinister question--would more people have rushed to help if the girl had been white?
The incident was just one of several that have called into question the Netherlands’ vaunted tolerant, open-minded attitude to foreigners. In a country whose constitution outlaws racism, such a question is almost heresy.
The Moroccan government responded angrily, saying that the child died in “particularly revolting circumstances” and threatening court action against anyone found to have failed to help.
“That these Europeans, the self-proclaimed champions of the rights of man . . . refuse to assist a human being, a child, who is dying, is purely and simply barbarous,” wrote the pro-government Moroccan daily Almaghrib. “Are we to expect that xenophobia will be institutionalized in Holland and Europe?”
Stinging remarks for the Dutch, who have seen nothing like neighboring Germany’s racist outbursts or the rise of nationalist political parties in France.
The Dutch Parliament began its current session by debating a plan to curb the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers from the Third World and Eastern Europe.
A parliamentary majority looks set to support revision of a law dating from the 1960s. This would mean automatic repatriation for foreigners entering the Netherlands overland and would limit channels for appeal.
The government says the changes are necessary to bring Dutch rules into line with those of its neighbors, but opponents argue the changes will enshrine dual standards, giving would-be settlers access only to the lowest law courts.
“In this country, if you have a dispute about a hen coop you can go through three courts,” said one member of Parliament. “But if they want to chuck you out, they’ll do it in one.”
“As soon as one European country tightens up on immigration, the others follow with more absurd and restrictive measures,” said Petra Catz of Amnesty International. “They’re afraid it will seem easier to get into some than others.”
Sociologists said the lack of response to the girl’s drowning was a phenomenon known as bystander apathy--people in groups standing by in situations where they would act if alone.
They added that both the drowning of the Moroccan girl and the current climate exposed another side of Dutch tolerance--indifference to misfortunes of others.
“The Dutch have long believed themselves to be exceedingly tolerant, open, willing to help out,” said Derek Philips, an American professor of sociology at Amsterdam University. “That . . . tolerance can also be defined as a lack of concern.”
The crowd’s indifference to the drowning girl may have stemmed from an ingrained dependence on the state, said sociologist and author Herman Vuijsje.
“We have a very strong welfare state; the government does everything,” Vuijsje said. “There’s a deep sense of not wanting to stand out from the crowd and of not wanting to be an accessory of the state.”
Vuijsje did not believe that current attitudes toward foreigners mean Dutch tolerance is wearing thin. “I don’t see these new voices as a sign of intolerance,” he said. “It’s a social problem the world over. The government has got to draw the line somewhere.”