Tolerance and Fear Collide in the Netherlands

Times Staff Writer

The world lives on West Kruiskade Street: Turkish butchers slip into clean morning aprons, dreadlocks lift in the breeze and steam whirls from Chinese kitchens before vanishing amid scents of African spices and salted fish.

Then comes the night. Storefront shutters slam tight. The falafel boys shelve their pita bread and girls in head scarves drift toward home amid sputtering neon. It is the time of junkies and pickpockets and dark-skinned men with silver in their smiles.

The night worries the Dutch. Long considered one of Europe’s most tolerant societies, the Netherlands these days is casting a harsh eye toward immigrants. In a move condemned by human rights groups, the nation’s parliament voted in February to deport 26,000 foreigners requesting political asylum. The decision underscores fears -- amplified by the Madrid bombings in March -- that the nation is failing at integration and poor, frustrated immigrant communities are threatening Dutch culture.


“The Dutch have become less tolerant,” said John Kanton, who came here from Suriname 40 years ago as a boy. “The Madrid bombings have the Dutch thinking, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What’s happening to our way of life?’ ”

Barry Madlener, a member of Livable Rotterdam, the dominant political party in the City Council, isn’t ashamed of feeling that way.

“We have had this political correctness in Europe,” he said. “But now there is anxiety and strange feelings about foreigners coming here who do not want to live in a Western way.... We want the national government to say we as a country can only handle so many immigrants. We want zero immigrant growth.”

This clanging port city on the Rotte River is a study in European immigration. One-third of Rotterdam’s population of 600,000 are minimally educated immigrants with little command of the Dutch language. If trends continue, according to a city government study, the nonnative community will grow about 58% by 2017 -- a dramatic demographic shift in a nation where half a century ago there were few foreigners.

As a young man, Kanton boxed on these streets of cawing seagulls and grizzled brick.

His father brought the family to help rebuild a city splintered by World War II. The Kantons now own five boxing-equipment stores -- all named Hercules -- throughout the Netherlands. Kanton, 45, is a well-built middleweight with coils of gray in his hair. He speaks Dutch, German and English. He understands Turkish.

One needs such skills to navigate the syntaxes on West Kruiskade, which is as much a narrative of changing cultures as it is a street.


“You have Chinese, Moroccan, Portuguese,” he said, walking toward a boxing event poster on his wall. “Look at these fighters. Turkish. Yugoslav. Suriname. Everyone comes to this street. Rents are cheap, and over the years you can watch the different groups come and go.”

He glanced out the window. So many sepia-colored faces, many of them adrift between native land and new home. Discrimination, said Kanton, was the subtle, polite kind, like a murmur of elevator music in the background of Dutch society.

“When I first came, there were mainly just immigrants from Italy and Spain,” he said. “But now you’ve got them from all kinds of countries, and that makes a difference.”

The Netherlands welcomed guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s. And the Dutch, priding themselves on their embrace of human rights, accepted tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers escaping wars and turmoil in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Africa and Afghanistan. Thousands of petitions for asylum have been rejected over the years, but the Dutch government did not have a clear policy on repatriation. The new asylum law -- opposed by the nation’s churches -- will deport 26,000 people over the next three years.

“The Madrid bombings will mean a green light for the Dutch government extradition policies,” said Mohammed, a Sudanese reluctant to give his last name because his asylum petition was pending. A political activist, Mohammed escaped Sudan on a boat after death threats from security police. He now worries that his dramatic story won’t win him refuge in the Netherlands.

The quandary over the fate of asylum seekers such as Mohammed coincides with rising unemployment and crime in immigrant communities. Criminals with foreign backgrounds make up 55% of the country’s prison population. The unemployment rate for non-Western immigrants is 14%, compared with a 4% rate among the native Dutch population. Joblessness among Moroccans and Turks, two of the largest minorities, went from a ratio of one unemployed for every 11 workers in 2001 to one in six in 2003.


Many in this country of tulips and marijuana cafes believe that their liberal values are colliding with other disturbing forces. A number of Muslims have been investigated for alleged links to terrorist organizations since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Imams condemned homosexuality in Dutch cities, and a Somalian student living in the Netherlands was threatened by religious radicals in 2002 when she claimed that Islam was a “backward religion” because of its treatment of women.

“Europeans don’t like us anymore,” said Said Kallah, 27, a Moroccan shopkeeper on West Kruiskade Street, whose father immigrated to Rotterdam in the 1970s. “They’re afraid of us. ‘The Muslims did this. The Muslims did that.’ They needed us to help rebuild after the world war. Now, they don’t.... I never felt Dutch because they never let me feel Dutch.”

Anxiety over immigrants, who make up 4.4% of the population, found its voice in Pim Fortuyn, a populist politician whose slogans, “Norms and Values” and “Holland Is Full,” resonated with Dutch voters. Fortuyn was assassinated before the 2002 elections, but his philosophy resonates with Livable Rotterdam, which last year backed a City Council bill requiring new immigrants to earn at least 20% above minimum wage before they can receive a residency permit.

“We have to be selective on who we let into the Netherlands,” said Madlener, who has a Croatian girlfriend. “We are the only party right now saying this. A Muslim woman in a head scarf doesn’t talk to a white man. The third-generation immigrants are not mixing, and that’s a sign of no integration. They have their own mosques, schools, butchers and other things. They don’t fit into Western society. They don’t believe in it, but they come here anyway.”

Sadik Harchaoui, director of Forum, the Institute for Multicultural Development, said young, educated immigrants were increasingly frustrated over not being able to penetrate and prosper in Dutch society. More troubling, he said, was how anti-immigrant fervor was sweeping not only right-wing camps but also leftist political parties as Europeans tried to resist rapidly changing demographics.

“There is an explosive mixture,” Harchaoui said. “Second- and third-generation migrants were getting integrated little by little, but now it’s slowing and children are falling back to their own ethnic backgrounds. There is a danger of a radicalization of young people. They will rise up.”


Koshen Dini ordered a kebab and sat in the sunlight on West Kruiskade Street. The girls were pretty, and boys swaggered in baggy jeans and turned-around ball caps. Some leaned on motorcycles; others twirled through traffic. Dini, a big man with a happy demeanor, took a bite of lunch and charted his family’s history of continental hopscotching.

“My father was born in Ethiopia,” he said. “I was born in Somalia. My son was born in Holland, and maybe his son will be born in England. It’s very tough in Holland to get a job. I worked in a cheese factory. Now, I’m in a secondhand clothing store.” He wiped his mouth and sipped a soda.

“People in Europe think the Muslim is their enemy,” Dini said. “Before all this trouble, immigrants were invisible here. Look at the streets now. We’re visible, and the Dutch are saying, ‘We’d like to help you out, but we’re overcrowded and it’s costing our taxpayers a lot of money.’ ”

Dini finished his kebab and returned to work. Shadows stretched across the street. Police foot patrols appeared; so did the men lifting paper bags to their mouths. Kallah sat in his Mars Telecom store, selling phone minutes to faraway places to the lonely and the homesick.

“This street has always been international,” said Kallah, a slender man wearing a gold chain and a blue sweater. “One time it was Bosnians and Algerians, and about four to five months ago I started noticing Poles and Hungarians.”

A man from Africa rushed in to call home. A woman from Moldova asked for an open line. Kallah logged it in to his computer.


“When I was a kid, the old Dutch ladies used to muss up my hair and give me candy,” he said. “Now when they see me, they wrap their handbag twice around their arm.”

He talked about how his father worked the coal mines of Germany before tugging the family north to the Netherlands.

“My dad saw what was happening, how the Dutch don’t want us,” he said. “He went back to Morocco.”