“No one is talking about emigration, but it is crazy not to”

Dutch emigrees ready to leave. Photo: National Archief via Flickr

Why focus exclusively on people coming into the Netherlands when there are ways of encouraging people to leave, asks journalist Frank Kalshoven.

As the first phase of the new cabinet formation came to a grinding halt, my thoughts turned to migration policy, one of the more central election issues. With varying degrees of emphasis, attention focused on international students, labour migrants (both at the top and the bottom of the labour ladder) and refugees.  By contrast, emigration was not mentioned even once. So what about an emigration policy?

Several political parties have been advocating a reduction in the number of immigrants. But if what they are after is a lower net migration rate, why not promote emigration? Immigration: 100; emigration: 50 leaves a net migration rate of plus 50. But immigration: 100 and emigration: 100 brings the net migration rate to 0. If the policy is to slow down the speed of population growth (or even reduce the population), having an emigration policy could help.

I am aware this is not a very popular concept. The OECD in Paris has a raft of studies into migration policy but not a single one that is (explicitly) about emigration policy. A search for “emigration” on the website of the Dutch advisory council on migration turns up 11 publications out of 326, of which exactly 0 are relevant.

It wasn’t always like this. In the first years after World War II, the Dutch pursued a very active emigration policy. The Dutch population, some 10 million at the time, was facing a bleak future, or so it was thought. The post-war baby boom was, experts said at the time, bound to cause a lack of food, housing, and work.

How better to solve that problem than by encouraging people to find a home in countries with space to grow, such as Australia, Canada and the United States. The government agreed wholeheartedly and, aided by private organisations, helped would-be emigrants on their way. Hundreds of thousands of people upped sticks and left the Netherlands in the 1950s.

How to implement an emigration policy today? There are 101 ways of doing it, one of which is already being used. The “remigration benefit” is being offered to immigrants aged 55 and over to return to their country of birth with a monthly payment adapted to the cost of living in that country.

The remigration benefit has been linked to a particular population group. Other sections of society could follow suit, such as young farmers hit by plans to reduce livestock. Why not help them make a flying start elsewhere?

And what about “pension emigrants”, people in their early 60s looking for peace and quiet, nature, better weather, nicer people, and more bang for their pension buck? I found a study by the Dutch interdisciplinary demographic institute NIDI, which looked into the matter. But here again, the conclusion was that “moving to another country is not easy”. So why not help pensionados with a latent wish to emigrate?

There’s also a generic side to emigration policy, for instance through tax measures. This reminds me of poor François Hollande, the French socialist ex-president, who over a decade ago, introduced a steep hike in property tax, causing a stampede of rich citizens legging it abroad. French actor Gerard Depardieu made a fuss and promptly established his holding company in Belgium.

In short, if net migration is such an important issue, politicians would do well to focus their attention a bit more on emigration policy.

Frank Kalshoven is founder of the De Argumentenfabriek. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant.

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