The Dutch elite has lost its moral leadership, writes political scientist Meindert Fennema.
In an interview with writer and historian Geert Mak in Belgian newspaper De Standaard, the interviewer refers to the fact that in 1956 Geert’s father took in Hungarian refugees. Geert says he has fond memories of those refugees. The interviewer then asks him if he would do the same for Syrian refugees. ‘Well,’ Geert says, ‘my father did have quite a big house.’ And hesitantly he adds, ‘if needs must, I would.’
I think the biggest difference between Geert Mak and his father is not the size of their homes. Geert’s father was a clergyman in a different era. That is where the crucial difference lies.
Suicides in asylum seeker centres
Until the seventies refugees were housed by private individuals, with the Church or the Red Family as intermediaries. In the nineties, solidarity became a matter for the government. When I called the vicar of Bloemendaal the other day, I asked him if his church was doing anything for the refugees. He was very candid and said: ‘No, but it’s a jolly good idea. It hadn’t occurred to me.’
These days refugees are no longer the responsibility of the church but of the COA, a professional organisation whose director earned, until recently, a salary well over the ‘Balkenende norm’ (a cap on salaries in the public sector, DN).
Two weeks ago I went to see Majtaba Jalali at the asylum seeker centre in Alphen aan den Rijn, which houses 1,100 young men in a former prison, all perfectly organised. The only difference with the prison next door is that the prison doors in the prison used to house the refugees aren’t locked and that the number of suicides is appallingly high. Someone tried to kill himself only last Saturday. Ambulances are a regular feature.
A status holder in my garden
The mark of a professional organisation is that it likes to monopolise its services. That’s true for the COA but also for refugee organisation Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland. When I rang Vluchtelingenwerk Bloemendaal to ask them if I could house a status holder (someone with a temporary residence permit, DN) in the house in my garden, they said: ‘We would advise against it. These people are often very traumatised. It will be problematic.’
In the end my wife and I managed to find an asylum seeker but it was a long road that took us via the ‘een gastgezin voor een vluchteling’ (a foster family for a refugee, DN) site to the ChristenUnie. The ChristenUnie still offers practical solidarity and moral leadership. But it’s parish is diminishing.
Our tolerance may have increased over the last 60 years but we have outsourced our solidarity to the government. And the government in its turn is offloading the refugees on the people living in Groningen or Drenthe, the Veluwe, Brabant, Limburg, Steenbergen and Alphen aan den Rijn.
Any protests from these people are labelled an annoying form of xenophobia. Historian and commentator Maarten van Rossem, who lives in a posh house in Utrecht and has never seen a refugee in the flesh in his life, called the protesters idiots and fascists.
Second homes for refugees
Five months ago I called on all second home owners (some 500,000) to make their second homes available to house asylum seekers. 100,000 second homes could see 200,000 to 400,000 extra refugees housed without costs.
I received one spontaneous reaction. It was from someone from a famous Labour party family. She emailed to say: ‘I wouldn’t wish it on any refugee to live in the remote French countryside. You can’t get anywhere without a car, people there are very xenophobic, services are few and far between and the house is very difficult to heat in winter.’ My answer to her was: ‘I didn’t mean your third home but your second home, here in Noord-Holland.’ I haven’t heard from her since.
The Dutch elite has lost its moral leadership. The people are left without counsel and turn away from reason.
This article is based on a speech given by Meindert Fennema at the Stadsschouwburg debate Wat er op het spel staat! (What is at stake!) in Amsterdam on March 21