‘Why do some refugees receive huge outpourings of public support, while others do not? Why are some people allowed to stay, while others in a similar legal situation are not?’ In this post, Aukje Muller, examines the ‘construction of belonging’ within the Netherlands and its influence on decisions regarding the deportation of migrants to Afghanistan. Here, ‘belonging’ is constructed as a privilege to be earned, rather than a right that migrants are entitled to, and is tested based on a number of criteria, including the concept of ‘rootedness’, ‘Westernization’ and ‘successful integration.’ Echoing a number of themes explored in Refugee Hosts (here, here and here), Muller describes how the formal and informal tests of belonging repeatedly privilege subjective identification based largely on a shared history and within a culture that is conceptualised as static, closed and homogenous. Within these concepts of belonging, loyalties to other nations and cultures are seen as a threat and ‘Dutch identity must “cannibalize” other identities in order to turn immigrants into reliable citizens’

If you find this post of interest please visit our Representations of Displacement series, or the recommended reading list at the end of the piece.

This post was published on 20th September 2019

Belonging: A privilege or a right? Conditional inclusion in the Netherlands

By Aukje Muller – University of Groningen and Macquarie University

Public and political discussions on migration have increasingly focused on belonging, membership and citizenship as a privilege that is to be deserved or earned, while those are rights that migrants are entitled to. The construction of belonging as a privilege has far reaching consequences for those who are denied belonging, as they are subsequently denied access to the enjoyment of other rights and resources.

These consequences are evident in recent deportations to Afghanistan, which have sparked immense outrage, as Afghanistan is deeply unsafe and unstable. Although European member states are awareof this situation, they repeatedly claim Afghanistan is safe enough for Afghans to be sent back. The issue I want to focus on is that there is something inherently and increasingly wrong with the way in which migrants are expected to prove they deserve to belong in the countries where they are granted or claiming asylum.

The Good Citizen

Cases such as the imminent deportations of Lili and HowickHayarpi Tamrazyan, and Mauro Manuel have instigated immense public outrage and media coverage in the Netherlands, sometimes contributing to last-minute reprieves. Other cases, however, have not received this public indignation. Why do some refugees receive huge outpourings of public support, while others do not? Why are some people allowed to stay, while others in a similar legal situation are not? When do we decide that someone belongs or doesn’t belong somewhere? How much do people have to be like ‘the Dutch’ (or ‘the Swedish’, the ‘Australians’’, etc) to be part of ‘the Dutch’ (‘Swedish’, ‘Australian’, etc)?

In the Netherlands, a migrant’s belonging seems to be ‘tested’ along the lines of a particular level of ‘rootedness’, ‘Westernization’ or ‘successful integration’. In other words, migrants have to prove they are capable of being a good citizen, in order to deserve and receive belonging (on ‘good’ and ‘ideal’ refugees, see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s work, here). While ‘good citizenship’ and ‘good character’ remain rather undefined, citizenship tests and ‘good character’ tests have become more common and more restrictive. In fact, those who wish to receive the rights and resources of formal citizens, have to demonstrate being ‘super citizens’ in a way that citizens by birth do not (on ‘super-refugees,’ see here). Expressions of successful integration, rootedness and shared values become measures for belonging and access to subsequent rights and resources. Although public and community support based on these normative measurements are undoubtedly well-intended, it reproduces and reinforces the conception of citizenship and belonging as a privilege, excluding those who assumedly fail to embody this ‘super citizenship’. These formal and informal ‘tests’ repeatedly privilege subjective identification over rights considerations. In this way, violation of the norms and values of the hegemonic community can come to justify exclusion in various forms.

A community of value and loyalty

The level of cultural integration as a way of determining who belongs and who doesn’t is problematic due to the way successful cultural integration and rootedness are determined. Although the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) doesn’t provide a definition of rootedness, it can be extracted from media coverage of asylum cases. It includes successful integration through speaking the Dutch language, having Dutch friends, a job or study, feeling at home in the Netherlands, and sharing emotions, feelings, cultural norms and values.

Although others have argued that rootedness cannot be accomplished but is decided by birth, some level of rootedness seems to be negotiated through cultural assimilation. Undeniably, a culturalization of citizenship has taken place in the Netherlands, a process ‘by which culture (emotions, feelings, cultural norms and values, and cultural symbols and traditions, including religion) has come to play a central role in the debate on social integration’. In particular, the Dutch seem to endorse an emotive restorative culturalization of citizenship, which stresses the need for feelings of loyalty to the nation state, demands these feelings of loyalty and belonging from migrants, and requires proof of these feelings. One crucial obstacle here is the restorative, and to some extent nativist, approach to culture and ‘rootedness’, which considers culture to be static, closed and homogenous. It includes a high level of nostalgia, and evidence of ‘Dutchness’ based largely on a shared history.

What does this mean for migrants wanting to be, having a right to be, and having to prove their belonging within the Dutch national identity? The deliverance of this ‘proof’ is suggested in the cases of the children who were granted belonging: Mauro who argued that he is studying, loves football, pays his taxes and tries ‘to be one of you’; Hayarpi stressing she is an active member of the Dutch political party ChristenUnie, how she studies and does volunteer work with elderly people. In cases where feelings of loyalty are harder to witness, symbols or stand-ins of those feelings or a lack thereof may be sufficient proof of emotional attachment to or detachment from Dutch culture and society. Examples that are considered to prove a lack of loyalty are having dual nationality, and football players deciding to play for their country of origin’s national team.

Loyalties to other nations and cultures have become an experienced threat to the emotional attachment to the Netherlands required to be fully included. Failing to deliver proof of loyalty may, in some cases, even directly contribute to a withdrawal of asylum. This process is, for instance, painfully visible in ‘westernized women’ cases. In November 2018, the Dutch Council of State ruled that female asylum seekers need to prove they deserve to remain in the Netherlands by virtue of ‘being Western’, said to include showing behaviour that is opposite to the norms and values in their country of origin. In other words, proof of ‘Westernization’ may be perceived as proof of loyalty to the Netherlands, which may lead to a (re)consideration of their cases. It seems that ‘Dutch identity must “cannibalize other identities in order to turn immigrants into reliable citizens’.

Conditional rights

Have the Afghan families who have recently been deported or are awaiting deportation not provided sufficient proof of their loyalty and emotional attachment to the Netherlands? Requiring migrants to prove their belonging to this ‘Western’ idealized and homogenous culture and to ‘test’ whether they deserve to be included is a mentality that reflects a failure to accommodate cultural diversity. Where the Netherlands once might have represented an almost ideal-typical example of tolerant, multiculturalist society, current discourse reflects that belonging is highly conditional, which is excluding those who are already structurally marginalized. Successful integration and inclusion are framed as migrants’ own responsibility, while the inherently exclusionary nature of current integration discourses that is framed as ‘historical rootedness’ is obstructing migrants to try in the first place. ‘The rhetoric of “migrant responsibility” has become a convenient cloak for structural barriers and assimilationist identities rooted in Dutch history and culture’.

By requiring migrants to prove they belong, the conception of belonging and citizenship as a privilege rather than a right, is contributing to a normalization of cultural hegemony that seems to leave ‘others’ inescapably marginalized and naturally undeserving until they prove otherwise. Citizenship is not a popularity contest. The state and the majority population always hold the power to decide who belongs in this process, while the requirement to prove ‘good’ or ‘super’ citizenship does not apply to those who were lucky to acquire rights and resources as formal citizens without question. There is a need for recognition of the ways in which support for some migrants excludes others, keeping an unequal, unrealistic, and privileged ideal of citizenship and belonging intact, and reinforcing an exclusive conceptualisation of national identity and integration. This idealization may ultimately come to justify the denial of migrants’ enjoyment of rights, inclusion and overall well-being.


If you found this piece of interest, please visit the reading list below:

Adams, H. (2018) Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the Emergent Realities of Return

Al-Mehdi, D. (2019) The Tribulations, and Deportations, of Syrian Guests in Turkey

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E. (2018) Assessing Urban-Humanitarian Encounters in Northern Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Anti-Syrian banners and graffiti in context: racism, counter-racism and solidarity for refugee in Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Disrupting Humanitarian Narratives?

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Repressentations of Displacement in the Middle East,’ Public Culture, 28(3).

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A day with displacement Syrians in Southern Turkey

Steinberg, A. (2019) Sustaining Protracted Displacements: A brief history of labor policy for Jordan’s refugees

Timberlake, F. (2019) Home-making and home-taking: living spaces for women refugees in Grande Synthe

Trotta, S. (2017)  Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy:  A Safe and Legal Route to Refuge

Wafai, J. (2018) Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge

Weatherhead, K. (2017) Thinking Through the Concept of ‘Welcoming’

Featured image:  (c) Defence for Children

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