Immigration and Social Protection in the Netherlands

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  • 2011•08•08

    Melissa Siegel

    Immigration and social protection in the Netherlands

    Photo: Flats!

    Delicate questions about immigration and integration have arisen in Norway after the admitted 22 July attacker cited anti-Muslim views as motivating the assault. That tragedy has stimulated discussion on issues faced by many developed countries as immigration patterns shift with global change.

    Coincidentally, a recent paper by researchers from the United Nations University Maastricht Economic and social Research institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU‐MERIT), summarized below, surveys the history of immigration in the Netherlands. It looks at immigrant access to social protection, offering interesting insight into how immigration, attitudes towards immigrants and policies are interlinked and shift over time.

    Migration and social protection is an understudied topic in the social protection literature. Immigrant access to social protection in the Netherlands has changed markedly over time, interlinked with the changing composition of immigrant inflows, government policies and shifting societal notions of “fairness” towards both documented and undocumented migrants. The relationship between migrants and social protection is still marked by asymmetries and a mismatch in entitlements and contributions (taxes).

    Social protection, as defined by Ian MacAuslan and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler (2007),  is “the range of public, private, formal and informal measures that address actors’ (individuals’, households’ and communities’) vulnerability to outcomes that negatively affect their well-being”.

    Whether (and how) migrant workers integrate into Dutch society is relatively independent from economic needs. Over the last decade, Dutch Government policies have attempted to be more pro-active and aim at curbing certain types of migration, although a significant reactive element has also remained.

    Tracing immigration in the Netherlands – an historical snapshot

    Since the end of World War II, four distinct phases of immigration in the Netherlands have emerged.

    • 1945 to 1960: Immigration was driven by the decolonization of Indonesia and Surinam.
    • 1960 to 1973: Excess labour demands attracted immigrants from Southern Europe and North Africa. Initially, recruitment was managed by employers, but beginning with Italy in 1960, the Government began signing “recruitment agreements” with sending countries.
    • 1974 to 1997: Immigration was driven by family reunification motives (peaking in 1983-84), then by asylum seekers.
    • 1997 to 2007: Flows of family reunification, asylum-seeker and low-skilled immigrants decreased, whilst recruitment of high-skilled workers increased.

    The first official document to formulate a coherent policy view on immigration, the 1970 Memorandum on Foreign Employees (Nota Buitenlandse Werknemers), specified that the Netherlands was not a migration-receiving country. While the Memorandum acknowledged that foreign labour was necessary to sustain economic growth, it formalized the unofficial view that migrant workers were wanted solely as temporary transients in Dutch society. Whilst the concept of circular migration was not yet popular, the “rotating” of foreign workers between sending countries and the Netherlands was proposed. This was consistent with the reality on the ground at the time: The majority of workers were male and came without their families (in the early 1970s there were 55,000 Turkish and Moroccan guest workers and only 20,000 family members).

    The 1973 oil crisis and economic downturn after 1979 had significant effects on immigration, particularly on the composition of the migrant population. It also impacted considerably on the public (and political) view on immigration. The 1974 Memorandum of Reply explicitly stated that the Netherlands had responsibilities towards guest workers, and that a policy to accommodate them in Dutch society was imperative. This policy sought to give guest workers improved access to public services and social security and to provide cultural support.

    Housing was an initial priority; however, later on, as migrant workers became more regionally concentrated, municipalities began providing better access to health care, social assistance-based income support and education. Ethnic (sender country)-based education and mother-tongue teaching was aimed at facilitating future return.

    By the mid-1970s, government policy sought to restrict labour immigration, by tightening controls on entry and using quotas at the sending country and company level (enforced through both work permit restrictions and strict visa requirements) to reduce the ease and desirability of migration. However, these policy initiatives did not achieve significant cuts in the number of new immigrants. The total number of non-Western immigrants more than tripled between 1975 and 1985 — from less than 200,000 to approximately 600,000 (the total Dutch population was approximately 15 million in that period).

    While throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Netherlands saw only a couple of thousand asylum seekers per year, the number increased to 14,000 in 1988 and exploded further to yearly peaks of 53,000 (1995) and 45,000 (1999 – 2001). When the Netherlands and other countries tightened the criteria for refugee status and reconsidered social assistance in cash in 2001, the number of asylum applications dropped significantly.

    The tightening of the access to asylum was realized through an administrative action (the Linkage Act — Koppelingswet, 1998) linking all social economic databases electronically, allowing authorities to identify and locate illegal or irregular immigrants when they used the administrative, health services, schools or parts of the social security administration.

    Immigrants and social protection in the Netherlands

    According to Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (2008), all persons legally residing in the Netherlands are required by law to be insured under the National Insurance Schemes. All employees (who pay income tax) also require insurance, under compulsory employee insurance schemes.

    Three mechanisms have reduced the use of social protection benefits by migrant workers over the last decade. First, the composition of migrant inflows has been changing over the past 10 years: there has been a decrease in asylum seekers, family reunifications and low-skilled workers, combined with an increase in highly skilled workers. This has led to a reduced need for migrants to use the social protection system, as highly skilled workers are generally less vulnerable to unemployment.

    Second, since the 1990s, changes to Dutch Government policy have pushed large numbers of people back onto the labour market, including many migrant workers (who were overrepresented among the “non-active social” benefit recipients).

    Third, implementation of the Linkage Act made it practically impossible for migrants to claim social benefits, since this would lead immediately to the loss of their resident permits.

    These mechanisms produced an important asymmetry in the treatment of migrant workers: Legally, migrants must pay into a benefits system, from which they are deprived of a right to profit. (The logic behind this is that exempting migrants from social taxes and contributions would lead to unfair competition, since the wage costs for Dutch citizens would be higher than those of migrant workers.)

    When it comes to undocumented migrants, estimates (Heijden, Gils, Cruijff, & Hessen, 2006) for the period of April 2005-2006 put the number of illegal residents in the country at approximately 129,000 persons, including 88,000 illegal residents of non-European origin and 41,000 illegal residents from European countries. Evidence suggests that implementation of the Linkage Act has blocked undocumented immigrants from accessing the formal labour market. Coupled with tougher labour inspections, illegal workers have been forced to rely heavily on family and social networks to obtain employment outside the “observable” domains.

    In practice, illegal residents have pursued the same work as before, but with deteriorated conditions. Sectors where labour inspections are more difficult (like hospitality, personal services, farming and cleaning) have proven particularly vulnerable to undocumented workers.

    The Linkage Act also made undocumented migrants’ access to health care and other social provisions (e.g., public housing) more precarious. Illegal immigrants were excluded from health insurance, creating the difficult situation where medical workers were obliged to provide urgent/emergency health support, but the cost of treating illegal immigrants was not covered (by the Government).

    Understanding informal social protection in the Netherlands

    When migrants do not have access to formal social protection, they turn to other means of protection from risk and social vulnerability. The Welfare Pentagon theoretical framework embodies the five central institutions that can fulfill basic household or individual needs: family, markets, social networks, membership institutions and public authorities.

    The Welfare Pentagon is a central and distinctive element in the “Social Risk Management” approach as developed by Chris De Neubourg and Christine Weigand.  The Social Risk Management framework analyses the role and scope of public interventions and that of public social protection policies.

    The framework shows that the degree of household risk exposure is not just randomly distributed among households in a particular society, but is positively biased towards the “poorly endowed” households. Poor households run higher risks of experiencing “bad luck” because they are concentrated in neighbourhoods with higher-than-average rates of crime, physical damage due to natural disasters, health hazards, etc.

    Differences in the economic activities of households, which can include migration, lead to an income distribution and a corresponding consumption distribution. In that distribution, some households can easily “consume” and satisfy their needs, whilst other “poor” households do not always have the means to meet their needs.

    Undocumented migrants in the Netherlands usually do not have access to formal elements of the Welfare Pentagon (including formal labour markets and social protection via public institutions). In such cases, they usually turn to informal parts of the Welfare Pentagon, seeking work in the informal economy and relying on personal networks and family to meet their needs.


    In the early years of migration to the Netherlands, social protection for immigrants was limited, as immigrants were expected to return to home after a short stay. Once it became clear that many migrants remained in the Netherlands, it was evident they would also need access to social protection. The system was quite generous for both natives and immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, benefits were cut back for everyone, with the most notable changes occurring since 2000.

    This article has highlighted the three major events that have drastically altered the social protection situation of migrants. First, the changing composition of migrants and the rise in highly skilled immigrants has meant there is less demand on the social protection system (highly skilled workers are less vulnerable to economic inactivity). Second, since the 1990s, government policy has pushed a large number of people back onto the labour market, including large numbers of migrant workers, who were overrepresented among the non-active social benefit recipients. Finally, the implementation of the Linkage Act made it practically impossible for migrants to claim social benefits, as this leads to the immediate loss of resident permits or the refusal of renewal.

    It has become increasingly clear that there is a mismatch between contributions of migrants (particularly migrants without permanent residency status) and their access to social protection. Given that access to social benefits is linked to the duration of stay — and residence permits will not be renewed unless the immigrant has a near perfect “track record” including ongoing employment and health issuance — it becomes almost impossible for many migrants to benefit from the contributions they (and their employers) make.