Dutch bureaucracy – a mixed blessing

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Complaining about Dutch bureaucracy, and the country’s rule-loving inhabitants, is almost a sport in certain circles, both domestic and international.

Everybody here knows somebody who showed up for an international flight only to be told that their passports expire in three months instead of the six months necessary to still use them (can someone please explain to me the reasoning behind this “almost expired” clause, the same as when my daughter’s teacher tells her she is “almost late” when we’re a full four minutes early for school. Almost expired = valid. Almost late = on time. At least where I come from.)

Rules are rules
I’ve written several pieces over the years on the more absurd and extreme bureaucratic blunders of Dutch authorities: the case of a family granted residence permits by immigration officials--all except for the 3-year-old son, who apparently didn’t have the right papers. (Did they honestly think the family would stay and simply send their toddler across the border?) Or about the man who saved a beach café from four young arsonists, only to be fined 50 euro for illegally walking across the sand dunes to do so.

I myself have been hauled into the local police station because of a garbage infraction. And denied a residence permit because there was “no compelling reason” for me to stay (despite being the Dutch stringer for major media outlets and about to give birth to a child whose father has a Dutch passport; although on the latter point I was told that she wasn’t born yet and to reapply after my baby took her first breath, a.k.a. after it was certain I wouldn’t miscarry.)

My all-time favorite? I once had to get an affidavit from the American Embassy swearing I was never married. I still fail to understand how you can get a document to prove something that never existed.

Knock on the door
But last week, the gemeente — or someone who works for the city — knocked on my door. The uniformed woman was looking for two young Bulgarian girls, ages 10 and 12. They are the children of my housekeeper. We registered the entire family, including the rather deadbeat husband, into our home, signing documents at city hall that they indeed live here. They don’t. It’s probably not strictly legal, but it seemed like a helpful and temporary solution for a tirelessly working woman and her two just-off-the-bus daughters who needed somewhere “official” to live while waiting for a home of their own.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the two girls have been babysitting at home for their newborn baby brother since arriving in the Netherlands this summer. Not quite trafficked, not even exploited, the sisters were, nevertheless, certainly being robbed of a crucial part of their childhood by the well-meaning parents who took them out of their home country and everything familiar to them — school, grandmother, language — to re-unite the family.

After getting over my initial terror of being arrested by the woman at my door, I realised she was not visiting simply to confirm that the family was living with us. She wanted to know if the girls were in school. The city didn’t have any records of their being enrolled anywhere, which is also illegal in the Netherlands. Kids must attend school.

Caring for kids
And that’s exactly how it should be. A society that takes the offensive, going door to door to make sure its young are where they should be, must be a good thing and a measure of a society’s health. Especially when it concerns girls’ education, a human right that is under attack and underappreciated in so many other parts of the world.

As US President Barack Obama said when mourning the 20 children killed by a gunman in a small American town earlier this month, “caring for our children” is a nation’s most important job. “If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how as a society we will be judged.”

The Dutch gemeente sends health professionals to every newborn’s home to make sure its hearing, weight and other vitals are up to par. Long after my girls grew out of the programme, I am still pleasantly shocked that this ‘well care’ system covers the full first four years of life, with the state making sure every child is vaccinated and growing according to the charts.

One Dutch friend of mine was recently reprimanded and hauled into the city’s well care clinic after neglecting her four-year-old’s vaccines and growth chart. She got a good dressing down, as well she should.

The benefits
There may be a thousand rules and a thousand annoying ways to enforce them — did I mention being thrown off an Amsterdam tram with my daughters by a rule-following ticket collector who refused to break a 50 euro note? — but I’ve come to be grateful for some of them.

And no doubt, my Bulgarian friend’s children will one day also come to appreciate the rules that took them out of the home and into the classroom so quickly. Because of state pressure, they’re now attending school, the oldest in a Dutch-intensive programme designed for foreign kids to learn the language before being fully integrated into the regular school system. Bureaucracy at its best and brightest.