Fiddling the immigration figures

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How many immigrants are arriving in the Netherlands these days? That is a politically loaded question. In fact, an opposition MP recently accused the government of fiddling the numbers to make the number of immigrants look larger.

At first glance that may seem confusing. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet, supported from parliament by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, has made reducing immigration a priority. So why would they want to inflate the number of immigrants? Political self-interest, says Green Left MP Tofik Dibi.

‘If the problem of immigration goes away, the need for the Freedom Party to continue to support the government for a large part disappears as well. The cabinet has an interest in making the problem seem bigger.’

Immigration Minister Gerd Leers denies the accusation and says he is keeping count exactly as his predecessors have done.

Who’s right?
The kerfuffle revolves around the number of people asking for family reunification visas. Immigrants who have been granted a residency visa have the right for their immediate family to join them. Over the past ten years, the Netherlands has been placing more and more restrictions on family reunification, ostensibly to prevent abuse. The current government has made family reunification the cutting edge of a new, stricter immigration policy and announced yet more restrictions just last week.

Discussing these new measures with parliament, Minister Leers said some 25,000 people were given visas in 2010 on the basis of family reunification. As it turns out, 4,000 of those visas were for babies actually born in the Netherlands to immigrants already here.

And, as even Minister Leers agrees, a baby born in the Netherlands does not qualify as an immigrant requiring a family reunification visa from abroad.

A promise is a promise
But Mr Leers has a tough task in front of him. The coalition government has promised to reduce immigration. In fact, immigration from non-western countries must be reduced by half. That was one of the main promises made to Geert Wilders in exchange for his party’s support for the minority coalition.

But such a drastic cut is easier said than done. There are European regulations governing immigration, and the Dutch government cannot control international events that can lead to increased immigration.

The government is doing its level best with the new restrictions on family unification, and Mr Leers has been lobbying in Brussels for tougher European regulations on immigration.

But this is Geert Wilders’ main issue, and any way you cut it the government must bring the numbers down to justify the Freedom Party’s support.

And that, Mr Dibi claims, is why the numbers are now being kept artificially high. The larger the number you start with, the larger the number can be at the end and so the easier it will be to meet the target of halving immigration during this cabinet’s tenure.

Fuzzy math
This is not the first time accusations have flown regarding immigration statistics. The Freedom Party has been accused in the past of exaggerating the number of immigrants, particularly from non-western countries. MP Sietse Fritsma has used statistics in what could be seen as a misleading fashion during parliamentary debates. For instance, he correctly refers to 154,000 immigrants in 2010. But he neglects to mention that 28,000 of them were born in the Netherlands, and are returning after having lived abroad. In total, 40,000 of all the immigrants in 2010 already had Dutch citizenship.

As for non-western immigrants, there were 53,000 in 2010. This is the group Mr Fritsma and his Freedom Party particularly want to see decline. But here, too, Fritsma leaves something out. In the same year, 34,000 people from non-western countries emigrated leaving a net-increase of 19,000 non-westerners in the Netherlands. Hardly the tsunami of immigrants Geert Wilders once referred to.

Official figures
Of course politicians of every persuasion are liable to play fast and loose with statistics, but the latest row involves official government figures. So Minister Leers arouses suspicion when he reports to parliament that 4,000 babies born here applied for family reunification.

In his defence, Minister Leers agrees these children are not ‘regular immigrants.’ But he does not go so far as to say he is using the figures wrongly. Rather, he says the government bureaucracy is set up to count these babies as immigrants, and has been doing so for the past 20 years.

And in fact, immigration from non-western countries has become something of a canard with far more immigrants coming to the Netherlands from within Europe. A development that has not gone unnoticed by the Freedom Party, which has launched a controversial website where people can complain anonymously about immigrants from Eastern Europe. A controversy the government is making a point of not getting involved in.