TV quiz for asylum seekers courts controversy

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Weg van Nederland is a Dutch TV quiz for young asylum seekers who have exhausted their legal options. The winner gets 4,000 euros for a fresh start back in his own country. Tasteless? "Of course, the programme is sick but, let's face it, the reality is sick too."

Weg van Nederland is being screened on Thursday evening by the public broadcasting organisation VPRO. It's a one-off show in which five failed asylum seekers answer questions about Dutch language, culture and history, Dutch entertainers and the royal family.

Asylum seekers and organ donors

Each year around 15,000 people apply for asylum in the Netherlands. In the end, about half of them stay. “So a lot of people have to go back: thousands of them” says Wouter van Zandwijk.

Weg van Nederland is reminiscent of 2007’s De Grote Donorshow (The big donor show), another controversial TV quiz. It aimed to draw attention to the shortage of organ donors in the Nerherlands. It won an Emmy award in the United States in the category Non-Scripted Entertainment.

Weg van Nederland is part of TV Lab, an annual theme week designed to try out new programmes and test the boundaries of the medium.

The title Weg van Nederland is a play on words: it can mean either “Away from the Netherlands” or “Mad about the Netherlands”.

The candidate who has absorbed the most information during his or her stay in the Netherlands gets 4,000 euros to be used to start a new life in his or her country of origin. But the losers wont be going home empty-handed. They get consolation prizes like a bag of flower bulbs or a bulletproof vest.

The five asylum seekers are all young and well-educated. One is an aeronautical engineer from Cameroon, another is a student of Slavic languages who will be sent to Chechnya.

The announcement of the quiz on internet caused an immediate uproar. The VPRO is known for both high quality and provocative programming and editor-in-chief Frank Wiering was not initially enthusiastic when production house Skyhigh pitched the quiz:

"My first reaction was: terrible idea, we're not doing that. Then I looked into the issue more deeply and decided: we have to do this! Weg van Nederland focuses attention on the fact that, these days, many asylum seekers who are being expelled have children who have lived in the Netherlands for eight years or more. They have had a good education, speak perfect Dutch and have only seen their country of birth on television. We believe it's time to stop and think about this."

He emphasizes that the programme is not a hoax like De Grote Donorshow:
"The candidates are not actors, they are genuine unsuccessful asylum seekers who have to leave this country within a month or two."

[media:image1]It's a frivolous show about a serious issue. The VPRO is giving failed asylum seekers a public face and demonstrating how important they could be to the ageing population of the Netherlands. It's a sensitive subject, as was illustrated recently by the case of Sahar, an Afghan girl who had been living in the Netherlands for ten years. Her planned expulsion was cancelled after a storm of emotional protests. 

Wouter van Zandwijk of the refugee support group Vluchtelingenwerk says he can understand that people might find Weg van Nederland tasteless:

"The programme is sick but, let's face it, the reality is sick too. The reality in this country is that people run out of legal options. Meanwhile, their children are receiving a good education and are integrating well. It makes you think: first you invest in people then, as you are about to harvest that investment - just before they all become hardworking Dutch taxpayers - that's when you send them away."

Frank Wiering comments: "The candidates are highly intelligent, self-assured people quite capable of deciding for themselves whether to take part or not. In terms of taste, I find a programme like Idols far more objectionable. First people are led to believe they are going to be big stars, then after three performances they're headed off for a life of disappointment and drink."

Van Zandwijk: "We're hoping Weg van Nederland makes more people think about how we treat asylum seekers, that they understand more about what asylum seekers go through. Sometimes it takes far too long before they know whether they can stay. Vluchtelingenwerk would like a fast but careful asylum procedure. Young people who have spent so many years in the Netherlands are often more Dutch than Afghan or Somali and more at home here than in their country of origin."

Television viewers can compare their knowledge of the Netherlands with that of the candidates. During the programme they can play along on a second screen using their tablet, smartphone or laptop. The prize is an air ticket to the Caribbean island of Curaçao. A return ticket, of course.