CIVICUS interviews NIMD Executive Director Thijs Berman on the state of civil society in the Netherlands

This interview is reposted from the CIVICUS where they caught up with NIMD executive Director, Thijs Berman, about the human rights concerns raised by the strict asylum policy proposed by the far right parties of the new government in the Netherlands. The interview was originally published as part of their 2024 State of Civil Society report

Why is the Netherlands about to introduce its toughest-ever asylum policy?

There are many reasons the Netherlands is introducing such a tough asylum policy. Historically, the Dutch far right has been suspicious of newcomers – migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. This view is rooted in old stereotypes and the mythical idea of a pure nation free of foreign influences. Migrants, and even their Dutch-born children, are often used as scapegoats for social problems.

Over the past 30 or 40 years, many neighbourhoods in larger Dutch cities have changed significantly, with at least half of residents of poorer neighbourhoods having at least one parent from another country, mainly from North Africa but also from other regions. The cultural change this has entailed has been difficult for some people to accept, leading to frustration and irritation.

In addition, over the last 20 years the Netherlands has faced a severe housing shortage. The lack of sufficient housing, combined with high rents and exorbitant property prices, has exacerbated social tensions. These housing problems are partly due to the privatisation of social housing, which has reduced the availability of affordable options. As a result, migrants and their descendants are often unfairly blamed for these systemic problems.

The proposed asylum policy aims to restrict the entry of asylum seekers into the Netherlands, limit family reunification for those granted refugee status and make it more difficult for migrant workers to secure contracts. However, implementing these measures could be complicated due to the Netherlands’ international treaty obligations under the Geneva Conventions and internal European rules on freedom of movement.

How has civil society reacted?

Civil society has reacted strongly to the proposed policy. While the Dutch public and voters currently seem somewhat relaxed and even slightly supportive of the government’s plans, there is significant concern among CSOs, which emphasise the need to respect political freedoms and international obligations. Demonstrations, particularly those in support of the people of Gaza and against Israel’s bombardment, have been condemned by some political parties, raising fears of an erosion of political freedoms.

Despite these concerns, the Dutch public as a whole has remained relatively silent on the matter. The political climate reflects a mixture of distrust of the established political class and hope for better leadership and respect from a new government. Left-wing parties are at their lowest level of representation in parliament, while far-right supporters hope for stricter migration controls. Civil society remains vigilant and committed to protecting political freedoms and democratic values.

Are conditions for civil society likely to change under the new government?

The government may seek to limit the ability of CSOs to participate in civil litigation, arguing that these organisations are not directly affected by certain situations and therefore lack the standing to assert an interest. This could significantly hamper the ability of civil society to ensure policies and laws are properly implemented.

In addition, CSOs involved in development cooperation are expected to face severe budget cuts. The development cooperation budget is set to decrease by €350 million (approx. US$378 million) in 2025, €500 million (US$541 million) in 2026 and a drastic €2.4 billion (US$2.6 billion) in 2027 – a reduction of two-thirds of the budget. These cuts are likely to force many CSOs to downsize or close, significantly reducing the Netherlands’ role in international development cooperation.

Restricting CSOs’ access to justice could weaken their ability to hold the government accountable for implementing policies on a range of issues, including climate change and social justice. Reduced financial support and limited legal recourse could hinder their effectiveness and ability to operate, affecting their role in Dutch society and beyond.

What are the main controversies surrounding human rights, excluded groups and the environment under the new government?

The Dutch public is caught between hope and mistrust. Farmers, for example, feel that climate mitigation measures, such as reducing nitrate production by limiting livestock numbers, have been imposed without proper consultation, making adaptation difficult. The feeling that they are being disrespected led to the rise of the Farmers and Citizens Movement party, which gained significant support in the recent election.

A new party, the New Social Contract, emerged as the successor to the Christian-Democrats, founded by a member of parliament who has defended families wrongly accused of fiscal fraud in relation to childcare subsidies. This scandal, in which tens of thousands of families were wrongly fined for minor errors, deepened public distrust of the authorities.

The vitality of the Dutch democratic system allows new parties to gain power as the public are dissatisfied with traditional parties. However, there are concerns about how the incoming government will handle environmental and climate issues. It might seek European Union exemptions to continue polluting practices, putting nature reserves at risk.

Regarding human rights and minorities, suffice it to say that the far-right party led by Geert Wilders proposed banning the Quran. Although its coalition agreement with the Liberals and the Farmers and Citizens Movement has softened this stance, the new government is not expected to be a strong defender of minorities.

The Netherlands’ fully proportional political system requires concessions and compromises, moderating extreme political programmes and fostering a coalition system in which different parties must find common ground to work together.

Does the outcome of the recent Dutch election give any indication of how the European Parliament elections will turn out in the Netherlands?

I expect the far right to have a significant success in the upcoming European elections in June. Similar to trends in other countries, the far right is likely to be very strong in this election. This is part of a broader European trend that is evident in countries like Belgium, France and Germany.