From cook to Dutch MP

Athanasios Apostolou, a member of the Dutch Parliament, is no ordinary immigrant. Arriving in the Netherlands in the early 1970s with a degree in theology, not the best of qualifications for an immigrant from Greece, he got his first job in the Utrecht Hospital kitchen. A scholarship gave him the opportunity to continue with his theological studies in Amsterdam and to work in the Reformed Church’s educational institute. They hired me although I was Orthodox, he said. For 10 years after that, he worked as the director of a regional center for Mediterranean immigrants. He joined the Dutch Labor Party and was elected to Parliament in 1989. Keeping his seat for three successive terms to the present, he has continued to be involved in immigration affairs. We met him at an interesting seminar, organized by the Dutch Embassy along with the responsible ministries, on the assimilation of minorities. A two-day affair, with a wealth of information about a society with a rich dialogue and consensus, as is the Netherlands, we learned about the value of toleration. More unpleasant sensations were not absent, however, as the progress of Dutch immigration policies made laws to incorporate immigrants into Greek society seem even more illiberal and spasmodic. Blessing for all According to the speakers at the seminar, immigrants account for 9 percent of the economically active population. In Greece, the equivalent is 8.5 to 10 percent. This is something that the two countries have in common. What are the differences? In Greece, the focus is chiefly on economic migrants while in the Netherlands it is on refugees. Every year, we receive 40 to 60 thousand applications for political asylum. However, the figure of 9 percent cannot give a true picture of the big cities. In Amsterdam, immigrants account for 30 percent of the population, in Rotterdam 35 percent. Indeed, immigrant children in Amsterdam account for 50 percent of primary school children. Is immigration a blessing or a curse? In the last analysis, it is a blessing both for the immigrant and the host country if the immigrant’s potential is properly utilized. Immigrants are hard-working, they want to succeed. After all, that’s why they left their countries. Societies must understand that different people exist who have different things to offer. What does assimilation entail in the Netherlands? Full social assimilation means access to education, the labor market, and the exercise of political and social rights and duties. More rapid equal rights Are these aims realizable for immigrants and refugees? Yes, if there is the political will and if society wants to create a state of affairs where there is no discrimination. I believe that in the host country, immigrants and refugees have to acquire equal rights as soon as possible. In most European countries, social and political rights are acquired after five years. This is true of Holland as well, and refugees or those who have married people of Dutch nationality can apply for nationality after three years, for the right to vote and to stand as candidate in municipal elections and for a residence permit. The right to vote (for immigrants) has existed since 1986. The measure gave many immigrants the opportunity to become involved in politics, to join political parties and to play a decisive role in the municipalities. Their involvement in politics resulted in 11 of the 150 members of Parliament coming from immigrant groups. How well has access to employment been achieved? Despite the fact that the overall unemployment rate in Holland is low – about 3 percent – it is 10 percent among immigrants and refugees. In 1998, it was even higher, around 16 percent. Because of this high rate, Parliament passed a law which obliged enterprises with over 30 employees to set up programs for hiring immigrants. I have to admit that the law has not delivered the hoped-for results, due to the reaction by business. But immigrant organizations have also failed to take advantage of the opportunity granted to them by the law to sue businesses that don’t have a social policy. Dual nationality In many European countries, the issue of dual nationality has been the subject of broad debate for quite some time. Many, in fact, believe that assimilation is an empty term when it does not include the acquisition of the host country’s nationality. What do you believe? Many immigrants in Holland have dual nationality. Of the 320,000 of Turkish origin, 200,000 are Dutch citizens. The same is true of the 273,000 Moroccans. Of the 7-10 thousand Greeks living in Holland, about half have Dutch nationality. However, even in Holland, where dual nationality is the norm, there was a great deal of debate on the theoretical side of the issue, which mirrored views on assimilation. One current school of thought asserted that acquisition of the nationality of a country is the final step of assimilation. Others feel that foreigners who want to become citizens and still maintain ties with their countries of origin have a problem. That was the viewpoint that won the day in the Senate, which did not pass the law by the lower house which had rejected the principle that Dutch nationality could not be shared with other nationalities. Thus the law provides for only one nationality. But since life is more powerful than theory, there were 13 exceptions to the rule. Ninety-eight percent of cases coincide with these exceptions. What is your opinion on the issue? I believe the acquisition of the nationality of a country is not the crowning achievement of assimilation but a substantial step toward becoming part of society. That means the immigrant continues to maintain ties with the country of origin. Cultural assimilation After the terrorist strikes in the USA, a debate has opened up on cultural assimilation. Indeed, some think it essential in order to avoid further conflict. Do you think cultural assimilation is possible? Cultural assimilation is a road without an end. First of all, we need to ask ourselves whether, in posing this question, there is a permanent culture which we need to assimilate to. I’m of the opinion that a monopolistic society does not exist. The question we must answer is: How we will create the conditions for social cohesion and peaceful coexistence among the various social groups, taking as given a situation of pluralism and difference? Today, in all the countries in Europe, we see the reality of coexistence between different cultures which are each enclosed in their own separate world. There is no substantial communication. The issue is coexistence with good relations, and frank communication.