Newcomer or refugee? Why the Dutch are sensitive about labels
A debate over words simmers in the Netherlands. But what do refugees, or newcomers, think of constantly being defined?
“You’ll find that the word newcomer is used a lot in the Netherlands,” says Hanna Wieten from DeliteLabs, a Dutch organisation working with people from a refugee background to develop business ideas.
“We typically don’t use the word refugee. Sometimes you have to specify, but we prefer not to use it on our website: we work with people. I strongly believe being a refugee is an experience but it doesn’t define a person.”
As the refugee crisis has intensified, words such as “immigrants”, “refugees” and “migrants” have governed political discourse in Europe in recent years. Although each carries a different legal definition, they are often conflated and politicised.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that interchanging terms can cause problems for those seeking asylum and confuse discussions about migration.
I had so many conversations with newcomers and they were all done with the idea that they were sad and needed help, they just wanted to build a normal life. This is why we use the word newcomer.
In the Netherlands, pejorative terms have been used, with Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), describing the wave of people crossing the Mediterranean as an “Islamic invasion”. Wilders was defeated in last year’s general election by Mark Rutte, but still made significant gains, winning 20 seats.
But a recent opinion poll by CBS, a Dutch statistics gathering organisation, suggested 77 percent were in favour of admitting those who have fled their countries because of war or persecution.
As Europe continues to obsess over the number of people seeking safety on its shores, as recently evidenced by the EU summit in June, those working with refugees and asylum seekers in the Netherlands are sensitive about labels.
“There was a discussion in our organisation from the start about our name,” says Fleur Bakker, who runs Refugee Company, an organisation which connects refugees to businesses and supports them in setting up their own enterprises.
“I now wish that we had a different name, I think it would be easier, but I know that Refugee Company is also very clear from a marketing perspective about what we do.”
She avoids the word refugee where possible.
“If I’m writing documents I introduce it, but then I use the word human, people, participant or trainees,” she says, “or I ban it completely.”
Diederick van der Wijk runs Refugees Forward, which helps people to start businesses.
“When coming up with the name we knew that the word refugee had negative connotations,” he says. “We wanted to avoid that as much as possible, however, we also wanted to provide clarity on what we are doing. We have a business incubator for those with a refugee background so we call them entrepreneurs … we barely even use the word newcomer.”
Julius Weise, who founded BlendIn, an initiative matching refugees to locals with similar interests, prefers the word newcomer.
“I had so many conversations with newcomers and they were all done with the idea that they were sad and needed help, they just wanted to build a normal life,” he says. “This is why we use the word newcomer,” he says, but acknowledges that this is yet another label.
“It sounds nicer but then we also get into a phase about when is someone a newcomer and not a newcomer? I was in Sweden recently and noticed that they say new Swedes and established Swedes, but that wouldn’t translate quite right to Dutch.”
The idea of a newcomer appeals to Maria, a Dutch citizen who lives in Amsterdam.
“I think it’s pretty good,” she says. “The word newcomer is a more positive thing for me than migrant or refugee. Everyone is new to somewhere at some point.”
But many of those who arrived in the Netherlands as refugees are tired of labels.
“When I first came to the Netherlands and Europe, I noticed that they label everything, and I wondered why,” says 23-year-old Syrian filmmaker Razan. “Everything has to have a name and everything has to be labelled all the time. People ask, ‘Where do you come from?’ and I say, ‘Syria.’ People instantly respond. ‘Oh, so you are a refugee?’
“At some point you’re so tired of being labelled,” she says. “Newcomer or refugee or whatever it is. I don’t name you by the status you hold. I don’t call you a citizen.”
These words will always keep you down. You feel like less of a human when you are labelled.
Anas, a Syrian entrepreneur, is also exasperated.
“I feel like they put a sticker on my forehead and they wrote refugee on it,” he says. “Someone needs to take it off for me. It’s the same with the word newcomer. “What do you mean newcomer? What does that mean? I don’t get it.”
Khaled, a Syrian working with Refugees Forward, says that he finds his status in the Netherlands difficult.
“I feel like the word [refugee] is always keeping you down,” he says. “I’m fine with refugee in the legal sense but when you’re given it, you don’t feel at home. It’s even the same with the word newcomer.”
Before the war, Syria hosted refugees from neighbouring countries.
“I don’t remember once saying this word or labelling people. We would say Iraqis or Palestinians, but we would never say refugees,” says Khaled.
Diederick from Refugees Forward claims that most Dutch organisations founded after 2015 prefer using the word newcomer.
Hanna from DeliteLabs says people feel that “it’s a more positive way of talking about this group of people”.
But for those such as Khaled, who is attempting to set up a restaurant serving Syrian cuisine, the sooner labels are abandoned, the better.
“These words will always keep you down,” he says. “You feel like less of a human when you are labelled.”