Here we present the case of the Netherlands as part of our first group of country-specific research papers, investigating at how minority claims for political justice are dealt with in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and how minorities themselves experience it. Each of the case studies analyses one particular issue affecting recognition and representation of Roma relevant in its national context. Two cross-country studies, one highlighting the history of minorisation in the analysed countries, and a further one analysing the findings of the national case studies, complete the picture.

The Netherlands acknowledges minority populations as Dutch citizens that are allowed to also be citizens of other nation states (e.g. USA, Canada, Turkey, Morocco). In contrast to some other – continental European countries the Netherlands does not have a category of ‘national minorities’, therefore no distinction is made regarding equal footing or having a voice in public debates among Dutch citizens. The Netherlands has chosen not to categorize target populations for social policy based on ethnicity but based on needs (income, education, housing and healthcare). The individual right to non-discrimination applies to all Dutch citizen and is guaranteed by Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution. This also applies to autochthonous Roma living in the Netherlands, which brings forward some concerns as other ethnic minorities experience, namely recognition of their cultural heritage, maintenance of their language and culture. Roma interviewed for this paper identify ambivalence in this regard; on the one hand trying to avoid being identified as ‘the stigmatized other’ being misrecognized and misrepresented (also about WW II), and on the other hand being accepted as differentiating from the taken for granted ‘normal society’ by accentuating a life style that does not accord to liberal and individualistic ‘modern society’.

The history of Roma in the Netherlands goes back to the 14th century and has been turbulent, taking into account religious struggles, the nomadic lifestyles, and (de)centralised migration policies. Recently, the EU policy on Roma minorities has found less response from the Netherlands for several reasons; first because the focus on ethnicity, race or cultural heritage has been substituted by the focus on deprivation. This policy recognizes that not all people of different origin needs protection of the state. Second, the policy intends to equalize Dutch citizen no matter their cultural, ethnic or religious origin. But third, the implication is that cultural habits, deviating lifestyles and private customs are not recognized as such. An exemption has been made for restorative justice; the recognition of the harm done to Roma populations during WW II, resulting in an advisory board mechanism for discussing and raising awareness among key stakeholders on concrete issues affecting Roma.

For the Netherlands we have to conclude that the position and status of Roma is highly contested by Roma themselves, by professional social workers supporting Roma populations, by Roma representatives, and by municipalities having responsibility for the housing of Roma. Three main issues come to the fore, in combination they highlight the dilemma of liberal human rights issues and communitarianism. First, Roma interviewees as well as the national Ombudsman point at the fact that the Dutch government has been reluctant in acknowledging the right of Roma (as well as Sinti and Travellers) to living in mobile homes. Recognition only exists since 2014 as intangible cultural heritage and the Roma perceive this an important win after having brought several cases to the Netherlands Court of Human Rights resulting in judgements deciding that local policies have had a discriminatory character regarding housing of Roma populations. What however this points out, is that the Roma often do not realize that this recognition of intangible cultural heritage, in terms of legal rights and possibilities, means little in practice because municipalities still do not allow for extending the number of mobile camps. Second, interviewees – Roma and non-Roma – accentuate the ‘closed inner circle’ of Roma groups allowing for anti-human rights practices that go against EU and Dutch government regulation; including sending out children for stealing, intergroup marriages at a very young age and claiming social housing while having lots of resources from the informal economy. On the other hand, interviewees attend for recognition of anti-gypsyism and stereotypes still present in society and still affect the lives of many members of the community. As a group, Roma acknowledge differences, but they also highlight their belonging to a wider community with a common history and similar experiences. They fear that drawing lines between them – the good and the bad Roma – might result in weakening their claims for justice.

Various NGO’s aim to represent the Roma population. As far as we have been able to detect most of these organizations are seemingly focussed on advocacy. In addition there are a few NGO’s, such as the Nederlandse Roma Vereniging (The Dutch Roma Association) that seem be developing more practical social assistance activities, in particular aimed at school dropout. The low number of Roma involved in institutionalised politics as well as the low number of mainstream political parties concerned with issues related to Roma, indicate on the one hand the low numbers of Roma present in the country. On the other hand Roma are afraid to present themselves as Roma to non-Roma. These concerns for stigma or stereotypes are especially expressed by Roma who have attained societal success, and in line with our findings on how different discourses of ‘Othering’ play a role in challenging the ability of Roma representatives’ to political represent their group. For example, when it concerns policy issues on culture and social inclusion, Roma voices are included in decision-making processes though excluded in the enforcement and criminality policy because of concerns related to Roma representatives ‘being corrupt’ or ‘biased’. This lack of trust indicates mis-recognition. Other insights that suggest that Roma political representation and recognition is a highly politicized issue in the context of the Netherlands, involve how Roma (representatives) are highly aware of the power of definitions and policy categories to open doors to funding under various policy frameworks. For instance, claims are made that specific sub groups should not be entitled to funding under the social inclusion framework because of a lack of problems concerning these sub-groups. In these cases, different migration backgrounds are pointed out to play an important role in the attained social position of groups in society. The contested claims cause much debate within the groups and contribute to boundary forming between different Roma and Sinti groups. Our analysis provides some insights on how governmental officials and professionals approach Roma and Sinti related matters from the perspective of their organisation(s) (function), and therefore may conflict with the political justice claims of the Roma and Sinti. This has led to a tension field between the self-perceived/ascribed public function of professionals/ institutions and the fundamental rights of Roma and Sinti minorities.

By Trudie Knijn and Jing Hiah
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D5.2
The full publication will be available soon at: