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Code of Conduct for Immigrants Leads to Tension in Rotterdam

  • Nina Potts

European assumptions about how easy it is to integrate immigrant communities are being sharply challenged. And it's not just in Denmark, the source of the drawings that touched off the 'Cartoon Wars' that have spread across the Muslim world.

In the Netherlands, many Dutch thought they'd built one of the world's most tolerant multicultural societies. But a string of confrontations between native Dutch and immigrants has put that all in doubt.

Rotterdam, like many European port cities, is a melting pot -- some predict its immigrant population will be nearly 60 per cent by 2017 -- not a figure "Liveable Rotterdam," Rotterdam's ruling right-wing party, wants to live with.

Swept to power four years ago, on a tide of anti-immigration feeling, the party believes anyone with a criminal record, insufficient income or a poor grasp of Dutch should be kept out of the city. The city council has approved a code of conduct for all residents.

Marco Pastors is the head of "Liveable Rotterdam." "What we noticed in the past 15 years, because of globalization, what we've noticed is a lot more immigrants came to this country because we had good provisions like health care and unemployment benefits, but we forgot to explain how it works around here, and this code of conduct tells you what we think is acceptable normal behavior in this country."

"Acceptable normal behavior" is what has Rotterdam's residents divided. The code's critics say apparently liberal ideas, like respect for homosexuals, or the rejection of extremism, cleverly mask what is essentially a racist, discriminatory creed.

Point 2 of the Code calls on city residents to speak only Dutch in the streets, and as far as possible at home. It's a move that has some immigrant groups, such as Xenos Nicolakos's Foreign Workers Platform, outraged.

"How can you implement it? Since I'm born, when I get hurt, what do I say? ‘Manoula mou, my mother?’ And I say it in Greek because I was born this way, it comes automatically, says Mr. Nicolakos. “I speak four languages, but Greek comes above. Is that forbidden? Is it forbidden for a Muslim to say 'Allah?' ‘Mon dieu?’ Can you forbid that?"

Whether or not the code forcing people to speak Dutch in the streets is legal under EU law is unclear. But Holland's immigration minister, Rita Verdoonk, who recently called for a similar code to be introduced nationwide, insists there will be no law, and no language police.

So how can the Code of Conduct be implemented? It's a question Rotterdam's politicians seem reluctant to answer.

"You can show something to people,” says Marco Pastors, “and say, ‘If you want to have a nice life here, and you don't know how to do that, and you don't know exactly what behavior is accepted here, and here it is, and if you don't like it, we have to have a little talk’."

Exactly what that "little talk" will entail, no one seems to know.

Theo Cornelison, of the Socialist Party, says the code reeks of provincial thinking. "For Rotterdam, it is still a world harbor, we want to play a role in the modern world, then you have to have an open society and an open spirit. These people who are in government now want to return to the ‘50s, to return Rotterdam not to another world city, but a village on the river."

The Rotterdam Code of Conduct is the first of its kind, but with immigrant tensions rising across Europe, it might not be the last.

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