Desis in Europa

People marked as 'South Asians' in the Netherlands

The Netherlands are a small country known, which was known for a rather liberal political system and a strong economy. Less known is its colonial past, which is one historical source for its 'ethnic' diversity today. A large group of migrants came from Suriname, many of who are marked as 'South Asians'. The latter – generally known as 'Surinamese Hindustanis' – are estimated to count today around 100,000. In comparison to them the number of direct migrants from 'South Asia' is almost negligible. The largest group of these are the 'Pakistanis', a third of whom have been born in the Netherlands. About the same proportion of first to second generation is displayed by the considerably smaller group of 'Indians', while among the even fewer 'Sri Lankans' the second generation counts less heads. In general the data suggests that marriages take place within the community , still there are differences in extent. Among the 'Indian second generation' there are considerably more with a parent born in the Netherlands than among the 'Pakistani' . In general the 'South Asian' citizenship is a poor estimation for the numbers of those marked as 'South Asians' as many have taken the  Dutch citizenship.

In the second world war the 'Indian legion' within the German SS, was stationed for a short time in the Netherlands (Hartog 1991). But the 'South Asian' migration to the Netherlands is up to the 1970s generally negligible. In this decade it, however, changes. Both from the colonies and the subcontinent itself a considerable number of migrants start to come. 'Pakistanis' find their way both directly and via other 'European' countries, where they cannot settle down. In contrast to other migrants they enter the Netherlands without work contracts, but soon find unskilled work especially in the harbours in one of the three largest 'Dutch' cities. They live a deprived life as they send the major part of their income home to their families.

Most, however, do not come out of economic necessity, but because they want to improve their standard of living or are looking for adventures. In fact many educated sons of the urban middle class come as tourists and stay on. In the early time only few come as religious refugees. The early migrants form the bridgeheads for the starting chain migration, organising jobs for relatives and friends coming later. In 1975 a law is passed which legalises the sojourn of all illegal migrants who came before 1974. As in other countries soon entry restrictions become more strict and migration changes from economically motivated to familial reunion.

Most of the legal residents from Pakistan have by now the 'Dutch' citizenship. Nonetheless they live their lives primarily within the 'Pakistani' community, having few social contacts outside and marrying at the most Surinamese Muslims. They tend to dislike the 'white Dutch' way of life and long for their family and friends in Pakistan.

Shamsi (1982) not only regrets the slow establishment of own organisations, but also demands his fellowmen to be better ambassadors of Pakistan in the Netherlands. He sees the need for more respect of the 'white Dutch' and better information about the country prior to migration. He asks the Pakistani government for a welfare officer looking after the 'Pakistanis' in the Netherlands.

While thus the 'Pakistanis' establish themselves in the country, starting from the 50s and accelerating somewhat in the 70s also some 'Indian' migrants enter the Netherlands. Some of them come from Uganda in fear of ethnicised persecution there. Most of the direct migrants from India are – like the 'Pakistanis' – workers. In the 1980s some 'Indian' Hindu teachers take up residence in the Netherlands. In 1986 an asram and temple are founded in The Hague. Their head later becomes coordinator of the European VHP. Also other organisations develop, a ‘Foundation for Critical Choices for India’ organises international conferences for 'Non-Resident Indians'. These are mainly male and high-skilled professionals, businessmen, etc. They debate on the developments in India, the NRIs potential role in promoting Indian interests and factors hindering these (particularly legally). They combine a genuine interest in India with a longing for being recognised and considered important. Their demands are met at least in so far as the Indian ambassador inaugurates the conference.

While the Foundation unites around national identity the Hindu identity is another uniting factor. Gautam (1994) reports of a Hindu Broadcasting System which was established in the Netherlands. Some few 'Tamil' refugees bring their religion to the Netherlands and found their own temples. The most important Hindu group is found, however, among the 'Surinamese Hindustanis'.

In fact the most important group marked as 'South Asians' in the Netherlands are the 'Surinamese Hindustanis', who are estimated today to be more than 100,000 and are thus one of the major overseas 'Indian' communities. Like the 'East African Indians' the 'Surinamese' are considered twice migrants. Since 1873 they came as indentured labourers to Suriname . Soon they counted about a third of the total population. Being such a large group they were able to retain own adaptions of their religions, culture and languages. Being part of the 'Dutch' colonies they were since 1927 eligible to the 'Dutch' citizenship. However, before 1973 only few came to the Netherlands to study or work. They could rely for support on the other 'Hindustanis' already living there. But as the independence of Suriname became a reality in 1975 a combination of fear of ethnicised persecution and the lure of political stability and economic welfare increased the migration to the Netherlands considerably. As long as the 'Surinamese' could acquire the 'Dutch' citizenship more than hundred thousand came, most of them being in fact 'Creole' rather than 'Hindustanis'. Among the latter the large majority were Hindus, a fifth was Muslim and few were Christians. The numbers were so high that the Dutch state had to provide support structures. In order to prevent ghettos the state pursued a policy of dispersal. This tore apart groups and made a reorganisation of social and religious structures at the same time more difficult and necessary. As the 'Hindustanis' brought with them already the memory of migration and a way of life built to this, they were soon able to redevelop some organisations. In spite of the policy of dispersal the community concentrated in the large 'Dutch' cities.

The identity formation among the 'Hindustanis' in the Netherlands develops along several lines. Firstly identity is determined primarily by religious belonging, for example among the Muslims from Suriname and Pakistan. Secondly a purely 'ethnic' identity is searched for, as shown for example in the 'Hindustani' welfare organisations which clearly distance themselves from the 'Creoles'. And thirdly a combination of ethnic and religious identity can be found, for example among the 'Hindustani Hindus', who keep to themselves. But even among the latter increasingly 'India' is seen a nostalgic heartland, making the 'Hindustani' identity less important.

Economically many 'Hindustanis' seem to be self-employed shopkeepers . They come from entrepreneurial families and are supported in their work by the joint family structure, which is retained also in the Netherlands. Being not well-informed about Dutch regulations – or not caring to much about them – they often lack the necessary papers, documentation, licenses and diplomas for their work.

While the 'Hindustanis' stay a socially-defined minority most of them are 'Dutch' citizens with a wish for permanent settlement in the Netherlands. Living there they want to retain their ascribed culture, look to 'India' as a mythological home and display to some degree cultural insecurity .

In any case the presence of 'South Asian' migrants – amongst others – in the Netherlands has made the country a multicultural society with effects also on the host society. The Amsterdam Times (2000), for example, reports on a discussion about the opening of the police to migrants who wear scarfs or turbans.


Further Literature

For statistical material click here (pdf-file).

© Urmila Goel, / Europa or english / europe 2002/2008/ 2016