The Netherlands is in north-west Europe bordering Denmark in the north, Germany in the east, Belgium in the south and the North Sea in the west. Much of the land, particularly the most populated area in the west, is reclaimed from the sea and lies below sea level protected by dikes. Major European rivers, the Rhine and Scheldt, have their estuaries in the Netherlands.
Minority groups include Frisians 700,000 (4.3%), Indonesians 240,000-295,000 (1.5-1.8%), Turks 330,709 (2.1%), Surinamese 315,177 (2%), Moroccans 284,224 (1.8%), Antillean/Aruban 124,870, Chinese 55,117, Moluccans 42,300, Jews 40,000-45,000, Roma/Gypsies/Sinti 35,000-40,000. (data: Central Statistical Agency, 2002).
There are two official languages in the Netherlands, Dutch and Frisian.
The majority of immigrants are concentrated in the western cities.
According to United Nations information, in 2002, an estimated 30 per cent of the population were nominally Roman Catholics, 15 per cent were Dutch Reformed; 7 per cent were Calvinist Reformist; 8 per cent were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist, and some 40 per cent were atheist or agnostic.
Members of the Dutch Reformed Church, the largest Protestant denomination, are most numerous in the provinces of Drenthe, Groningen and Overijssel. Other reformed churches are strong in Friesland and Zeeland. Roman Catholicism is strong in North Brabant and Limburg. Other Christian denominations include Baptist, Lutheran, and Remonstrant. The great majority of the Jewish community lives in the Amsterdam area, the Hague and Rotterdam.
The Netherlands and Belgium were ruled by various counts and dioceses under the Holy Roman Empire. In the sixteenth century they were united into one state under Hapsburg rule. Following the conversion of the Netherlands to Calvinism (while most of modern Belgium remained Roman Catholic) and repression by the Hapsburg monarchy, the Dutch declared independence from Spain in 1581. War with Spain continued until 1648, at which point the Netherlands left the Holy Roman Empire. During this time the Dutch became Northern Europe's leading traders. They traded with Indonesia and India and set up colonies in North America (New Amsterdam - now New York), Brazil, South Africa and the West Indies. By 1650 they were the leading slave traders. But the economy stagnated from the end of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, as the English challenged and took over some Dutch trades and colonies, notably the slave trade and North American colonies.
From 1581 the Netherlands was a republic governed by rich traders with members of the House of Orange-Nassau as Stadholders, nominal rulers of the seven provinces with some power. In 1806 Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Netherlands and made it into a Kingdom with his brother Louis as King. In 1815 the Netherlands and Belgium were united as a kingdom under the rule of William VI of Orange and Indonesia became a Dutch colony. In 1830 Belgium gained its independence. In 1848 a new constitution was adopted limiting the power of the king and guaranteeing civil liberties.
The Netherlands was neutral in both World Wars, but it was occupied by Germany in the Second World War. Of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands before the occupation, only 40,000 survived in 1945. Japanese forces occupied Indonesia in 1942. From 1945 to 1949 Indonesia fought for independence from the Netherlands and won. Opponents of the new regime fled to the Netherlands.
In the 1950s the Netherlands was one of the founder members of the European Communities. This and the post-war economic boom increased the need for workers, who came initially Italy and Spain, and subsequently from Turkey, Morocco, as well as from former colonies, Indonesia, Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles. After 1975, when Suriname proclaimed independence, middle-income Surinamese (nearly one third of the population) took advantage of their Dutch citizenship to emigrate. Most of the migrants were of Asian Indian origin. By the 1990s approximately half of the Surinamese population lived in the Netherlands.
Since the early nineteenth century Dutch politics has been conducted on the basis of consensus between Roman Catholics, Protestants and Socialists/Liberals, which all have political parties, trade unions, newspapers, broadcasting organizations, welfare associations and even football teams. The proportional representation electoral system means that most governments are coalitions. Most governments tend to take some opposition policies into account when drafting legislation.
Extreme right-wing politics is ever present but came from fringe and skinhead communities to the political centre stage from the early 1990s, when three extreme-right Center Democrat Party members were elected to the national parliament. In 1994 extreme-right political parties won around 90 seats in the local elections, most of which they lost in 1998. The parties split into factions and new parties emerged.
Factionalism was also the pattern following the success of the anti-immigration party of Pym Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn's party won 35 per cent of the vote in the Rotterdam local elections and 24 seats in the national parliament. It formed part of the government coalition for a year from 2002 to 2003. Fortuyn was murdered by a Dutchman just before the 2002 elections. He had attacked multiculturalism as a threat to the Dutch tradition of tolerance. He particularly opposed the Islamic treatment of women as ‘backward' and demanded legislation against forced marriages, honour killings and female circumcision. His tradition has been continued by the controversial Geert Wilders, who holds similar views. His right-wing anti-immigration Party for Freedom holds 9 out of 150 seats in the Dutch Parliament, following the 2006 elections.
The 1815 constitution, and its most recent revision in 2002, guarantees that all people shall be treated equally and bans all forms of discrimination. Discrimination in economic matters has been a criminal offence since 1971. In 1981 this was tightened to include discrimination in access to business formation and the professions. The law was expanded in 1992 to cover social as well as economic activities and to include discrimination in public office. The range of discrimination included sex and sexual orientation.
The 1994 Equal Treatment Act forbids discrimination in labour relationships (including volunteering and internships), the professions and the provision of goods and services. The Equal Treatment Commission (Commissie Gelijke Behandeling - CGB) was set up to give preliminary non-binding opinions on discrimination cases before these go to court. The process is free of charge, legal assistance is not required, and the Commission is also open to judges and other dispute settlers. The law was amended in 2004 to bring it into line with EU directives. The burden of proof now rests on the alleged discriminator rather than on the victim, and measures for the protection of victims are included.
Other laws on discrimination include the 1980 Act on Equal Treatment of Men and Women, amended in 1989, the 2003 Disability Discrimination Act and the 2004 Age Discrimination Act.
Dutch citizenship is acquired automatically by the child of a Dutch father or mother. Until 1985, citizenship could only be acquired through the father. From 2003 a child born to a non-Dutch mother and an unmarried Dutch father can be acknowledged after birth and still qualify for citizenship. A foreign national can apply for Dutch citizenship after five years of continuous residence in the Netherlands.
Initial government policy on economic migrants recruited for unskilled work from Indonesia, Southern Europe and North Africa was based on the assumption that these workers would return home. There were no measures to help integration and the immigrants were disadvantaged in housing and education. The Dutch trade unions were against integration, fearing that this would push wages down. The Moluccan community, who were political refugees, were discouraged from working and were segregated in former Nazi concentration camps. After the 1973 oil crisis recruitment of guest workers ended and immigration policy became progressively more restrictive, consisting mainly of family reunification.
In the late 1970s the government approach changed, following violent events perpetrated by Moluccan extremists. It decided that improved housing, education and job opportunities for migrants were needed to help them integrate with Dutch society while maintaining their cultural identity. It provided support for Moluccan cultural organizations in the 1980s and later extended this to other communities. It created a government department for ethnic minorities in 1998.
The Foreign Nationals Employment Act of 1979 introduced a work permit system for non-EU nationals. The permits are issued through a central labour market authority. It was amended with tougher restrictions in 1995.
The Newcomers Integration Act went into effect in 1998, whereby new immigrants are required to learn the Dutch language and culture sufficiently to enable them to work. Failure to do so can result in fines. The implementation of the act highlighted problems of integration at the local level.
The Aliens Act 2000, which came into effect in April 2001, sets out the conditions for the granting of temporary residence status for one year, renewable twice, to refugees and their families.
The Frisian minority is well organized with increasing attention given to its language and culture in public institutions and generally.
Conditions for the Moluccan community have improved in the last 20 years, but there is discrimination against them and they still tend to be segregated in smaller towns. Their languages are being revived and are a focus for international interest.
Second only to France, the Netherlands has the biggest Muslim population in Western Europe. The assassination of the right-wing politician Pym Fortyn, and the slaying of film-maker Theo Van Gogh, for his controversial film on Islam, has infused the debate about the Muslim minorities' role in Netherlands with violence and controversy. Post 9/11, Muslim minorities report less tolerance towards their religion - especially over the wearing of traditional garb for women (the headscarf or burkha). In a 2003 study (OSI/EUMAP), 74 per cent of Muslims reported that they felt there was discrimination against their community. Statistically, Muslims are more like to face unemployment than other sectors of the community, and to be in lowlier paid employment. The penalties for violating equal treatment laws are relatively light, and many victims do not report discrimination because they believe it is pointless to do so. The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination has condemned the Netherlands for not enforcing its criminal laws against racism.On the other hand, anti-immigration/anti-Islam political politicians in the Netherlands, continues to attract substantial support. The right-wing anti-migration Party for Freedom hold 9 seats out of 150 in the Dutch parliament in 2006. Its leader Geert Wilders is known for his provocative anti-Islamic stance: his stated policy, reported the Financial Times in early 2008, was to get the nation's Muslims to ‘renounce parts of their religion or leave'.