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White escape from the cities

- The growing proportion of immigrants in Dutch cities can only be explained by white flight, says Professor Jack Burgers.


It was a city tailored for unskilled labor. Rotterdam, with its industry and shipping. In the 1960s and 70s, guest workers poured in from Turkey and Morocco. But then, a few years later, the process of deindustrialization began. It was, like so many other places in Europe, a painful restructuring from a traditional industrial base to more service-oriented professions. There was a new division of labor, and the immigrants lost their jobs.

- Rotterdam can in many ways be compared to Detroit in the US and Manchester-Liverpool in the UK. When the change in the economic pattern first came, it hit Rotterdam – which had a traditional economic structure – with full force. But what many had taken for granted; namely, that the guest workers should go their way after the end of service, did not happen. They became; not as guests, not as workers, but as unemployed.

Jack Burgers is professor of urban studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He is concerned with how immigrants are integrated into Dutch society. More specifically, he is researching social and geographical mobility, and whether these are related. The question is whether the descendants of this first generation of immigrants are able to form middle-class formations that can break the segregated abode pattern among immigrants.

- Not only did the guest workers become permanent residents, even after they lost their jobs. They also generated new streams of immigration through family reunification and family founding. At the same time, decolonization led people from newly independent countries to use formal and informal opportunities and networks to migrate to the former motherland. New violent conflicts combined with increasing geographical mobility resulted in a third group of immigrants, namely the asylum seekers.

These immigrant groups were gradually perceived as a particularly problematic category, according to Burgers. With few opportunities in the labor market, they became dependent on a welfare system that was already under pressure. But this was never really accepted by the majority community. The ethnic background of immigrants and the fact that they had just arrived did not create legitimacy for their demands for social benefits.

Increasingly, immigrants were also seen as competitors in terms of both jobs and welfare.

- The result was the emergence of right-wing populist parties that demanded the borders be closed and the prioritization of "own" population. The terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 widened the gap between the indigenous people and "the others." And it also led to an additional fear: not only were immigrants competitors in terms of welfare and jobs. They also posed, at least for Muslims, a more fundamental threat to Europe's core values ​​and cultural heritage.

This mix of socio-economic position and cultural deviation created new notions of segregation, says Burgers. Where immigrant ghettos – or compact immigrant districts – had previously been seen as a result of poor education and ditto position in the labor market, the dominant idea now became that the immigrants themselves were to blame for living in segregated neighborhoods.

- The argument went – and goes – as follows: immigrants are reluctant to obtain the necessary qualifications in the labor market. Instead, they cling to each other in urban areas and neighborhoods, where they create subcultures based on deviance, informal economic activity, crime, and religious fundamentalism. In summary, they simply do not want to be like us.

It is this assertion and opinion that Burgers has struck to the ground with his research. The question he posed was whether immigrants had the same dreams and goals for their lives, including cotton patterns, as the native population. The problem, however, was to differentiate in empirical research between social status and ethnic background, because so few of the immigrants belonged to the middle class. Therefore, the first thing he and a research colleague did was look at the group that had a clear upward social mobility, namely the Surinamese.

- The last half of the 90s saw an upswing in the economy which resulted in a dramatic decline in unemployment among immigrants. This was primarily the case for Surinamese. These went into occupations that required a reasonably high degree of education. In other words, there were clear signs of middle-class formation within this group. We wanted to know whether this social mobility was reflected in a type of geographical mobility in line with the one we had previously seen among ethnic Dutch people.

In other words, did the rising social mobility of the Surinamese bring with them a geographical mobility that made them move out of poor neighborhoods in Rotterdam to middle-class districts in the suburbs? And if so, were the motives for this move the same as ethnic Dutch had stated when they moved out in the 70s?

- To make a long story short, the answer was a resounding yes. In fact, Surinamese are leaving the city center right now at an even higher rate than ethnic Dutch people. Turks and Moroccans are also leaving the city in favor of middle-class suburbs. But they are doing so at a slower pace than the Surinamese, in line with their less comfortable position in the labor market. Nevertheless, the conclusion from this research is quite clear: it is class, far more than ethnicity, that determines the living patterns and dynamics behind them. Immigrants do not differ from the rest of the population in terms of living preferences, says Burgers.

They also do not differ from the rest of the population in terms of the reasons for moving. Three motifs recur: the desire for a garden and their own house, for a quiet area where they can meet people with common backgrounds and interests and – most interestingly – the notion that immigrants lead to decay and crime in the city. Other immigrants than themselves, that is. Where the Dutch idyllize the cities from the 50s and 60s, the Surinamese idylls the cities from the 70s. A special feature of the Surinamese is that they seek in every way to free themselves from the groups of immigrants who are causing problems in the Netherlands today.

- What this research primarily shows is that immigrants who benefit from economic booms form middle-class formations and move out of the cities. One can therefore expect that other groups of immigrants will follow the same pattern in the future, if the economy allows it. So yes, I'm optimistic about integration.

There is an optimism about second and third generation immigrants. He has no sense of the kind of coercive integration that the government with Rita Verdonk at the head of. They will run through language training for first generation immigrants with power. But the first generation will never be sought after in the labor market, Burgers believes. On the other hand, he sees clear signs of competitiveness in the heterogeneous student body he teaches. This applies not least to Moroccan girls.

- Moroccan girls are very competitive. This is an interesting move, since Turks have long done far better in this country than Moroccans. They were not so involved in crime, and had better social control in their own group. Moroccans, on the other hand, have only social control in the family. Paradoxically, this has led to the Moroccans in a way doing it "best" both on the wrong side and the right side, says Burgers.

Burgers believes that successful integration takes both two and three generations. It is not least about learning the language properly. But in the long term, immigrants will integrate along patterns reminiscent of developments in the rest of the population. Many are far too impatient with this process, he says.

- It is no secret that there have been some serious problems related to the immigrant population. Moroccan criminal gangs have ravaged. But which groups are actually involved in crime? There are young boys between 15 and 25 years old. Immigrants often have children in this age group. It is therefore impossible to know whether it is ethnic background or age-specific behavior that is the cause of these problems.

A general belief in the Netherlands is that immigrants are flocking to the big cities in an increasing number. And at first glance, it can definitely look like this. In 1980, 11 percent of all Amsterdam's inhabitants were immigrants. In 2004 the figure was 24.7 per cent. In Rotterdam, the proportion of minority people increased from 10.1 to 25.5 per cent. The same development was also seen in The Hague and Utrecht.

- But if you go in and check the spread within the minorities, you see that 55.9 percent of the Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans and Turks lived outside the cities in 1991. In 2004, the figure was 56 percent.

- And further: of a total immigrant population, 17.9 percent lived in Amsterdam in 1991, while the number was 16.4 in 2004. It is actually a decrease, and this decrease is precisely due to the Surinamese moving out. The figures are also fixed for the other cities: about 13 per cent in Rotterdam, nine per cent in The Hague and four per cent in Utrecht.

Burgers uses a metaphor to explain the misunderstanding. If there are fifty people in a bus, and five of them are immigrants, then the percentage belonging to a minority will be ten percent. If 40 ethnic Dutch people then get off the bus, the proportion of people with a minority background will be fifty percent. And that without a single new immigrant getting on the bus.

- And thus the conclusion is that the only thing that can explain the increasing proportion of immigrants in the cities is simply "white flight," says Burgers. – In other words; it is not the minorities that flow into the cities, but the whites that flow out.

The white escape from Rotterdam has led the city authorities to try to recreate attractive housing for the white middle class. But Burgers believes one must also think about the emerging middle class within the minorities. In the long run, he expects that immigrants who have not yet acquired the necessary cultural and economic capital to form a middle class will follow ethnic Dutch and Surinamese patterns of cotton. But the prerequisite is an economic climate that allows immigrants to realize their expectations in relation to jobs and careers as well.

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