What are you doing here?

International students on xenophobia

Students in California are holding up signs that clarify some racial stereotypes that refer to their race.

By Grace Weaver

Interviews with international students highlight racism and xenophobia across the Netherlands and at Leiden University. “I don’t want to work with these people.”

Jason Scannel, who is from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, walked into the University of Amsterdam in 2009, clutching his high school diploma, ready to apply. “The receptionist took one look at me and said, “I’m sorry but you can’t apply without a high school diploma”, he recounts. “I walked straight back out again.”
Scannell says he has experienced racism ever since his first visit to the Netherlands during childhood. From being followed around stores by suspicious shopkeepers, to being surrounding by police officers for trying to move his own scooter.
At Leiden University, Scannell feels that despite his consistently good marks, most professors do not “woo” him to join their specialities like they do the other (white) students. Instead he is overlooked by his teachers, and constantly gets the feeling that his classmates are asking him, “What are you doing here?”
As a consequence, he’s decided to quit law and switch to a different subject. “Even if I manage to graduate in that atmosphere, I don’t want to work with these people when I get out”, he says. “They’re not exactly going to offer me a job when they’re in charge.”
Although Scannell admires the work of groups such as the International Student Network (ISN) Leiden to bring Dutch people and foreigners together, he believes that the Dutch are still in denial about the need to bring Dutch white people and Dutch non-white people together. “They say racism doesn’t exist here”, he continues, “but it does.”
That much is clear from the experiences of Leiden resident Nuan Kesaree. She says she regularly gets men greeting her with “Ni hao” even when she has told them she is Thai, with one man responding, “but don’t you guys all speak Chinese?”
When her older Dutch neighbour heard she was from Thailand, she said “Please tell me you’re not one of those mail-order brides. Your boyfriend isn’t old and didn’t pay money to get you here?”
Whilst many Dutch people would find these comments outrageous, Polish student Katarzyna (a pseudonym) believes xenophobia against Eastern European people is “accepted” in the Netherlands. “Pretty much everyone does it”, she states.
Her negative experiences began when she was flat-hunting in Leiden, with multiple people saying she would be “a perfect flatmate” and then, after she revealed her nationality, never writing back, or saying they had found someone “more suitable”.
Now that she has found accommodation, she pays more rent than her flatmates because “Polish people are well known for stealing.” Stereotypes abound, one of her landlords assumed that “since all Polish citizens are naturally born plumbers” he would not need to call in any outside services to fix her broken sink.
Perhaps the least serious, but most common, form of xenophobia experienced by foreign students in Leiden is the perception among many Dutch people that no one can speak English as well as them, except perhaps for British people.
Italian student Zoe Tavoni reported, “I was at Leiden University speaking to a Polish friend, and this girl asked some information about where a building was. She approached us asking “Do you speak English?” and when I said yes, she answered saying “Well, you looked Italian so I thought you couldn’t.””
International students make up around 15 per cent of Leiden University’s annual intake. This is similar to the national picture, with the latest statistics putting the non-Dutch population of the Netherlands at around 20 per cent, with 15 percent of those from outside the European Union (EU). Around 5 per cent of those living in the Netherlands are Muslim.
The success of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), known for its anti-Muslim stance, highlights the importance of immigration and demographics to the Dutch people. Latest polls indicate that if a general election was held today, the PVV would win almost one third of the total vote.
With no end to the refugee crisis in sight, the views expressed by right-wing politicians such as Wilders are likely to become increasingly popular in the coming months. Indeed, several of the people interviewed for this article believe that xenophobia and racism are growing.
The same United Nations (UN) report that notoriously condemned Zwarte Piet in 2015 highlighted xenophobic comments by some politicians as a serious problem. It also criticised the Dutch government for doing little to stop discrimination by businesses, for example gyms, and for placing the responsibility for integration solely on migrants themselves.
Scannell’s negative interactions with the police chime with the findings of an Amnesty International report from 2013, which discovered that what Dutch police officers categorise as “suspicious behaviour” is strongly associated with specific ethnic characteristics, such as dark skin and Eastern European features.
Tolerance and integration are vital because foreigners are economically, as well as culturally, important to the Netherlands and its higher education institutions. Leiden University’s business model relies on it remaining attractive to potential researchers and students from all around the world, especially because non-EU nationals pay much higher tuition fees than Dutch students.
Whilst the refugee crisis has brought some of these issues to the fore, it has also highlighted the willingness of some Dutch people to welcome foreigners into their country. For example, when the University Sports Centre hosted 120 refugees in October 2015, dozens of students volunteered to help entertain the visitors and make them comfortable.

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