The Unsettled Land

Eight years ago, before the attacks of 9/11, the debate about immigration and integration in the Netherlands was brought into sharp focus by a disturbing article by Paul Scheffer. Silently, and out of sight of policymakers, he wrote, an ethnic underclass has grown up that is becoming alienated from society with alarming speed. Scheffer’s analysis came as a bombshell, not least because he is a highly respected public intellectual with a social-democratic background.

Paul Scheffer
Original title
Het land van aankomst

In The Unsettled Land the author describes how the debate unleashed by that article changed his life. Both the tough criticism and the praise he received reinforced his conviction that the Netherlands would be better off without the national tendency to give a wide berth to potentially divisive issues.

Scheffer raises the debate above the level of trench warfare by placing the problematic integration of newcomers to the Netherlands in an international context. ‘Dutch Deadly Tolerance’ was the headline to an American newspaper report on the murder of filmmaker and maverick Theo van Gogh by a young home-grown Islamic fundamentalist. But Scheffer shows that such problems are not typically Dutch. He draws on American history to demonstrate that even in the country that leads the world in integrating immigrants, huge influxes of people have from time to time led to enormous problems and social unrest. He also investigates the various ways in which nations like France and the U.K., and cities such as Lyon, Amsterdam and Stockholm, have coped with the profound social impact of immigration.

He concludes that a reluctance to talk about the problems inextricably bound up with this impact can never be part of the solution, nor can grumbling about newcomers. At the same time, neither side is going to come through the necessary debate unscathed. ‘Fighting binds us together,’ Scheffer writes. With some knowledge of history, and an understanding of what is happening, clashes may actually help the scars to heal. Or as Scheffer puts it: ‘The quest for a way to live together requires us all to take a close look at ourselves, not by betraying the open society, but by becoming more faithful to that ideal.’

  • An international, comparative approach that stands as a valuable contribution to all national debates about immigration

  • A study that crosses borders, drawing upon social psychology, urban sociology, international relations, history and cultural anthropology

  • Points towards a new consensus that can provide a balance between openness and exclusion

Scheffer’s cordial and carefully considered appeal for a ‘we’ based on the acknowledgement of difference and alienation deserves serious attention and discussion.

NRC Handelsblad

Essential reading for anyone closely or even remotely involved with immigration issues. The best work about migration ever written in the Low Countries.

De Morgen
Paul Scheffer
Paul Scheffer worked as correspondent in Paris and Warsaw before becoming a staff writer for NRC Handelsblad.
Part ofNon-Fiction
Share page