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Door Maarten Gehem
Simon Evert Jongejan is a bold 50-year-old Dutch civil servant with dark-rimmed spectacles and a tight-skinned stern Calvinistic face. He sits in a large white office somewhere in Morocco. One by one the applicants drip in. ‘Parlez français? Non? Allez, vites!’ he shouts and waves them off. He has to be strict. He is here for serious matters. The productivity of entire sectors of the war-torn, labor-hungry Dutch economy weighs on his shoulders. The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs has sent him over to secure a new batch of the ‘prime and only export product’ of North Africa. ‘Are the Dutch companies happy with the Moroccan workers?’ the journalist asks. Oh yes, actually, he replies earnestly, he is here for a ‘follow-up order’.
The scene comes from the new documentary The Promised Land, written by René Roelofs en Paul Scheffer, which opened the 2013 international documentary festival in Amsterdam (idfa). Loosely based on earlier work on multiculturalism by Scheffer, the film depicts the history of labor immigration by using rare archive material. Much of the documentary centers on immigration issues, but what struck me most, is the subtle way it shows how political and economic power shapes borders. It reminded me of the continuous struggle for sand that marked my childhood. Playing in the sand box, some of the stronger and older kids were more apt in securing their swath of land. The lines I had carefully drawn in the sand, and which demarcated what I considered impenetrable borders of my little kingdom, had to be adjusted to the new and harsh reality of my powerful neighbors.
One only needs to peek at the patchwork of states in the Middle East and Africa, to understand borders often reflect the interests of powerful people fighting over this mine, or that city. Political and economic interests not only dictate the existence and shape of borders, but also an eye for what borders actually mean for people. When Mr. Jongejan was shopping for North Africans, there was little regard for the resulting identity problems, with immigrants caught in the middle, not being fully Dutch or German, nor fully Moroccan or Turkish. The prime concern was filling Dutch factory floors with cheap labor. And conversely, the poor immigrants that jumped on ships and trains to the labor Mecca of Europe, were simply concerned with getting a job. That the rosy view of Europe as a promised land of plenty might turn sour in the slums and social clashes, was as far from their minds as they were hungry.
Our current borders still reflect this economic reality. The days of labor shortages in Europe are gone. Instead of recruiting North Africans, we now do our utmost to keep them at bay. We have constructed a ‘Fortress Europe’, with fences and police patrols. From the outside, Europe looks a lot less attractive. The economic crisis has put a dent in the image of Europe as an economic powerhouse, while countries like Turkey are rapidly growing. But with a rapid graying of our populations, we may well soon see our labor force shrink, and again start knocking on the door of African countries for a ‘follow-up order’. If so, let’s hope that after 60 years of immigration struggles we send a more decent recruiter than Mr. Jongejan.
is editor of Idee.
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2013: Crossing European borders
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