Belgium For Dummies: Flemish attempt to 'civilize' migrants sparks outrage

Belgium has long been a safe haven for Muslim immigrants. But a ‘new starter kit’ initiative introduced by lawmakers in the country’s Flemish north teaching Moroccan newcomers what it means to be a European citizen has sparked outrage in the country.

 In the Flemish region of Belgium, people stay at home most of the time and don't make noise after 10 pm. Men and women are equal and it's forbidden to hurt someone mentally or physically, including a partner or a child. The Flemish are used to respecting others and recycling their garbage. One must also learn Dutch if they want to be an effective member of the work force.

These are just some of the pointers mentioned in the new and controversial "starter kit" given to the Moroccan government for distribution to its citizens who have gotten the official go-ahead to immigrate to Flanders. It also includes a short video featuring testimonials from recent immigrants who discuss their experiences in the region. Russian and Turkish versions will soon follow.

“What we say to them is, you come in a modern society based on the principles of the enlightenment, with freedoms and rights for everybody, also with obligations, with separation of church and state, with equality of men and women, with no discrimination principles,” explains Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish Integration Minister and member of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-Va) Party.

But some were left rather dumbfounded by the kind of information the packet contained.

“When you say that in Belgium, we live in houses, what does that mean? It means Moroccans are living in trees?” said Akhmed El Khannouss, a Flemish MP from the Socialist Party. “When my Belgian neighbor makes noise until 3 am because he's drunk and it keeps me awake, should I also give him a kit to explain that he must respect the hour because we do not make noise in Belgium after 10 pm? This is common courtesy around the world!” the MP continues.

The starter kit is meant to give basic information, but it may be too basic for some. Proponents of this initiative say it was made to target immigrants with low skill and education levels. But critics say that what is written in the kit and some of what's said in the video that comes along with it is simply patronizing and insulting, raising questions about the stereotypes locals may have about immigrants.

“I think there's a very large share of racism in this. Excuse me, but that's not how we educate!” Khannouss said.

About 2,500 Moroccans immigrate to Flanders each year to reunite with their families or as marriage migrants. As soon as they arrive, they can join a civic integration program organized by the Flemish government, which primarily focuses on teaching Dutch. 

“Sure it's important to point out that in order to integrate, you need to speak Dutch. I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is the socio-cultural references. They explain to you that in order to find your place, you must culturally match a certain model,” says Brussels Deputy Said Serroukh.

Those in favor of the starter kit insist that the initiative is intended to manage potentially false expectations about Belgium and to address the fact that integration has thus far been ineffective. 

“You are perfectly able to get the Belgian nationality if you want, Belgian citizenship, without even knowing one of the official languages of this country,” shares Philip Claeys, an MP from the Vlaams Belang Party. “And this reflects I think the whole idea of what they call an integration policy which isn’t really an integration policy because it’s completely up to the people coming here if they really want to adapt, really want to integrate,” he concludes.

But for those who do want to integrate, something else they can expect to find out is that the Flemish are like walnuts: hard on the outside, but softer on the inside. And while it may rain a lot in Belgium, it does not rain money.