"A very long time ago, there was once a country that treated asylum seekers as human beings. That country was called the Netherlands.” These are the first few sentences of a column by Dilan Yeşilgöz, the current successor of Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and Minister of Justice and Security. Yeşilgöz describes in her 2004 column ‘I am … a refugee’ how she was able to come to the Netherlands as the child of leftist Kurdish refugees through family reunification. However, as the Minister of Justice, she now wants to prohibit and restrict family reunification for refugees. Hypocritical, don’t you think? By denying other refugees the opportunities she herself benefitted from, she now wants to become prime minister. Her journey from refugee to politician with strong rightist immigration views unveils the intricate interplay between personal identity and political convictions. The rise of a woman of Kurdish-Turkish descent in Dutch politics is a beacon of hope, but does it make me proud, I’m not sure. It raises a profound question: does the ascent of right-wing politicians from migrant backgrounds truly advance the cause of racial justice and equality? Can the success of figures like Yeşilgöz be reconciled with their advocacy for stringent immigration laws that negatively affect immigrant communities?
Disclaimer: The leftist, rightist, and liberal adjectives used in this article refer to the Dutch definitions of these notions.
Shifting From “I am… a refugee” to Anti-Immigration
Dilan Yeşilgöz, also known as ‘the pitbull’, has big shoes to fill in. She quickly rose from municipal official to Minister of Justice and Security in 10 years, and now has the duty of taking over Mark Rutte as party leader of the VVD. She embodies a unique journey from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of political power. Born to leftist Kurdish-Turkish refugee parents, Yeşilgöz fled to the Netherlands as an 8-year-old with her mother due to the family reunification policy. Her father, a human rights activist, fled Turkey for political reasons. Believe it or not, she started her political career within the Socialist Party (SP) at age 19. She then moved on to do an internship at GroenLinks and worked at the Labour Party (PvdA). "The choice for the left, I didn't even think about, because my parents had always been leftist," she said. However, she did not feel at home there. Yeşilgöz eventually found herself at odds with the left-leaning parties she initially aligned with. Her mom is also the director of the Netherlands Refugee Organization (VON), thus there is no doubt that Yeşilgöz grew up with strong humanitarian principles on migration. So, how does it make sense that Yeşilgöz has moved so far to the right on migration issues?
Yeşilgöz, driven by a desire not to portray herself as a victim of circumstance or the government, found a rational trajectory in aligning with the conservative values of the VVD. "I do see liberal minds at leftist parties, but those parties still exist by the grace of saving others. So there have to be victims, and those are often people who were born somewhere else." It is easy to not be a victim when it is not you who bears the burden of governmental actions. The VVD, represents those who do not suffer from the government, whilst asylum seekers bear the weight of governmental actions and suffer from these adversities. You can therefore imagine that these ‘victims’ will not align with the new party leader of the VVD. But what does the new election program of the VVD entail that Yeşilgöz advocates?
‘Giving space. Setting limits’
The first 15 pages of the new election program of the VVD, called ‘Giving space. Setting limits.’, are entirely devoted to stricter asylum policies. It’s only from page 55 onwards that the election themes crucial to left-wing voters, such as climate and nitrogen, receive in-depth attention. According to Yeşilgöz, the liberals are entering the elections with a resolute right-wing stance, placing their full commitment to the very theme that led to the downfall of the previous cabinet: migration. Prioritizing a more stringent security policy, Yeşilgöz believes that ‘limits must be set in order to live in freedom’. Paradoxical, don’t you think? Confoundingly, the VVD emphasizes that a stricter migration policy would also benefit the refugee. The party believes that the current housing and facilities are insufficient to accommodate everyone without constraints. 'As a result, an 8-year-old girl who arrives in the Netherlands as a refugee today has no reasonable chance of later growing into an engineer, nurse, policewoman, or minister and VVD leader. While that is what we should want’, says the VVD. One problem though, how would she even receive these opportunities if she never gets admitted to the Netherlands?
The solution for the VVD is to tighten the gears. They aim to reduce the influx of both asylum seekers and labor migrants, ensuring that only a selected group can settle permanently in the Netherlands. To achieve this, the party advocates for the issuance of temporary asylum permits, lasting three years for political refugees and one year for those fleeing war. The VVD envisions the implementation of a ‘two-status system’. Yeşilgöz suggests a distinction between refugees into A and B categories. A representing individuals facing personal threats, and B encompassing those fleeing war or violence. This distinction allows her to differentiate between persecuted idealists, like her father, falling under category A, and refugees in category B who might not be politically engaged. Yeşilgöz states that the latter category includes individuals who might bring them an intolerant ideology, religion or face risks of radicalization. As a successfully integrated immigrant herself, she judges others harshly. Setting aside any conjecture, one might ask why she perceives such a great contrast between political asylum seekers and war refugees. It does not make sense to me how those fleeing the war in Syria, individuals under status B, who have endured decades of dictatorship and torture for even minor infractions, would become safe when guns finally fall silent. How does Yeşilgöz make such distinctions when the sole reason for such wars is political?
Moreover, the VVD seeks to deter refugees from considering the Netherlands as a permanent destination by implementing possible restrictions that are within the scope of EU directives. This includes imposing waiting periods for family reunification and precisely defining the concept of ‘nuclear family’. Yeşilgöz wants to limit family reunification of migrants as she believes that individuals could bring relatives from war-torn regions, and exploit that as an opportunity for unchecked immigration. By giving examples of migrants who had undergone sudden divorces, Yeşilgöz shows that this might result in not only their ex-partner but also their new partner seeking entry into the Netherlands. Despite Dilan Yeşilgöz arriving in the Netherlands in this exact way, according to experts the scenario of ‘stacking of family reunification’ rarely happens in practice.
In the broader European context, the VVD seeks a new asylum system with regional reception at European borders, which includes screening at the external borders of Europe. If that is not feasible, they suggest stricter controls within the mini-Schengen zone or EU borders. If faced with an influx of asylum seekers, the VVD fully wants to halt asylum. They intend to advocate for this legal provision in Brussels. Additionally, if insufficient progress is observed during the next review of the asylum treaty, the VVD is open to following Denmark's lead in opting out of asylum and migration agreements. Regarding labor migrants, the VVD proposes stricter criteria and tests, where the labor migrant must demonstrate their additional value to the Netherlands. This favors individuals essential to the Netherlands’ needs in sectors like energy and engineering.
This strategic shift in the VVD’s political stance reflects a carefully calculated decision. The party’s leadership believes substantial untapped voter potential exists for a more right-leaning direction, surpassing the path charted by former leader Mark Rutte. The VVD hopes that this strict asylum policy will resonate strongly with right-wing voters, so they don’t swerve to parties like JA21, New Social Contract (NSC) and Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) in the voting booth. This confidence in their approach is so strong that Yeşilgöz even hinted at the possibility of cooperation with Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV), a door that Rutte had firmly closed for years. Under Yeşilgöz’s leadership, the VVD is thus making a deliberate move towards a more conservative positioning.
The remarkable case of Dilan Yeşilgöz raises important questions about the relationship between personal identity and political positions. To what extent should a politician’s individual history influence their policy stances, and are they hypocritical for not aligning with their personal identity? This question gains prominence in the UK, where minority ethnic politicians sometimes advocate for policies seemingly at odds with the interests of their own communities. While the UK has seen an increase in minority ethnic representation in politics, this representation does not always translate into policies that directly benefit minority communities. Some politicians, irrespective of their backgrounds, align themselves with conservative values. Paradoxically, they favor immigration policies that are harsh and anti-immigrant. Priti Patel’s stance on immigration demonstrates an example of the complexity associated with identity politics. Patel, herself of Indian descent, has strictly advocated for harsher immigration policies. Similarly, Suella Braverman, UK Home Secretary of Indian descent, has supported legislation targeting migration.
From refugee to advocate of stricter migration laws, Yeşilgöz serves as a vivid illustration of the nuanced interplay between personal experiences and political ideologies. It makes us reflect on the complexity of identity politics and the evolving stances of politicians with migrant backgrounds. We must remember that diversity in political leadership does not guarantee racial justice or progressive policies. I am lucky to see a female politician of Kurdish-Turkish descent finally rise to power in the Netherlands, however, I would not say that I am proud. As the Netherlands heads to the ballots on November 22nd, Dilan Yeşilgöz’s paradoxical stance on migration will be evaluated. This election marks a pivotal moment in Dutch politics, with new opportunities on the horizon and a significant departure from the past 13 years under VVD Prime Minister Rutte’s leadership.