Is Flemish integration policy a success?

On 25 May Belgium goes to the polls to elect several new parliaments. The poll will also be a verdict on the Flemish coalition government that has administered Flanders for the past five years and its integration policies. During this time integration policy in Flanders has been steered by the Flemish nationalist Geert Bourgeois. Has he succeeded in making a mark?

The number of newcomers arriving in Belgium has increased. However, the newcomers who are obliged to follow an integration and language course have to wait longer to find a place. 8% of the newcomers looking for a Social Orientation course have to wait for over a year to get a place.

Mr Bourgeois' office explains the problem: "We have decided that people should be able to take this course in their own language and not in Dutch or English. As a result some nationalities will have to wait a while before there are enough people to make it worthwhile to organise the course in their language. Delays may also occur as a result of the personal situation of the newcomer."

People looking for a Dutch language course may have a wait on their hands too. A fifth of the newcomers are still waiting to start their course Basic Dutch six months after their application. The situation is problematic because knowledge of the language is often crucial if you want to find a job. Belgium's employment rate among the ethnic minorities is not exemplary: Only in Turkey and Poland have lower employment rates for immigrants than Belgium.

During the past parliament reception and integration centres have been brought together in an independent agency. The Houses of Dutch that point newcomers in the right direction when it comes to finding a Dutch language course that is right for them say that there are hardly any waiting lists anymore. If newcomers are obliged to wait it's usually because they have to follow a Social Orientation course in their own language first.

No test to check the level of Dutch

Today non-EU newcomers in Flanders are obliged to follow Dutch language and integration courses, but at the end of the course there is no test to check the level of Dutch they have attained. The Flemish Parliament has however decided that in future the Dutch language skills of newcomers will be rated and that should take effect in September.

Flemish Integration Minister Geert Bourgeois has repeatedly said that he wants to extend compulsory integration courses to EU citizens, but at present that would be a violation of European law. It's a concern shared by Germany and the Netherlands.

A spokesman for the minister told VRT News: "We've noticed a change in the origin of newcomers. Nowadays newcomers no longer hail from the traditional countries of emigration (Morocco and Turkey). More newcomers come from eastern and central Europe. Since the economic crisis they have been joined by people from southern Europe. We want to provide integration courses for these people too."

Will expertise be lost?

The integration of all reception and integration centres into one independent agency has not been universally welcomed. Several organisations voiced concerns that local initiatives with many years of expertise may be lost.

There were also worries that one single organisation would be more unwieldy and slower to respond. Minister Bourgeois played down fears that anybody including volunteers would lose their job as a result of the mergers. As the independent agency only became operational this year it is at present hard to judge whether or not it is a success.