What’s the new Flemish government got in store for newcomers?

Integration is one of the key issues in the new Flemish government accord.  The Flemish authorities already organise integration courses, but changes are now planned. 

The largest group targeted by integration courses are EU nationals, who are eager to learn Dutch quickly and pick up useful information about the country, but under EU law they cannot be obliged to follow such courses.  For newcomers from outside the EU the courses are obligatory.

Under the new government newcomers will have to pay for the privilege of taking the courses: 360 euros in all that can be paid in spread payments for each individual course and the exams. One course will help you to learn Dutch, the other will help you orientate in our society.  Fail the exam and a re-sit will cost you a further 90 euros. Refugees will perhaps find it most difficult to pay for the course, but PM Jambon (nationalist) has already said social services will kick in here.

Until now asylum seekers were encouraged to learn Dutch as soon as possible to help them integrate and find work when they receive recognition.  They will now only qualify for integration courses after they receive recognition.

What happens if you fail a re-sit of the exams?  The government accord does not say, but there is talk of a recommendation on whether or not residence permits should be extended. However, integration can never be a ground for withdrawing the protection offered to refugees. Moreover, it is still the federal government that decides the conditions for residence permits to be extended or not.

Greater language skills will be required of newcomers.  A basic knowledge of Dutch is expected at the end of the course, but two years after the end of the course there is a new exam that tests how well you understand and speak Dutch.  It will be up to newcomers themselves to gain this proficiency. The second exam won’t be obligatory for people in work or who are studying.

Fines already exist for people failing to follow compulsory integration courses properly. Newcomers can be fined between 50 and 5,000 euros for not starting a course in time.  1,500 violations were recorded last year.  Most of the fines were between 50 and 5,000 euros, but some totalled several thousand euros.

In future all newcomers will get a “buddy”.  The system involving a Belgian who helps you on your way already exists in some parts and is deemed to be helpful. Buddies show newcomers how we live.  They will now spend 40 hours on each newcomer helping her or him to build a network, e.g. by introducing them to a business, an association or voluntary work.

The new government accord also introduces restrictions on access to social security. Extra care for the elderly and people with serious needs resulting from an illness will only be available after having paid into the system for ten years.

Flemings and newcomers will have to meet stricter conditions to get social housing: priority will be given to people who have lived in a municipality for 5 years without interruption during the past decade. It’s a measure that is bound to hit newcomers hardest of all.

At present asylum seekers don’t get child allowance, only board, accommodation and schooling for the kids.  Following recognition there is a back payment of child allowance for the months you have been seeking asylum.  This is set to end.

Integration into Flemish society is the brief of the Flemish home minister Bart Somers (liberal).