If you’re a refugee, preparing to be deported from the Netherlands, you can become a game-show star.
The show, called “Weg van Nederlands,” which can translate either to “Away from the Netherlands” or “Crazy from the Netherlands,” offers panels of five soon-to-be deportees a competitive arena in which to prove how well they’ve assimilated into Dutch society. According to Salon, contests involve “answering questions about tulips and bikes, identifying corny local pop tunes and carving an outline of the country’s map from a slice of Gouda cheese.”
No, winners don’t get a residency visa. (Nor, for that matter, are losers booted offstage by means of a giant wooden shoe.) Instead, they receive a plastic suitcase filled with $4,000 Euro. But the real point is that all participants are given the chance to acquaint viewers with the details of their lives — where they came from, how long they’ve been in the Netherlands, and what they’ve managed to accomplish with their time in-country. For example, one contestant, who calls herself Blessing — real names are not used — fled Cameroon at the age of 15, and is about to earn a degree in aviation engineering.
She believes these facts will come as a surprise to the show’s audience. “We are not just eating, sleeping and waiting for the government to do things for us, we are hard-working people, we’ve proven to them that we are integrated into the system and we are ready to contribute and to give back.”
The show — and, indeed, the dilemma of the contestants — results from the recent growth of nativism as a political force in Europe. In the 2010 elections, Geert Wilders’ Partij voor Frijheid, or Party for Freedom, won 24 seats in the Dutch parliament, making it the third-largest party in the house. In return for Wilders’ support, conservative and Christian Democratic parties have agreed to tighten immigration.
At the very least, the show is a nice bit a black humor, a few grim laughs. But it could also represent the beginning of a very shrewd PR strategy. Geert Wilders is nothing if not media-friendly. When the British Home Office denied him entry into the UK, on the grounds his extremism constituted a threat to the public good, Wilders defied the ban, flying into Heathrow with a camera crew in tow. The stunt won him widespread support. In 2009, the U.K,’s Asylum and Immigration Tribunal overturned the ban. Not only had Wilders gotten his way, he’d gotten it by becoming, briefly, an open-borders activist.
Dueling with bureaucracy comes naturally to Wilders, since his strategy has always been essentially populist. In this, says U.K. Guardian columnist Ian Buruma, he shares a basic orietnation with other European nativist leaders, like Austria’s Jorg Haider. “They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging, writes Buruma. “Northern Europe’s political elites, largely Social or Christian Democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.”
Game shows are inherently populist; in fact, they’re downright pop. And in Europe, the ones with an element of drama or danger have been popular for quite a while — more the norm than Fear Factor ever was here. “Survivor,” says Gavin McNett, began as a “considerably child-proofed” version of the Swedish show “Expedition Robinson.” MTV’s “The Real World” had an equivalent in the Dutch show “Big Brother,” in which “a group of nine strangers, ranging in age from the teens to the early 40s, was locked into a suburban house for 100 days and given $85 a week for supplies, including food.” It had all the glamour of the Donner Party.
Hopefully, the humanization of asylum seekers — the process of introducing them as individuals rather than as the realization of a particular party’s nightmare — will proceed smoothly through the idiot box, unaided by any bureaucratic elites. I’d hate to see producers have to up the ante and re-package the show as “Win A Date with Anders Breivik.”