On Thursday evening, the Dutch television channel VPRO aired Weg Van Nederland, or Out Of The Netherlands, a game show in which five rejected asylum seekers compete to take home $4,000 once they are deported. "Everyone wants to leave now and then. The contenders in this show have to, as they are rejected asylum seekers. Yet they won't go home empty-handed," the promo for the show said.
Cheap entertainment? Shockingly inappropriate? Merely cruel? That is far from what VPRO intended. Instead, Out Of The Netherlands is a harsh critique of the Dutch government's conservative immigration policy. As the show's website reads: "An asylum seeker's life is like a game show. Before you even realize, you're out."
Weg Van Nederland is a pun; the show's title can be read either as "crazy about the Netherlands" or "out of the Netherlands." Contenders answer questions on Dutch culture, cuisine, food and language against the archetypical background of many game shows -- pink walls, a slick host, annoying jingles and cute assistants. "[Contenders] can use their knowledge of the Netherlands one more time to win this box of money, and thanks to an [immigration] procedure that dragged on, they were able to prepare themselves well," host Waldemar Torenstra said. "There are no losers in this show, everyone receives a ticket to their country of origin. And there are additional prizes. What do you think of a trendy, orange bullet-proof vest or a survival packet?" he added.
In a press statement, VPRO Editor Frank Wiering said that the program's creators attempted to show how Dutch these contenders are. "We don't present sad stories, we want to show who these people are, and that it is a shame to let them go. They are real rejected asylum seekers. They are really leaving."
The show's participants are all young and highly educated immigrants who are facing a grim future in their countries of origin.
Gulistan is Kurdish and was born in Armenia. She fled her native country when her brother was killed in prison 11 years ago. She finished high school in the Netherlands, and was about to start law school when her asylum request was rejected. "Not that that high school degree will be of much use now," the program's host cynically commented. To a girl from Cameroon who had been living in the Netherlands for years, he said: "You're about to leave your friends behind. Now you have to return to Cameroon, where you were forced to marry when you were 15. Let's hope your studies in aeronautical engineering will be of some use there."
While newspapers across Europe picked up on the program and its cynical message, the Associated Press reports that controversy in the Netherlands was sparse. "A possible indication that this country's long-held reputation as a tolerant nation always ready to welcome foreigners is a thing of the past," the AP wrote. In Germany, France and Spain, reporters reacted with shock to the stunt.
Maybe it was Flemish radio journalist Joris Van De Kerckhof who described the message of Out of the Netherlands best: Even if they take home $4,000, "[these contenders] can only lose."