Paul Hiltemann had already noticed a darkening mood in the Netherlands. He runs an agency for people wanting to emigrate and his client list had surged.
But he was still taken aback in November when a Dutch filmmaker was shot and his throat was slit, execution style, on an Amsterdam street.
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Hiltemann was inundated by e-mail messages and telephone calls. “There was a big panic,” he said, “a flood of people saying they wanted to leave the country.”
Leave this stable and prosperous corner of Europe? Leave this land with its generous social benefits and ample salaries, a place of fine schools, museums, sports grounds and bicycle paths, all set in a lively democracy?
The answer, increasingly, is yes. This small nation is a magnet for immigrants, but statistics suggest there is a quickening flight of the white middle class. Dutch people pulling up roots said they felt a general pessimism about their small and crowded country and about the social tensions that had grown along with the waves of newcomers, most of them Muslims.”The Dutch are living in a kind of pressure cooker atmosphere,” Mr. Hiltemann said.
There is more than the concern about the rising complications of absorbing newcomers, now one-tenth of the population, many of them from largely Muslim countries. Many Dutch also seem bewildered that their country, run for decades on a cozy, political consensus, now seems so tense and prickly and bent on confrontation. Those leaving have been mostly lured by large English-speaking nations like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where they say they hope to feel less constricted.
In interviews, emigrants rarely cited a fear of militant Islam as their main reason for packing their bags. But the killing of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a fierce critic of fundamentalist Muslims, seems to have been a catalyst.
“Our Web site got 13,000 hits in the weeks after the van Gogh killing,” said Frans Buysse, who runs an agency that handles paperwork for departing Dutch. “That’s four times the normal rate.”
Mr. van Gogh’s killing is the only one the police have attributed to an Islamic militant, but since then they have reported finding death lists by local Islamic militants with the names of six prominent politicians. The effects still reverberate. In a recent opinion poll, 35 percent of the native Dutch questioned had negative views about Islam.
There are no precise figures on the numbers now leaving. But Canadian, Australian and New Zealand diplomats here said that while immigration papers were processed in their home capitals, embassy officials here had been swamped by inquiries in recent months.
Many who settle abroad may not appear in migration statistics, like the growing contingent of retirees who flock to warmer places. But official statistics show a trend. In 1999, nearly 30,000 native Dutch moved elsewhere, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. For 2004, the provisional figure is close to 40,000. “It’s definitely been picking up in the past five years,” said Cor Kooijmans, a demographer at the bureau.
Ruud Konings, an accountant, has just sold his comfortable home in the small town of Hilvarenbeek. In March, after a year’s worth of paperwork, the family will leave for Australia. The couple said the main reason was their fear for the welfare and security of their two teenage children.
“When I grew up, this place was spontaneous and free, but my kids cannot safely cycle home at night,” said Mr. Konings, 49. “My son just had his fifth bicycle stolen.” At school, his children and their friends feel uneasy, he added. “They’re afraid of being roughed up by the gangs of foreign kids.”
Sandy Sangen has applied to move to Norway with her husband and two school-age children. They want to buy a farm in what she calls “a safer, more peaceful place.”
Like the Sangens and Koningses, others who are moving speak of their yearning for the open spaces, the clean air, the easygoing civility they feel they have lost. Complaints include overcrowding, endless traffic jams, overregulation. Some cite a rise in antisocial behavior and a worrying new toughness and aggression both in political debates and on the streets.
Until the killing of Pim Fortuyn, a populist anti-immigration politician, in 2002 and the more recent slaying of a teacher by a student, this generation of Dutch people could not conceive of such violence in their peaceful country.
After Mr. van Gogh’s killing, angry demonstrations and fire-bombings of mosques and Muslim schools took place. In revenge, some Christian churches were attacked. Mr. Konings said he and many of his friends sensed more confrontation in the making, perhaps more violence.
“I’m a great optimist, but we’re now caught in a downward spiral, economically and socially,” he said. “We feel we can give our children a better start somewhere else.”
Marianne and Rene Aukens, from the rural town of Brunssum, had successful careers, he as director of a local bank, she as a personnel manager. But after much thought they have applied to go to New Zealand. “In my lifetime, all the villages around here have merged, almost all the green spaces have been paved over,” said Mr. Aukens, 41. “Nature is finished. There’s no more silence; you hear traffic everywhere.”
The saying that the Netherlands is “full up” has become a national mantra. It was used cautiously at first, because it had an overtone of being anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. But many of those interviewed now state it flatly, like Peter Bles. He makes a long commute to a banking job in Amsterdam, but he and his wife are preparing to move to Australia.
“We found people are more polite, less stressed, less aggressive there,” Mr. Bles said. “Perhaps stress has a lot to do with the lack of living space. Here we are full up.”
Space is indeed at a premium here in Europe’s most densely populated nation, where 16.3 million people live in an area roughly the size of Maryland. Denmark, which is slightly larger, has 5.5 million people. Dutch demographers say their country has undergone one of Europe’s fastest and most far-reaching demographic shifts, with about 10 percent of the population now foreign born, a majority of them Muslims.
Blaming immigrants for many ills has become commonplace. Conservative Moroccans and Turks from rural areas are accused of disdaining the liberal Dutch ways and of making little effort to adapt. Immigrant youths now make up half the prison population. More than 40 percent of immigrants receive some form of government assistance, a source of resentment among native Dutch. Immigrants say, though, that they are widely discriminated against.
Ms. Konings said the Dutch themselves brought on some of the social frictions. The Dutch “thought that we had to adapt to the immigrants and that we had to give them handouts,” she said. “We’ve been too lenient; now it’s difficult to turn the tide.”
To Mr. Hiltemann, the emigration consultant, what is remarkable is not only the surge of interest among the Dutch in leaving, but also the type of people involved. “They are successful people, I mean, urban professionals, managers, physiotherapists, computer specialists,” he said. Five years ago, he said, most of his clients were farmers looking for more land.
Mr. Buysse, who employs a staff of eight to process visas, concurred. He said farmers were still emigrating as Europe cut agricultural subsidies. ‘”What is new,” he said, “is that Dutch people who are rich or at least very comfortable are now wanting to leave the country.”
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