Victims of Dutch child-care benefits scandal struggle to move on
A bug in the system
Published: Mar 20, 2022 04:24 PM
Protesters take part in a demonstration against racism in Nelson Mandela Park in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on June 10, 2020. Photo: AFP

Protesters take part in a demonstration against racism in Nelson Mandela Park in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on June 10, 2020. Photo: AFP

When Martine van Bruggen was accused of fraud by Dutch authorities and ordered to pay back thousands of euros in childcare benefits, she assumed "a bug in the system" was to blame for the error.

A decade later, she is one of 55 parents who have filed a racial discrimination complaint against the nation's tax agency over the use of ethnic profiling in an anti-fraud drive - a high-profile scandal that led the government to resign in 2021.

"Now, my life is good [again] but in those 10 years a lot has happened. We could very easily not have made it," said Van Bruggen, who is among thousands of parents to have received initial compensation from the government.

Others wrongly accused of fraud by the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration are still struggling to recover.

Many were driven into poverty because of having to repay large amounts of money and of being registered as fraudsters, hampering their employment prospects.

Some lost their homes, according to lawyers and welfare groups.

The tax administration's anti-fraud campaign targeted low-income families, official reports have shown, disproportionately hitting ethnic minorities.

The agency declined to comment on the individual discrimination complaints filed by Van Bruggen and other parents with the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights.

But it has acknowledged using ethnic profiling such as referencing dual nationalities to compile watch lists and develop fraud-detecting algorithms.

Marnix van Rij, the new state secretary for tax affairs, has called the practice unlawful and, as of February 2, almost 20,000 falsely accused people had received initial compensation. Another roughly 32,000 have applied for it.

'No room' for racism?

But despite the compensation program and government contrition - Prime Minister Mark Rutte has called the affair a "colossal stain" - anti-racism and human rights campaigners say ethnic profiling persists and are calling for a nationwide ban.

They hope the discrimination complaints, which the country's rights institute is currently considering, could add to pressure the government to outlaw such methods in all state bodies.

"Then you'll have a fundamental verdict by the official national institute designated for this purpose that says, this is discrimination in the context of the law on equal treatment," said Juliette Bonneur from the anti-discrimination agency RADAR.

A fresh parliamentary inquiry into the benefits scandal launched in February could also recommend policy reforms.

Asked whether institutional racism played a role in the scandal, the chair of the inquiry, Selima Belhaj of the centrist D66 coalition party, said it was starting out "without making assumptions."

The new government coalition agreement signed in January says there is "no room" for institutional racism, but does not admit it exists in government bodies, or call for an outright ban on ethnic profiling.

For Van Bruggen, a bank employee at the time, the first tax agency letter arrived in 2011, accusing her of fraud and demanding she pay back five years of support toward the childcare costs of one of her two daughters.

As is usual in the Netherlands, Van Bruggen received a means-tested benefit from the state that covered part of the costs.

The two girls attended the same day-care facilities between 2006 and 2011, but the tax administration's letter only referred to one of them - Noa, who has the same surname as her late Turkish-Dutch father.

Her sister, Nina, in contrast, has her mother's surname.

"Back then, it didn't occur to me that it had something to do with her last name ... That makes it simply racist, really discriminatory," Van Bruggen said by phone from her home in the town of Kampen.

She initially thought the apparent mistake could be easily resolved, but like thousands of other parents she discovered the tax administration would not budge.

'Dodging' the question?

Despite political fallout from the scandal, Dutch authorities keep "dodging" the question of whether institutional racism played a role, said Bonneur from RADAR, a nonprofit organization.

She has been working with eight of the 55 parents who have filed racial discrimination complaints at the rights institute.

Samira Rafaela, a member of the European Parliament for D66, said the country could already be taking "corrective steps" if it had acknowledged that racism was a problem in some state institutions.

Orlando Kadir, a lawyer of Surinamese descent, ended up paying money back to the tax administration when the entity refused to relent.

"I'm a legal professional but at some point even I started doubting myself," said Kadir, one of several lawyers who helped expose the scandal.

He has no doubt that racism motivated the false accusations, recalling a meeting for victims that he convened.

For some, however, no amount of money will be enough to compensate them for the ordeal.