Race and ethnicity in the Netherlands

The Netherlands only has a population of about 18 million, but it’s home to people of all races and from all sorts of backgrounds. Most immigrants didn’t just randomly end up in the Netherlands, though. The Dutch government and the people of the Netherlands set specific migration waves in motion. So, learning about the ethnic makeup of the country is also a Dutch history lesson.

Broad overview of ethnicities in the Netherlands

Around 75 percent of the population of the Netherlands consists of native Dutch people, 14 percent are non-Western immigrants, and 11 percent are Western immigrants. These numbers include second-generation immigrants.


Of course, we could go further back in time and find that many “native” Dutch people also have immigrant ancestors. But the Dutch Central Agency for Statistics generally views anyone whose parents were both born in the Netherlands as a native, so that’s what we’ll do in this article as well. Also, there’s debate about the differentiation between Western and non-Western immigrants, but I decided to include it to give you a general impression.

Although the Netherlands is small, both in terms of population and in terms of land, the native Dutch population isn’t a completely homogenous group. Provinces further away from the capital are less densely populated (although still very densely populated by American standards) and tend to have more distinct regional cultures. Everyone who comes from a Dutch family speaks Dutch, but some people also speak a regional language or dialect.

When we focus specifically on immigrants, both Western and non-Western, we see that slightly more than half of them are first generation immigrants. Of the second generation immigrants, most actually only have one parent who was born in a different country.


There are immigrants from virtually every country in the world living in the Netherlands. However, more than half of all immigrants come from (or have at least one parent who comes from) one of these seven countries: Turkey (10%), Morocco (9%), Suriname (8%), Indonesia (8%), Germany (8%), Poland (5%), and the Dutch Caribbean (4%).

Note that, on paper, the Dutch Caribbean are not a single country. However, the islands are closely connected and share a distinct culture, so I decided to include them in this list as one entity.

The following pie chart shows not just the aforementioned countries of origin, but also the continents of origin of those from other countries. Both first and second generation immigrants are included.

Source 1 & Source 2

We’ll go over the immigrant populations from each of the countries listed separately. But first, let’s take a closer look at the cultural diversity among the native Dutch population.

The native Dutch population explained

The Netherlands turned into the nation state it is today in the 19th century. Before that, people in the Netherlands were viewed more as inhabitants of specific regions, rather than a single united country. When you look at a map of the main dialects and regional languages that are still in use today, you can clearly see these distinct regions:


This map includes Belgium and Luxembourg, which have been independent countries for two centuries now, but as you can see, the language regions still cross national borders. Germany is not on this map, but it’s true for the border between the Netherlands and Germany too. The regions also don’t neatly adhere to provincial borders within the Netherlands.

So, do these language regions make it hard for Dutch people to communicate with each other? No. People in the Hollandic region speak more or less standard Dutch, the Dutch that you hear on national television, and everyone else can communicate in standard Dutch as well, although you can often hear which part of the country someone is from.

The language regions closest to the Hollandic region mostly correspond to Dutch dialects. But further away, you find entirely separate languages.

Frisian, in the north, is recognized as a distinct language. The green regions (Gronings-East Frisian, Drents, Guelderish-Overijssels, Veluws and Twents) are all dialects of another distinct language called Low Saxon, which also has many speakers in Germany and even some speakers in Denmark. And Limburgish, in the south, is also a distinct language.

Another factor which used to play a divisive role among the native Dutch population is religion. In 1849, a year after all religions were declared equal under the law, the religious balance in each Dutch municipality looked like this:


The role of religion has gotten smaller over time, especially in recent decades. More than half of all Dutch people no longer identify as religious. However, this original religious divide has had a lasting impact on two regions.

The first region is the Dutch Bible Belt. While many native Dutch people have lost their religion, the ones who take religion as seriously as ever are mostly located in the Protestant region that traditionally separated the two Catholic regions. This map, which shows who voted for the conservative Calvinist political party SGP in 2022, highlights that quite effectively:


The second region is the southern part of the country, the provinces North Brabant and Limburg, directly below the Bible Belt. This is where Catholicism dominated, and as a result, it’s the only region where people celebrate Carnival.

This might not sound like a big difference, but the importance of Carnival to the people in this region cannot be overstated. People of all ages look forward to it all winter, daily life comes to a near-halt, roads are blocked, cities are given different names, and for three to six full days, everything revolves around Carnival. Meanwhile, the rest of the country feels no inclination to celebrate it at all.

Carnival in the province of Limburg

On top of all these differences, or perhaps as a result of them, there are also different social norms. For example, people in the city of Rotterdam (in the west) generally pride themselves on their directness, which they associate with honesty. That same behavior is considered rude in Limburg (in the southeast), where most people aim to be more diplomatic, which in turn can be viewed as deceitful by others.

So, while native Dutch people around the country clearly belong to the same race, share a language, and also feel equally connected to the Netherlands, they’re not a monolith. Different regional languages, beliefs, cultural practices, and social norms play a significant role. Dutch people generally don’t label the native populations in different parts of the country as different ethnicities, but one could make a case that they are.

Of course, the degree to which people identify with their regions differs as well. An extensive questionnaire has revealed that, on average, people in the provinces Friesland, Zeeland, and Limburg feel most connected to and appreciative of their regions. The higher the score on this map, the more connected and appreciative people felt:

Source (Table B16.1)

Flevoland is the Netherlands’ youngest province. It was only established in 1986. So, no one has a long family history there, which explains people’s lack of connection to the region.

People in the western provinces also don’t score high. This part of the country is more urban, multicultural, and internationally oriented. So, they’re simply less focused on regional identity than people in other provinces.

Interestingly, people in the western provinces do believe that their regions are considered important by the rest of the country, while people with the strongest regional identities don’t necessarily feel the same way. This map shows how important people in each province think their region is in the eyes of others:

Source (Table B16.1)

So, with the exception of Flevoland, the further away you get from the capital city of Amsterdam (located in North Holland), the less people feel like their region is appreciated. Luckily, they make up for it with regional pride.

Jews in the Netherlands

I didn’t mention Jews in the broad overview because there aren’t that many Jews in the Netherlands. But, as everyone knows, there’s a horrific reason for that. So, I do want to acknowledge them here.

From the 16th century onward, Jews settled in the Netherlands to escape persecution elsewhere. The Netherlands wasn’t free from anti-Semitism either, but Jews managed to build a life for themselves nonetheless. Shortly before World War II, there were roughly 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands. They made up about 1.5 percent of the Dutch population at the time. More than half of them lived in Amsterdam, where they made up about 10 percent of the population.

As the Nazis gained power in Germany, many German Jews tried to flee to the Netherlands. But because of Dutch anti-Semitism, these people weren’t welcome. Some of these “illegal” Jews were sent back to Germany, knowing they would be killed there, while others who had made it past the border were tracked down and sent to the “refugee camp” Westerbork in the province of Drenthe. This camp was built by the Dutch government.

After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, they took over Westerbork and turned it into a transit camp. From there, people were transported to extermination camps. They made use of the infrastructure set up by the Dutch government to track down and deport legal Dutch Jews through Westerbork as well. And while the Nazis gave the orders, many of these orders were executed by Dutch police officers.

By the end of the war, only 30,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jews remained. The vast majority had been killed in the Holocaust. The percentage of Jews killed was higher than in any other country occupied by the Nazis. And even in the years that followed, the Dutch government and people took little responsibility and often didn’t even help surviving Jews who suddenly found other people living in their homes. Thousands of surviving Jews moved to the US and Israel because they no longer felt welcome in the Netherlands.

It took decades for the Dutch government to take responsibility, but it eventually did, and it had a big impact on immigration policy and other laws. There are currently 40,000-50,000 Jews living in the Netherlands (0.3 percent of the population). Anti-Semitism is still prevalent enough that many Jews choose not to wear a kippah in public, but the last couple of decades saw more people moving from Israel to the Netherlands than the other way around.

The Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Broad Street) in Amsterdam around 1912

Dutch colonization led to Indonesian migration

In the early 17th century, the Dutch established the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational corporation. And if it hadn’t been a gang of murderous slave traders, national pride may have been in order. Unfortunately, it was exactly that. This corporation murdered and enslaved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people and colonized a country much bigger than the Netherlands itself: Indonesia.

After terrorizing innocent people for centuries, the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and the Dutch government took over. But during World War II, the Japanese conquered the colony and proved that they could be just as barbaric as the Dutch. So, when the war ended, the people of Indonesia declared themselves independent. This immediately prompted the Dutch to start another war to reclaim the colony, which lasted four more years, until they finally gave up and accepted Indonesia’s independence.

As a result, over 300,000 people moved from Indonesia to the Netherlands between 1945 and 1965. The Dutch had made sure not to give regular Indonesians the Dutch nationality, so the people who came over belonged to one of three groups: the totoks, the Indos, and the Moluccans.

The totoks were white people. They were either Dutch people who had been living in Indonesia for a long time or children/descendants of such people who had been born in Indonesia.

The Indos were mixed. Because Dutch men far outnumbered Dutch women in Indonesia, many of them had married Indonesian women, who then received the Dutch nationality. Their children were called Indos, and they had been born with the Dutch nationality.

The Moluccans were natives of the Maluku islands who had fought as professional soldiers on the side of the Dutch against their fellow Indonesians. So, when Indonesia became independent, they were viewed as traitors, and they were no longer safe on their own islands. The Dutch could have helped them to establish the Maluku islands as an independent country, which is what the Moluccans wanted, but instead they chose to bring the Moluccan soldiers and their families to the Netherlands until things cooled down.

Because it was supposed to be temporary, no attempts were made to integrate them into Dutch society. They were initially housed like military units, some even in the infamous camp Westerbork. But it eventually became clear that they could never return home. Feeling trapped in a country that wasn’t theirs and betrayed because the Dutch refused to fight for them like they had fought for the Dutch, they resorted to various acts of terrorism. None of it worked, though, and the ones who didn’t die in these attacks had to make peace with living in the Netherlands.

The Indos formed the majority. And while they had been exposed to Dutch culture in Indonesia, many of them had never actually been to the Netherlands. So, it wasn’t an easy transition for them. But over time, they adapted extremely well to life in the Netherlands.

Pinda*, a Dutch magazine about people of Indonesian descent

Turks and Moroccans came to the Netherlands to work

Because of a variety of fears that later turned out to be unfounded, hundreds of thousands of Dutch people moved to countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the years following World War II. Meanwhile, as a result of industrialization, demand for low-skilled workers increased. So, in the 1960s, Dutch companies and the Dutch government teamed up to recruit workers in other countries.

These workers were called “gastarbeiders” (guest workers) because their stay in the Netherlands was supposed to be temporary. This had been done before and had worked reasonably well. People were recruited in Italy and Spain, and later also in Turkey and Morocco.

Turkey and Morocco were poor countries, and the people who came over were mostly young, poorly-educated men from rural areas. The industrialization of agriculture had left them without jobs, so they were eager to work in the Netherlands to provide for their wives and children who stayed behind. Because they were “guest workers,” no efforts were made to integrate them into Dutch society.

But while the economies of Italy and Spain recovered and workers from those countries returned home, this wasn’t the case for Turkey and Morocco. Both the migrant workers and the Dutch companies had grown dependent on the “temporary” work relationship. So, instead of going back, a lot of these men became permanent residents, and they were allowed to bring their families over as well.

However, life in the Netherlands was more expensive, so having their families live with them put a strain on their finances. And even though their wives wanted to help out, there was little they had to offer the Dutch economy. So, this was challenging from the start. And it became more challenging when all the physical labor began to take a toll on the men’s bodies and demand for low-skilled manual labor went down.

This situation wasn’t just frustrating for the adults. It was also frustrating for the children, who were at a significant disadvantage compared to native Dutch children. And as more of these families ended up on welfare, more of the native Dutch people began actively disliking them. Poor command of the Dutch language and the fact that most of them were Muslims didn’t help either.

Today, people of Turkish and Moroccan descent together make up more than 5 percent of the Dutch population. They live mostly in the major cities. Problems with integration still exist and receive a lot of attention, but these problems are getting smaller. Those belonging to the younger generations have lived in the Netherlands their entire lives, have received a Dutch education, and mostly have the same ambitions as their native Dutch counterparts. Similarly, they’re also less religious than their parents.

Young people of Moroccan descent

Surinamese post-colonial migration to the Netherlands

The Dutch also had a major colony in South America: Suriname. It’s relatively unknown to the rest of the world, but back in 1667, the Dutch actually gave up New York (called New Amsterdam at the time) to the British in exchange for Suriname. So, it was considered very important.

Because Suriname didn’t have a large native population that the Dutch could enslave, they brought over slaves from Africa to work on plantations for them. And after the abolition of slavery, which in Suriname happened in 1863/1873, they brought over workers from India, Indonesia, and China. That’s how Suriname ended up with a very diverse population that looks nothing like the original population.

Unlike in Indonesia, everyone in Suriname had the Dutch nationality, so they could move to the Netherlands without any legal barriers. The barriers they did face were financial. But the Surinamese knew that life in the Netherlands provided opportunities that didn’t exist in Suriname. So, after World War II, many found ways to make the move. By 1970, 40,000 Surinamese people were living in the Netherlands and thousands more were coming over each year.

The Dutch government got scared and decided that Suriname should become independent as quickly as possible. This happened in 1975. Unsurprisingly, this prompted many Surinamese people to move to the Netherlands before it would become harder to do so. So, by 1980, about 150,000 Surinamese people were living in the Netherlands.

There were only half a million Surinamese people in total, by the way. So, roughly a third of all Surinamese people now lived in the Netherlands. And because the Netherlands had not prepared for this mass migration at all, and most of the Surinamese newcomers had left in a hurry and were equally unprepared, this was most definitely not a smooth transition.

In many ways, however, the Surinamese were the ideal immigrants. They spoke Dutch, had received a Dutch education, and were familiar with Dutch culture. Moreover, human capital flight played a big role, the Netherlands got many of the most educated Surinamese people. But the native Dutch population didn’t recognize the Surinamese as the ideal immigrants. That was partly because of the real problems caused by a poorly organized mass migration and partly because of racism and ignorance.

Today, roughly 360,000 Surinamese immigrants (first and second generation) live in the Netherlands. An estimated 45 percent of them is of Indian descent, 43 percent of African descent, 7 percent of Indonesian descent, 3 percent of Chinese descent, and 2 percent of other descent.

Many white people in the Netherlands know remarkably little about this chapter of Dutch history, which has resulted in a fair amount of ignorant comments. People from Suriname have been complimented on their Dutch, despite it being their first language. Surinamese people of Indian descent have been asked where they’re “really” from, even though their family hasn’t lived in India for well over a century. And the role of slavery is often downplayed, while this was very much the foundation of the entire colony.

Kwaku Summer Festival, a Surinamese festival in Amsterdam

Migration from the Dutch Caribbean to the Netherlands

The Dutch Caribbean are a collection of islands that have been colonized by various European countries over time, often multiple times, but ultimately ended up being part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Some of them are officially separate countries with separate governments, similar to how Scotland is a separate country within the United Kingdom, while others are governed as if they’re just another Dutch municipality.

Because of Spanish and Portuguese rule and influence, the main language on the biggest islands is Papiamento, a Spanish and Portuguese-based creole language. For similar reasons, the main language on the smaller islands is English. Dutch is often spoken as a second language. The people who live on these islands are mostly of European, African, and native Caribbean descent. And it should come as no surprise that these islands have a history of slavery.

An interesting fact is that the Dutch were the first in the world to recognize the United States as an independent country. They did that by saluting an American ship that arrived at one of these islands: Sint Eustatius. This actually angered the British so much that they started the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (yes, the fourth) and conquered the island. The Dutch got it back after four decades, but that’s why English is still the main language there.

The Dutch Caribbean didn’t experience mass migration linked to one specific event, like Indonesia and Suriname did. But people from the islands have settled in the Netherlands over time, often in pursuit of work. The first and second generation together make up about 1 percent of the Dutch population.

The results have been mixed. While many people from the Dutch Caribbean have integrated just fine, the crime rate is higher than that of any other ethnicity. Over 4 percent of crimes in the Netherlands are committed by someone from the Dutch Caribbean. In absolute numbers, crime is going down, though.

Immigrants from the Dutch Caribbean calling for peace in their community

European migrants in the Netherlands

Immigrants from other parts of Europe have settled in the Netherlands for as long as Europeans have existed. Borders have also changed many times, turning foreigners into countrymen and vice versa. Most people who are considered part of the native Dutch population have at least some immigrant ancestors.

The European Union has turned migration within Europe into a more casual affair than ever, though. By establishing freedom of movement, any citizen of a country in the EU can move to, work in, and study in any other country in the EU. No questions asked.

Germany is, of course, a neighboring country. It has a population roughly five times that of the Netherlands. It’s the Netherlands’ biggest import as well as export partner. The culture is similar enough that working together is easy. And it’s relatively easy for someone from one of these countries to learn the language of the other, although it’s often not necessary because people in both countries speak English.

So, it makes sense that there are more immigrants from Germany living in the Netherlands than from any other European country. And the migration works both ways. There are also many Dutch people living and working in Germany, as well as many people who cross the border every day because they live in one country and work in the other.

Because Germans blend in so well, though, they don’t get nearly as much attention as some of the other ethnicities. I’m not just talking about appearance, most German immigrants obviously look just like native Dutch people, but also about culture. You don’t see German neighborhoods, German restaurants, or other visible signs of a distinct German culture in the Netherlands. German immigrants just blend in.

Poland is not a neighboring country, and there didn’t use to be many Polish immigrants in the Netherlands. In 1996, there were only 25,000. In the quarter century that followed, however, it increased to well over 200,000. This is a direct result of the EU freedom of movement policy.

Most Polish immigrants are young. They’re primarily drawn by manual labor that doesn’t pay well by Dutch standards but still pays three times more than what they would get paid in Poland. Some only come over for a short time, they work hard and keep their living expenses low so they can return to Poland with more money. Others are more long-term oriented and have plans to stay in the Netherlands for many years.

Even though virtually all Polish immigrants are open to befriending and dating Dutch people (if they don’t already have a Polish partner), many find it hard to connect. Only a third of them say they speak English quite well, and only one in ten say the same about Dutch. And because they often live and work in close proximity to other Polish immigrants, many end up staying in their own bubble. The ones who plan to stay in the Netherlands for a long time generally put in more effort to learn the language and break out of that bubble, though.

While most people in the Netherlands recognize Polish immigrants as hard workers, the lack of meaningful communication still contributes to them being viewed as outsiders. The crime rate of Polish immigrants is low, but negative incidents get a disproportionate amount of attention in the media, and this contributes to unjust, negative stereotypes.

Polish immigrants working in the Dutch floral industry

Changing patterns of migration to the Netherlands

I’ve covered all the major immigrant groups to give you a sense of what the current population of the Netherlands looks like and how it came about. But, of course, there are many other immigrant groups that are all a part of Dutch society as well. They’re not big enough to cover in this article, but some of them might get bigger in the future.

When we look at the top ten countries of origin of those who moved to the Netherlands in 2019, the last year before pandemic-related travel restrictions were imposed, we notice three familiar countries: Poland, Turkey, and the Dutch Caribbean (still technically not one country). However, the other seven countries are: India, Romania, Syria, Bulgaria, Italy, China, and the UK (also technically not one country). It’s quite possible that people from any of these countries become a major immigrant group in the future.

What percentage of the Dutch population is black?

Lastly, I want to briefly answer this question because people have been asking. But I want to emphasize that the question is rooted in a worldview that doesn’t really line up with Dutch society.

The Dutch government doesn’t categorize people by race and neither do other Dutch organizations. The idea of being asked to fill out your race on an official form would actually strike most Dutch people as extremely racist. So, there’s simply no official data on this.

Apart from that, it also doesn’t make much sense to group all black people together because we’re talking about people from completely different countries who came to the Netherlands for completely different reasons. A black person from Suriname has more in common with another person from Suriname, even one of Indian descent, than with an African immigrant who just happens to have the same skin color.

That said, I recognize that there’s no racist intent behind the question. So, here’s the answer:

Of the 360,000 Surinamese immigrants, 155,000 are black or mixed. Most of the 179,000 Caribbean immigrants are too, but it’s unclear how many. And there are 329,000 African immigrants, but that includes North Africans (except Moroccans) and white Africans. So, less than 4 percent of the Dutch population is black.