In the Wake of Brexit, Europe Sees Its First Pro-Immigration Political Party

Sylvana Simons traded television presenting for politics when she joined Denk, a new Dutch pro-immigrant political party—only to see her head Photoshopped on a lynching victim in online videos. She tells us why she isn't going anywhere.

Dec 18 2016, 3:55pm

Photo courtesy of Sylvana Simons

As Europe faces a year where far-right politicians could gain power in France and Germany, Brexit looms and Donald Trump becomes U.S. President, a new political party has emerged in the Netherlands with what may be the continent's first explicitly pro-immigrant, pro-diversity agenda. And one of the main faces of Denk ("Think" in Dutch) is a foreign-born woman of color.

In May, Sylvana Simons left a long-running career in media to join Denk as a parliamentary candidate for the national elections in March—and now appears on-camera regularly as a politician rather than a presenter.

Denk was founded in May 2015, after the Turkish-Dutch parliamentarians Tunahan Kuzu and Selcuk Öztürk quit (or were expelled by) the Labour party over calls to surveil Turkish-Dutch organizations, after a survey with questionable methods suggested some young people supported groups such as ISIS. The party then ordered the two MPs not to voice dissent.

Instead, they founded their own party, which has grown to more than 3,500 members—more than enough to receive state funding as a political party—and is projected to win two or more seats in March. (They currently have two seats, held by the founders.)

Simons, who was born in Suriname in South America (formerly a Dutch colony), immigrated to the Netherlands with her family when she was 18 months old. She has worked as a dancer, actor, TV and radio presenter (on everything from talk shows to Dancing With the Stars), columnist, book author and recent contender on Strictly Come Dancing (she made it to runner-up).

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She decided to enter politics after experiencing violent backlash on social media, two years ago, when she confronted a retired white journalist for referring to refugees as "little blackies."

"Most of the comments I got were really ignorant," she says. "People would ask me what am I doing here in the Netherlands, why don't I go back to my own country, I'm not a real Dutch person so I can't really comment. And it struck me that a lot of people don't know about migration and why there are different cultures in the Netherlands."

Photo courtesy of Sylvana Simons

The backlash awakened Simons to structural racism in Dutch society, and the need to reform the country's education system.

"I really wanted to do something that would have a long-lasting effect and make some real changes, making this society a little bit more fair," she says.

"I realized if I really want to make a change and get this subject not only on the table, but make sure we do get some significant changes, I really needed to start at the core of it all. And the core of it is our system," she adds.

The Netherlands is home to 3.7 million people of immigrant descent (out of a total population of 17 million). The largest communities hail from Morocco and Turkey, starting in the 60s, and from former colonies such as Indonesia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.

The Dutch like to use the word 'integration,' while what they really mean is assimilation.

It's also home to a far-right party leader who dyes his hair platinum blond (and reportedly has Indonesian roots), and a controversial pre-Christmas tradition known as "Black Pete"—a servant character who gives gifts to kids with St. Nicholas and whose costume often includes blackface, an afro wig, large red lips, and gold hoop earrings.

Simons, who has openly criticized the Black Pete tradition, believes the Dutch education system needs to give people greater understanding of the country's colonial past and participation in the slave trade, and how the country benefited from them.

"At first I thought it was just something I had missed as a person in school, but then I realized it's structural and institutional," she says.

Appearing on TV regularly, she speaks with confidence and poise about intersectional inequality in Dutch society—based on race, gender, disability and more—and the need to embrace acceptance over integration.

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"We feel that integration is a one-way street, and it hasn't worked," she says of Denk.

"The Dutch like to use the word 'integration,' while what they really mean is assimilation," she says. "We have now third-generation migrants who are born here: They don't need to integrate. They're born here, they go to school here, they work here. They're Dutch."

She believes integration often means minorities are expected to shed their ancestral culture, which shouldn't be necessary.

"It's now time for the dominant group to not just say, 'Well, you're welcome in this country as a guest.' No. We are equal partners living together: how are we going to divide responsibility, divide citizenship?"

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She compares acceptance over integration to the difference between cohabiting and hosting a guest in your home.

"When someone comes and stays at your house, you tell them your house rules, when you have dinner, whether to take their shoes off. When you move in together, you together decide what sofa you're going to buy, who's responsible for groceries, who's responsible for dinner," she says.

Denk's policies therefore include decolonizing Dutch education, language, monuments and street names, fines or sacking for discriminatory behavior, and a "victim-perpetrator contract" based on the country's system for drivers whose licenses are revoked.

They propose that people caught for discriminatory behavior take a course teaching them about the consequences of their behavior, and be put in contact with their victims "to increase knowledge and understanding," Simons says.

What we've seen in the UK as well as the US is that young people vote generally for an open society—they have global minds.

So far, her campaign has been rocky, featuring criticism from some mainstream media and instances of violence and abuse. One criticism of Denk has been that it is adding to social divisions in the Netherlands (the counter-argument being that they are drawing attention—and proposing solutions—to divisions that already exist).

"There's this saying that when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression," she says. "It's hard for people to realize, 'Oh, they have a voice too and they're Dutch too, and they take responsibility for their country, and they just want to be an equal partner in the conversation.'"

Recently, after an online video emerged depicting her as a lynching victim, Simons has needed personal security, whose details she couldn't share. (Like the US and the UK, the Netherlands has seen politicians get killed.)

A formal government complaint is being investigated by the Public Prosecution Office, and the video creator has turned himself into police for investigation. But Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not condemn the racist video—which doesn't surprise Simons.

"I feel that is part of the problem," she says. "The leadership that we so desperately need is not only economic leadership: It's moral leadership as well. It's leaders that say, 'This is not where we want our country to go."

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As for what to do about the spread of right-wing, anti-immigrant politics, she believes young people need to be politically active and vote to help change the system.

"We've seen that traditional politicians and politics often disregard young people, shaping their future in a way that doesn't serve them best," she says. "I do believe we need some fresh air and some fresh blood—because we see that for a lot of political parties, they are stuck in their ways, and old-school politics doesn't work anymore."

"What we've seen in the UK as well as the US is that young people vote generally for an open society—they have global minds—whereas the conservatives and the older people are way more prone to the fear that's being spread," she adds.

She encourages young people to find organizations they feel at home with, and make their voices heard. Whether the issue is jobs, health care or affordable education, "a lot of the problems we're facing are the problems of the future," she says.

UPDATE: On December 24, 2016, Sylvana Simons announced that she was leaving Denk to set up her own political party, Article1.