In his New Year’s Day 1950 radio address, Prime Minister Willem Drees told the nation that ‘as in other times, some of our people will have to have the courage to leave home and forge their future further afield’.
While the Second World War was still in progress, the Dutch government in exile had anticipated a need on the part of the Dutch population to emigrate, and gathered information accordingly. On the basis of the projected population growth and related problems and the limited amount of arable land, emigration was deemed advisable. In the early post-war years of economic shortages, however, the priority was to rebuild the country. Labour could not be spared and capital could not be exported. Starting in 1947, the Marshall Plan provided financial support, and once recovery began around 1949, the government could begin to implement its plans for setting up a welfare state.
Dutch emigrants at Schiphol airport ready to leave for Australia, February 1952
Industrialisation and export were the core of economic policy. Given the problems in the agricultural sector and the increasing population pressures, the government saw that promoting large-scale emigration was also needed to ‘skim off’ the oversupply of workers in some professions which the country could not absorb. In so doing, the Netherlands joined the international debate about the extent to which internationally regulated migration from overpopulated European countries to sparsely populated regions in Europe and elsewhere might solve economic and demographic problems. There was consensus that emigration had to be a personal, voluntary matter and that the main role of government was to facilitate by providing information, offering courses, negotiating transport facilities, and concluding treaties on reception and subsidies for passage.
The Dutch government needed to consider not only developments in the world at large but also national concerns about emigration. Agricultural and women’s organisations as well as Protestant and Catholic emigration centres set up before the war championed the interests of their members who wanted to emigrate. They saw themselves as best placed to help people during and after emigration – in particular in spiritual matters, which is why they insisted on having a say in both policymaking and the implementation of emigration procedures. The issue was the subject of a three-year political and public debate which temporarily ended with the passage of the 1952 Emigration Agencies Act. As a compromise solution, an Emigration Council was created whose members included representatives of the eight ministries concerned and the civil society organisations. The Council advised the Minister of Social Affairs who had emigration in his portfolio. Another public-private agency, the Emigration Authority chaired by the Emigration Commissioner, was responsible for setting and implementing emigration policy and was assisted by the Dutch Emigration Service that took over the functions of the Dutch Emigration Foundation.
Contacts on the subject of migration between the Dutch and Australian governments resumed well before the end of the Second World War. The 1939 agreements were revived in 1946, and after Indonesia gained its independence, the Netherlands conducted negotiations about the possibility of Dutch citizens and ex-KNIL soldiers from the former Dutch East Indies settling in Australia. In 1949, the Dutch government awarded the first individual grants to emigrants to Australia. Initially, these were mainly confined to the unskilled and unemployed. A little later, however, the 1951 Netherlands Australia Migration Agreement (NAMA) was concluded with a view to providing financial support for as many Dutch emigrants as possible. The record number of emigrants was reached in 1952 when almost 16,000 people left for Australia. Despite other bilateral support programmes and the Migration and Settlement Agreement of 1965, the figures were never as high again.