VoxEU Column Migration

Exit, voice and loyalty in the Netherlands

Native Dutch are emigrating from the Netherlands in surprisingly large numbers. This column shows that most Dutch emigrants are choosing to exit due to dissatisfaction with the quality of the public domain, particularly high population density. Is their exit a vote of no confidence in the Dutch government?

For the fifth year in a row, emigration from the Netherlands exceeded immigration last year, reaching 123,000 emigrants, which amounts to 7.5 emigrants per 1000 inhabitants. Dutch media has repeatedly reported this phenomenon because it caught demographic forecasters by surprise. The last emigration wave occurred fifty years ago, and at present the Netherlands is the only Western European country experiencing net emigration, although similar trends are visible in the UK (Salt and Rees, 2006) and to lesser extent in Germany.
People leaving the Netherlands on such a large scale has worried the media and politicians. The big Dutch puzzle is that it contradicts common knowledge and economic logic. The reason why immigrants come to the United States or Europe has been widely, studied and the general driving force behind these migration flows is thought to be a higher standard of living (cf. Hatton and Williamson, 2005). The Netherlands is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, so why are people leaving a country that has been immigrants’ destination for so many years?

To answer this question, we examined national data to see who has left and surveyed a representative sample of the Dutch in 2005 to learn who had emigration plans. To generate more in-depth insight into the characteristics of the Dutch emigrant, we also carried out a survey among a focus group of potential emigrants who had visited an emigrants’ fair. In 2007, with the help of Statistics Netherlands, we tracked the whereabouts of all those surveyed in 2005.

Who has left?

National emigration figures for 1999 to 2006 show that men are twice as likely to emigrate as women, and it is mostly the young (under 30) who emigrate. Furthermore, it is the Dutch in the top decile of the income distribution who are most likely to emigrate. Sixty-nine percent of Dutch emigrants choose a European destination. It should not be a surprise that most emigrants move to one of the neighbouring countries Germany and Belgium. However, it is well established that this applies mainly to cross-border migration, where people live just across the border and still work in the Netherlands. High housing and land prices in the Netherlands drive many to move to Belgium or Germany, which offer spacious houses that are almost unaffordable for middle-income households in the Netherlands. When Belgium and Germany are left out of the equation, 31% of emigrants are headed to European destinations. The US and Canada account for another 15%. Table 1 lists the top ten destinations for native Dutch emigrants.

Table 1 Where do Dutch emigrants go?

  Destination Frequency distribution Age at time of departure % self-employed % single
1 Belgium 21.1 40.3 9.0 24.8
2 Germany 17.1 40.6 7.2 24.3
3 France 6.5 45.5 10.3 20.9
4 USA 6.4 35.6 3.3 29.5
5 UK 6.1 32.8 2.2 42.6
6 Spain 5.9 43.7 9.6 25.9
7 Netherlands Antilles and Aruba 5.5 35.5 4.3 26.2
8 Australia 3.3 33.9 4.8 34.3
9 Canada 2.7 38.2 17.8 20.0
10 Switzerland 2.0 36.2 3.1 33.2

Source: Statistics Netherlands

Why leave?

Based on our emigration survey in 2005, we established that 3% of the Dutch population had rather firm emigration plans. Many fulfilled their intentions: 24% had left after two years. Considering the fact that emigration is a complex process tied up with a lot of red tape and long-lasting problems such as selling a house or a business, this percentage is quite high.

The thousand-dollar question surrounding the Dutch emigration wave is, of course, why leave? Examining the determinants of emigration intentions and subsequent actions reveals a clear picture. The determinants may classified into two groups: (a) the individual characteristics that one would expect to be relevant if emigration were a matter of private gains (like age, human capital, health, networks, psychological personality characteristics) and (b) the provision and perceived quality of the public domain of life in the Netherlands. Every individual depends on the actions and solidarity of others and perhaps more so in a crowded country such as the Netherlands which is also known for its extensive welfare state. The following elements were determined – based on a statistical analysis – to represent the public domain: (1) the Dutch welfare state and institutions which provide the public goods and services (law and order, social security, education, health care); (2) the quality of the public space (noise pollution, space, nature, crowdedness); and (3) the evaluation of social problems addressed by the government, like crime, pollution, and ethnic tensions.

The results of our study reveal that both the private and the public domain of life are important to understanding emigration from a high-income country like the Netherlands. The more negative one is about the public domain, the more likely it is that one will actually emigrate (see Figure 1). Of course, the Dutch who stayed are also negative about large parts of the public domain, but emigrants (“movers” and “dreamers”, i.e. those who intended to emigrate but have not yet) are far more negative than those staying behind.1 The biggest difference between emigrants and those staying behind is the evaluation of the quality of public space. Without knowing how people feel about the quality of the public domain, large-scale emigration would remain a mystery.

Figure 1 Evaluation of the living conditions in the Netherlands, by migration status

Note: Dreamers are Dutch who intended to emigrate but have not (yet) done so; stayers are Dutch who did not intend to emigrate and have indeed stayed; movers are Dutch who intended to emigrate and have done so.

Of course, one may wonder whether all those aspects the emigrants loath will be much better in their country of destination. At the time of the survey, we only asked about their expectations, and in this respect all emigrants believed the public space would be far better and the social problems less severe in their “promised land”. It is striking that only 17% believed they would attain a higher income abroad and even 29% expected that their income would drop.

Who remains loyal?

The fact that Dutch leave their country for reasons that are directly tied to the quality of the public domain makes one wonder how many, disillusioned with exercising their voice, would abandon loyalty and head for the exit (Hirschman, 1970). We performed a counterfactual analysis to assess the importance of the public domain in explaining emigration intensions (see Van Dalen and Henkens, 2007). Our calculations suggest that if all Dutch held extremely negative evaluations of the public domain, approximately 20% of the population (16 million inhabitants) would be inclined to leave the country. Population pressure is an especially strong driving force. Of course, one could also turn this gloomy outcome around, as80% remain loyal. However, this “loyal” majority must be a very frustrated group of people.


Our study suggests that the quality of the public domain is an important part of quality of life, and those Dutch who have moved are implicitly casting a vote of no confidence in those who govern the nation. This lesson may also be of some relevance to other European countries where emigration has taken off and crowdedness has become a concern. For example, England’s population density is similar to that of the Netherlands (394 inhabitants per square kilometre), and British surveys seem to register the same type of dissatisfaction witnessed in the Netherlands.

As people forego “voice” by choosing their “exit” option, national governments find themselves in competitions previously restricted to local governments. Perhaps that is the true sign that we live in the age of globalisation.


Hatton, T.J., and J.G. Williamson, 2005, What Fundamentals Drive World Migration?, in: G.J. Borjas and J. Crisp (eds.), Poverty, International Migration and Asylum, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, pp.15-38.
Hirschman, A.O., 1970, Exit, Voice and Loyalty – Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Salt, J. and P.H. Rees, 2006, Globalisation, Population Mobility and Impact of Migration on Population, ESRC Seminar Series, Economic and Social Research Council, Swindon.
Van Dalen, H.P., and K. Henkens 2007, Longing for the Good Life: Understanding Emigration from a High-Income Country, Population and Development Review, 33: 37-65.
Van Dalen, H.P., and K. Henkens, 2008, Emigration Intentions: Mere Words or True Plans? Explaining International Migration Intentions and Behavior, CentER discussion paper, no. 2008-60, Tilburg University.

1 The only exception to this rule is with respect to the income one earns in the Netherlands.


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