dinsdag 8 april 2014

Violation of the human rights of people in the ''bijstand''

In the Netherlands unemployed people who receive basic financial assistance from the government called ''bijstand'' are routinely subjected in society to stereotyping and various other forms of stigmatization and abuse. Negative stereotypes such as ''unemployed people are lazy'', ''unemployed people are unwilling to work'' do no only influence ordinary people but even the government employees who are meant to assist this very vulnerable group. Such stereotypes are not only unfair in terms of generalisation but also that it conveniently ignores the fact that there are about seven times as many unemployed as that there are jobs available. The unemployed are therefore scapegoated as the culprits when in fact it is society as a whole and in particular the government which has failed to create sufficient jobs. The influence of stereotyping leads to patronising and inflicting psychological and physical abuse. Consequently the Dutch social welfare system, once a humane system and the envy of many societies, is now fast deteriorating from a humane into a dehumanizaing system. 

Many people who have ended up in the unfortunate and very desperate situation where the depend on receiving a ‘’bijstand’’ allowance are treated unjustly and unfairly as guilty until proven innocent from the moment they apply for help. They are treated as if they are to blame for their misfortune and not the government which has failed to curtail the unbridled greed of the banking sector which has contributed to the global financial crisis as well as the crisis at home. The victims of the failure of the government and society as a whole are now treated as guilty of procrastination, laziness, dishonesty, possessing a lack of motivation and so on while the real culprits escape the blame. Of course such scapegoating mechanisms happen all over the world but one would think that Dutch society would be wiser than that. The victims of the failure of the government to provide them with suitable jobs are systematically re-victimised as ''guilty'' as they are continually required to present proof of their innocence by presenting evidence of job applications, bank statements and the like. The assumptions underlying the "bijstands trekker" stereotype also results in harsh treatment with severe punishments being meted out for the slightest infringements. Not only do these violate the fundamental human right of those in need of ''bijstand'' to be treated with dignity; it also violates their right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. In addition their right not to be subjected to dehumanizing in the form of stereotyping and social discrimination is violated. It is well known in social psychology that stereotyping is a form of psychological abuse which forces the victims to respond in such a manner that they confirm, as a self-characteristic, the negative stereotype about themselves.[i]

In verbal and written communication by the social welfare authorities communicate to those receiving ''bijstand'' the implicit message that ''bijstand'' is a privilege and not part of their fundamental human rights.  Many of the recipients receiving ''bijstand'' report that they are treated like little children and are routinely threatened with ''if you don’t co-operate enough we will punish you''.  Because of their dependency on the ''bijstand'' uitkering most dare not complain and risk further victimisation. The psychological abuse of those depending on ''bijstand'' is perpetually sustained by repeating the threats verbally and in writing even where this is no justification to do so and even in cases where it is known that the recipient is unable to work due to a severe psychological condition. To do this to people who are already stigmatised in society, who are struggling to make ends meet and as a result are perpetually under financial stress, this is downright cruel. This kind of treatment befits an oppresive regime and contradicts the values espoused in the universal declaration of human rights which recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as espoused in article 1 and 2.[ii]
When psychological stress is accompanied by the threat of negative reinforcement it further disempowers and victimises people, fostering a downward spiral of despair and depression, making it even harder for them to escape the poverty-trap. Social psychologists have long pointed out that stereotyping actually elicits the very behaviour the victim group is accused of and sets them up for further mistreatment.[iv] This appears to be the case in the way people depending on ''bijstand'' in the Netherlands are treated.. The psychological abuse which results from stereotyping evokes resentment and lack of cooperation which sets up the victim for further abuse by the system. The system then responds by adding physical abuse to psychological abuse in the form of inflicting severe financial punishments which further disempower the victim.  In this manner people in the ‘’bijstand’’ are treated in a manner that predicatbly causes further psychological injury. Recent studies have confirmed this by demonstrating that the rate of suicide is five times higher among people receiving a ‘’bijstand’’ allowance than in society as a whole.[iii] Considering that the majority of people in psychological distress do not commit suicide the number of people suffering severe psychological distress may be as high as half of all the people needing ‘’bijstand’’.   

The threat of severe punishment is in itself a major psychological stressor, particularly for those who due to adverse circumstances are already in a psychologically vulnerable state.  The punishments themselves make the situation even worse:  A first violation may mean a 30% reduction of the monthly allowance (which already is below the minimum wage). A second violation may result in a 50% reduction and a third may result in no financial assistance whatsoever for a month or longer. In this manner the human rights of the most vulnerable groups in Dutch society are routinely violated. This includes their right not to be subjected to degrading treatment or punishment as article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states. The distress caused to families, particularly children who are innocent of the parents alleged shortcomings is also a violation of their rights and of the states obligation to protect the family as stated in article 16, point 3.  Also withholding part or the whole of the ‘’bijstand’’ allowance needed for basic survival is not only cruel but violates article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights which states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. And that motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. 

In conclusion we may state that the stereotyping and mistreatment of people depending on a ‘’bijstand’’ allowance in the Netherlands is a violation of their fundamental human rights.The mechanisms of and effects of stereotyping are well known and consequently the psychological distress of the victims could have been reasonably foreseen by the policy makers and implementers. They should therefore be held accountable for the distress and injury they have caused in their victims lives and affected family members. 

(Note the author is himself a recipient of a ''bijstand'' uitkering and has personally experienced some of what is described above while he was recovering from a severe post traumatic stress injury).

[i] ReducingStereotypeThreat.org. What is stereotype threat. http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/definition.html
[ii] United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights; http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
[iii] NRC. ‘Arbeidsongeschikte pleegt vaker zelfmoord’; http://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2013/12/04/arbeidsongeschikte-pleegt-vaker-zelfmoord/
[iv] Opportunities Lost: The Impact of Stereotypes on Self and Others http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83767/

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