CBS reclassifies migration data after thorough external consultations

/ Author: Masja de Ree
Shopping street in the Netherlands
© Hollandse Hoogte / Co de Kruijf
Statistics Netherlands (CBS) has recently been working on a new classification according to origin for migrants in the Netherlands and for migrant children who were born in the Netherlands. The purpose of this adjustment was to arrive at a more accurate classification and to produce statistics which are more in line with recent developments in society. CBS Director General Angelique Berg took the decision on a new classification following careful consultation with various external parties involved.
CBS is introducing a new approach towards publishing data on what up to this point was called the population with a western or non-western migration background. In the new classification, the country where a person was born will be made more central than the country where a person’s parents were born. The main classification western versus non-western is being replaced by a classification based on continents and major countries of origin.


DG Berg calls the consultations she held with stakeholders about the classification of origins ‘incredibly valuable’. The distinction between ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ migrants was introduced in the late 1990s in the context of the annual population forecast by CBS. Although it served its purpose well back then, it can no longer be explained properly. For instance: migrants from Japan used to be labelled ‘western’ whereas migrants from South Korea were not, although the two countries have long been comparable in terms of socio-economic development. Moreover, the term non-western has been perceived as stigmatising by some.


In the recent past, CBS organised roundtables to discuss this issue with, among others, representatives of migrant interest groups, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), ministries, universities, the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI), the Dutch Centre of Expertise on Health Disparities (Pharos), consultancy firms and the Netherlands Police. Berg explains: ‘Talking to different people brings different perspectives and views on social themes. These may be new or they may confirm what you were already suspecting. We are a public sector organisation and as such we produce statistics on people and for people. It would be odd to not ask them for their opinion.’

‘An open dialogue with society can produce a lot of result’

Born in the Netherlands

Berg continues: ‘Strikingly, almost all the participants in the discussions pointed out how there should be a distinction between foreign-born people who have immigrated into the Netherlands and their children born in the Netherlands.’ Up until recently, that distinction was only made statistically in the second instance, but moving it to the centre can provide interesting insights. The disparities with inhabitants whose parents were both born in the Netherlands, and the development thereof, can thus be mapped out more clearly: ‘From now on, that will be the major distinction for us.’

Classification by continent

It was subsequently decided to make the classification by migrant origin as neutral as possible, namely by continent. Berg continues: ‘We will, however, pay separate attention to those countries from which many migrants came in recent decades, such as Turkey, Suriname and Morocco.’ CBS emphasises that within these frameworks, a classification will be chosen per research question, so that the relevant distinctions will be made only for that particular research: ‘If you publish a study on European labour migrants in construction, agriculture or manufacturing, it can be relevant to know from which parts of Europe they came. That distinction is not necessary in other studies. So in statistics, depending on the topic, there can be European migrants or Polish migrants, for instance,’ Berg explains.

Distinction needed for good policy

Many different ideas emerged from the roundtables. DG Berg took the final decision. ‘In doing so, we are aware of the fact that we’re unable to accommodate everyone,’ Berg says. ‘There are also people who do not want to look at migration. But it is necessary to distinguish specific populations and to describe what you see in order to properly develop and evaluate policies; for example, when it comes to equal opportunities in the school system of on the labour market. The adjustments will lead to an improved classification and thus to statistics that are more in tune with developments in society. In addition, we examine very critically for each study whether a distinction by country or continent of origin is important.’

Open dialogue with society

With the changes, CBS is responding to the wish of WRR for even more fact-based handling of data and a closer alignment with developments in Dutch society and worldwide. The changes will gradually be incorporated into the statistics in the coming period. Berg expects CBS to consult stakeholders more often in future roundtables: ‘For example, on other important social topics. An open dialogue with society can produce a lot of result.’