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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 87, December 2001


The International Student Chaplaincy 
in The Netherlands

I.S.P. Chaplain The Netherlands

[Italian summary, German summary]


The following observations are made primarily in order to consider the relationship between the International Student Chaplaincy, the local hierarchy and the missionary societies in the context of pastoral, diaconal and missionary work.

Secondly, I reflect on the new challenges to the chaplaincies for international students in the context of globalisation.

It is good to reflect on the present situation because of changing accents in work with international students. Actually, this work is relatively new, finding its origin in the migration of peoples of the post-colonial and post-war era.

In this paper, I limit myself to The Netherlands, because I have insufficient data from other countries. The new network, SECIS (Service of European Churches for International Students), which was established formally in the course of the year 2001, does not possess sufficient documented data about the chaplaincies for international students world-wide either.

1.     Some historical notes on the chaplaincy for international students in The Netherlands.

"It does not matter who does the work, as long as the work is done" is written on the walls of a major seminary for missionaries in England. The slogan stimulated hundreds of young missionaries in their work in the developing countries in the South.

It also kept them going when they returned "home", with an open eye for needy situations, especially when they met the people with whom they were working formerly, but were now migrants, refugees, employees or students.

Thus it was that the Rev. Dr. Promes, ofm. cap, started working with international students, concentrating himself first and foremost on Indonesian students because he had worked for some years in Indonesia and was familiar with their circumstances: 'adat', feelings, language, culture.

The size of the Netherlands is small compared to his former mission-territory. He did not mind working in the whole western part of the country and also going out occasionally to some other university towns in the north and south.

In 1966, he was officially appointed for this task by the hierarchy and in 1980, he was succeeded by the Rev. Fr. P. van Dongen, O.Praem., who was a chaplain for Dutch students for 11 years. In his new full time task with the international students in the eastern part of the country, Fr. van Dongen was given support by some missionaries, mainly Missionaries of Africa and Mill Hill missionaries.

Their work in the east was often voluntary and unofficial, but since 1994, their task too had become official, although only at a part-time basis of 50%.

Meanwhile the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands formed a special foundation to co-ordinate the work with the migrants, who had started coming in bigger numbers, not only as 'guest-labourers' from Spain and Italy, from Turkey and Morocco, but also as refugees from many other areas of the world. Amongst these newcomers were many young people who wanted to start or continue their university education.

Other students, mainly post-graduates, come at the invitation of the Dutch government, NGO's or the institutes for higher learning to come and study on scholarships.

The chaplaincy for the international students became part of the Allochtonen Zielzorg foundation, supervised in its diaconal work by the foundation Cura Migratorum. In 2001, these two foundations were amalgamated into a new Church foundation, now known under the name of “Cura Migratorum”.

2.     The intake of students in institutes for higher education.

Until the mid-nineties we could safely say that a total number of about 3,000 international students arrived in The Netherlands annually. This number did not include the refugee students who came as asylum-seekers to this country and who could apply for higher education only after their request for asylum had been considered.

As of December 1st, 1995 the total number of students with a foreign nationality amounted to 6,858, of which 3,745 were men and 3,113 women, from approximately 118 countries.[1]

In many European countries, education has become an economic asset and institutes of education are now competing in drawing more and more students to Europe, by lowering the tuition fees and also by using the English language more and more as a medium of instruction.

There has also been an increase in students coming to The Netherlands because of the introduction of the Erasmus-programme, which draws about one thousand students from European countries per year.

In the past few years, the numbers have risen to an estimated 10,000, coming from a great variety of countries. An 11-month postgraduate training programme in Delft, at the International Institution for Infrastructure, Hydraulics and Environmental Engineering (in short IHE ) drew 270 participants from 73 countries.[2]

The 1997 statistics showed that there was a considerable number of students from Suriname (713), Turkey (663), Morocco (512) and Indonesia (300). These countries reflect the colonial past of The Netherlands (Suriname and Indonesia) and the countries which supplied guest-labourers in the 60's and 70's (Morocco and Turkey).

The relatively low number (300) from Indonesia, which used to send about a thousand students per year in the early nineties, reflected the political difficulty between Indonesia and The Netherlands at that time. The number has now more than doubled, since relations have stabilised.

We can discern three categories of incoming students:

a.      The first group, which is the most important one for the chaplains, consists in students who have come here on a scholarship, either for Technical Studies (IHE water-management), Social Studies (ISS in The Hague), Agricultural Studies in Wageningen or ITC technology in Enschede.

In general, they are well looked-after: already before their arrival, during their stay in the country, with regard to introduction, housing, insurance, social care, pastoral care, etc., and even after their departure as alumni.

b.     Then, there are the 'private students', who enter the country on a student-visa and who are supposed to support themselves financially, completely and totally. The only possibility for them to increase the meagre income from home is to work for a maximum of ten hours per week or three months per year.

Many of them miscalculate the funds necessary for these studies or have come with a false hope on the goodness of distant relatives and with hardly any knowledge about insurance, work-permits and so on. The chaplains often have to come to their rescue with emergency financial aid.

c.      The third group is made up of asylum-seekers, those who have spent some time in a centre for refugees. They have first to learn the Dutch language to be able to enrol in the universities and other institutes of higher education.

The University Assistance Fund often comes to their help, paving the way for and financing their further studies. Members of this group also come to the chaplains for emergency aid: books, college-fees, rent and sometimes even the daily bowl of rice.[3]

Fellowships from the Dutch Government do not apply to asylum-seekers for study at IHE, ISS, etc.

3.     Is cultural integration an important aspect of the Chaplaincy and the Government?

Many articles have been devoted to the aspect of assimilation, integration, etc. It is a constant subject of discussion in the chaplaincy itself, but also in the wider context of Cura Migratorum, SECIS, the Church in general and of governments.

The message of the Church has not essentially changed since 1985 when Pope John Paul II wrote the following:

"The immigrant members of the Church, while freely exercising their rights and duties and being in full ecclesial communion in the particular Churches, feeling themselves Christians and brothers towards all, must be able to remain themselves completely as far as language, culture, liturgy and spiri­tuality, and particular traditions are concerned, in order to reach that ecclesial integration which enriches the Church of God, and which is the result of the dynamic realism of the Incarnation of the Son of God.”[4] 

Most messages from the churches and most discussions revolve around the theme of Matthew 25: 25: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome.”

However, we can discern two tendencies in the world of international students. There are some students who try at all costs to belong to their new country: settle down here, finish their studies and get a job. They stay here because their families at home have succeeded in planting a seed in a foreign but rich country and these families expect a rich return, a constant stream of money, by which their siblings can receive further education and many other needs of the family can be met.

The other tendency is not to limit oneself to The Netherlands, but rather to see the world as the global village where there are many other opportunities, where there are lots of bigger companies and where one can earn bigger salaries. The Netherlands are too small; indeed, the country is very small compared to many of their native countries.

The international student is not a temporary student in one specific country, but is rather a global student. Education becomes global education, not limited to The Netherlands, not limited to the countries of the European Union, but a vast network among universities and companies.

The work of the chaplaincy cannot be limited to the national level and can definitely not be concentrated on integration or on projects which aim at integration into the Dutch culture and the Dutch churches.

Institutes and Universities are concerned about the well-being of the international students and do have proper programmes for their introduction and guidance.

However, integration of the minority groups into institutions of higher education is a source of concern for the government because the percentage of foreign or migrant youth in higher education is much lower than that of the indigenous youth.

The first steps towards a cultural integration of education were taken in 1993. It comprised four changes, namely in policies of personnel, organisation, preconditions, like language and customs, and fourthly, in contents.[5] The budget of this programme, 2.7 million Dutch guilders, was considered far too little for such an important task.

There is, however, a considerable difference in the importance of integration between students who remain and those who return to their own countries upon completion of their studies. A very important aspect of the work of the chaplains is actually that of bringing international students in contact with each other and not so much with the Dutch students. It may be a temptation to do so, but contacts should rather be on the international level.

One will come to know that there is a tremendous difference between students from eastern and western Africa, from Indonesia and Korea, from Sudan and South Africa, Chile and Brazil, not to mention the students from the different European countries.

The institutes of higher education promote this international integration by organising African, Asian or Latin American festivals.

The chaplains bring all English-speaking students together at the Sunday-services and the social gatherings that follow and must acknowledge that the effort to bring Dutch and international students together into one "Global Meeting Point" has been a rather frustrating experience.

The conclusion here would be that it is important for the chaplaincy to devote much time and energy to this international integration, which might also be called globalisation.

The government on the contrary can limit itself to the integration of those students who remain, probably as future citizens of the country.

4. The hospitality of the local church.

Over and over again it has been said that hospitality is one of the 'trademarks' of the local church. We know the biblical references; we know the life of Jesus Christ who identified himself with the 'foreigner'.

It is therefore logical that international students are welcomed and made to feel at home in the local churches and in local communities. The local church cannot be unaware of the needs of these students, especially when they are homesick, when they do not understand the local laws and customs, when they are in financial trouble.

The local church has taken steps to overcome these difficulties and to extend a helping hand, for example by establishing "The Ecumenical Committee for Emergency Aid to Students from Africa, Asia and Latin America".

Actually, there are several aid-agencies for international and refugee students and many individual persons indeed do extend a warm welcome in a variety of ways.

It is, however, most important to constantly bring about an awareness of the religious, ecumenical, financial and personal needs of these international students.

Fortunately, the Churches in The Netherlands have understood that there must be a very close co-operation in this work. Two years ago the 'parish councils' of the Catholic and Protestant chaplaincies decided to meet three times a year in a new organisation, called 'CHAINS' (Chaplaincies to International Students).

It seems to me that the only way to bring about this awareness programme and this global education is by appointing chaplains (priests and pastoral workers) specifically for these students.

They must be persons who, with great sensitivity, know how to bridge the gap and are able to guide these students into their new world.

They must be well-versed in customs and languages world-wide, with a knowledge of the South; they themselves must be global people, who break down the barriers of local communities and open windows to the world.

It is thus logical to say that any person who would like to work in the world of international students must necessarily have a missionary calling: breaking down barriers of race and religion, crossing barriers of nationalism, opening to ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, living in solidarity with those who cannot make it by themselves.

Indeed, it would profit the international students if the work of the chaplaincies were specialised and carried out by a special organisation, a missionary society for international students.

Actually, it is interesting to see that in 1989 there was a proposal for the Indonesian province of the Jesuits to look after the Indonesian students overseas. The Provincial Superior agreed to this proposal but it was never structured nor put into effect. [6]

5.     Should there be a special organisation for international students?

The history of the International Student Chaplaincy (I.S.P. - Internationaal Studenten Pastoraat) in The Netherlands started with a person who entered into the unstructured field of pastoral work among international students.

He himself was equipped with a knowledge of the life in the Far East. His successors have all been drawn from religious and missionary backgrounds: O.Praem, MSC, Mill Hillers, SMA and so on. They were all drawn to and into the wide world of international students, precisely because of the international setting or, as we call it nowadays, globalisation (in the proper meaning of the word).

One of the most important tasks of this chaplaincy, with regard to outgoing students, is to equip them in such a way that they can play leading roles in their own countries and their own churches or, in general, in this global village of ours.

However, there are some weak points in the present chaplaincies in the smaller countries of Western Europe, especially with regard to the students’ future. The European Church is old, seemingly tired and short of personnel. Can the Churches take their responsibility towards the students who will be going back to their own young Churches? Do the Churches have the financial resources to support poor students? Indeed, the question is also: who takes the responsibility for the chaplaincy and where does this chaplaincy really belong?

As mentioned above, the chaplaincy came about through the initiative of a returnee missionary and was carried forward by a number of missionaries. The chaplaincy was then put under the umbrella of the pastoral work for migrants, presently called “Cura Migratorum”, the official organisation delegated for this work by the Episcopal Conference of The Netherlands.

It is debatable whether I.S.P. in The Netherlands should have been placed under the umbrella of Cura Migratorum, like the migrant parishes, or under the Radboud-foundation like the chaplaincies for the Dutch students.

The Radboud-foundation is the official institution for higher education, delegated for this task by the Bishops' Conference.

ISP has its own committee and is structured according to the directives of the Dutch Bishops' Conference, not as a parish or quasi-parish for migrants, but as a chaplaincy, even though the work of the chaplaincy is quite different from that of parishes for migrants.

The parishioners of the parishes for migrants are, generally speaking, here to stay, but international students stay for a short time, rarely longer than 12 or 18 months. Their language remains English; there is no wish and no need for cultural integration.

There is no possibility to train leaders in such a short time-frame.

It should also be noted that chaplaincies, too, suffer from a shortage of personnel and depend heavily on aid-agencies.

6. Possible answers and challenges.

ISP is often confronted with these problems and is looking for answers.

A possible answer lies in strengthening the SECIS meetings and organisation, but the answer may also lie in the students themselves.

They are confronted with the problems of their own countries of which they will become the leaders, where they will take the leading roles in commerce and industry.

Their efforts will be weakened by the "brain-drain", by so many trained personnel who leave for the richer areas of the world.

They will be subjected to the results of national debts and will feel these results if these debts are not reduced or cancelled. They will have to cope with questions regarding ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.

Now is the time to take some initiatives.

We must see to it that there are meeting points for students, not only in the universities, but also in times and places of reflection.

Small groups of students have been subsidised by the Radboud-foundation for a trip to Rome at the end of the Jubilee Year 2000 and to Taizé in 2001 and we hope to prepare a 'place of retreat' for them, where they can spend a weekend away from their studies. Monasteries too are ideal places for reflection, not only individually, but also as a group.

Another initiative being considered by ISP, that is already being put into practise to some extent, is the publication of a magazine for international students, first of all in The Netherlands, but hopefully also world-wide, through the internet and e-mail.

This magazine is called: The Global Student.

The first two groups which have shown interest in the project were students from Kenya (University of Nairobi) and the South Sudanese University students in Cairo.

It is also worthwhile to know that there is a movement among students to get themselves organised. Thus, the Sudanese students in The Netherlands have set up a committee, called SOSEF (South Sudanese Educational Fund). With their own meagre funds they want to support students who have nothing at all.

A development in this effort is that a similar committee has been established in Cairo, namely SOSEF-Egypt, for the thousands of Sudanese students who are staying in Egypt as 'displaced persons' and who would have no access to education without the help of their brothers and sisters in The Netherlands.

Maybe this is not the task of one particular country, but of SECIS or of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. However, the magazine should remain one specifically for international students.

The time has come for international students to discuss the most important issues of the future together and to be connected with each other in this discussion through the modern means of communication. The technical know-how and also the financial possibilities exist. The chaplaincies should be available to facilitate this programme.

We are all aware that at the moment, these important issues of life are discussed as political and economic issues, as can be seen, e.g., in the latest discussion about attracting guest-migrants to solve the problems of the labour market in Western Europe, by-passing the problems related to 'brain-drain'.

The issue of debt-cancellation is also riddled with political and economic discussions, again by-passing the human aspects.

International students are hopefully more apt to take the real problems at heart through the work of international student Church communities.

United they could add a necessary dimension to the decisions taken for a better world, where the human person and life itself remain the central point of interest.

[1] Source: Central Bureau for Statistics.
[2] Source: S.A.B. of IHE, 1997
[3] see B. Engelbertink International Students in The Netherlands, Jan. 2001
[4] Message of John Paul II, on July 16th , 1985.
[5] The first steps on the way to inculturation of higher education, Sept. 1993
[6] See notes about Indonesian students in Europe by Rev. Padmo, Jan. 1989.


La Cappellania degli Studenti Esteri in Olanda


Una cappellania relativamente nuova

Uno studio storico della cappellania per gli studenti esteri mostra che essa non è stata strutturata fin dall'inizio ma è iniziata per opera di singoli individui, principalmente missionari, che si presero a cuore la situazione di questi studenti. A poco a poco, la fondazione “Cura Migratorum” si fece carico di questo apostolato su incarico dei vescovi olandesi.

L’ammissione degli studenti esteri

Negli anni c’è stato un aumento nel numero degli studenti esteri. Questi sono diventati un bene economico e i paesi fanno a gara nell’attirare un numero sempre più grande di loro.

Tre sono le categorie di studenti presenti nel paese: quelli che vengono per proprio conto, quelli che vengono perché in possesso di una borsa di studio o quelli che vengono come rifugiati o richiedenti asilo.

Necessità di un’integrazione culturale

Esiste una differenza tra gli studenti che resteranno in Olanda e quelli che torneranno nei loro paesi. L’ospitalità deve essere riservata ad ognuno di loro. Tuttavia, l’integrazione culturale in Olanda è compito del governo, in particolare per coloro che resteranno. Per quanti torneranno nei loro paesi è necessario un diverso tipo di integrazione, cioè un’integrazione globale, il che vuol dire entrare in contatto con le diverse denominazioni, religioni e culture, a livello mondiale. Quest’ultimo tipo di integrazione può essere incoraggiato dalle cappellanie in diversi modi.

Un compito missionario

I missionari, a motivo della loro vocazione, saranno sensibili al compito di fare da ponte tra le popolazioni. Non dovrebbero lavorare individualmente a motivo dei propri interessi. Il lavoro dovrebbe essere svolto da organizzazioni specializzate, fino alla creazione di una società missionaria per gli studenti esteri. È necessaria un’organizzazione ben definita tanto a livello nazionale come pure internazionale, che sia più ampia del SECIS, e non limitata al contesto europeo.


La fuga dei cervelli è dannosa per lo sviluppo naturale di tutti i paesi del mondo. Gli studenti esteri dovrebbero poter fare da ponte, specialmente dopo aver avuto l’occasione di riflettere sulla loro situazione personale e nazionale. A questo scopo, l’internet e la posta elettronica dovrebbero essere usati al massimo ed essere a disposizione non solo di alcuni, ma di tutti gli studenti. In ogni sviluppo, la persona e la stessa vita umana dovrebbero restare il punto centrale d’interesse.

Die Internationale Seelsorgestelle für Studenten in den Niederlanden


Eine relativ neue Seelsorgestelle:

Eine geschichtliche Untersuchung der Seelsorgestelle für ausländische Studierende zeigt, dass dieselbe nicht von Anfang an fest strukturiert war, sondern von einzelnen Personen, hauptsächlich von Missionaren, begonnen worden war, die sich die Schwierigkeiten dieser Studenten zu Herzen nahmen. Allmählich übernahm die Gründung "Cura Migratorum" im Auftrag der holländischen Bischöfe dieses Apostolat

Die Zulassung ausländischer Studierender:

Im Laufe der Jahre hat sich die Zahl der ausländischen Studierenden erhöht. Sie sind ein wirtschaftlicher Vorteil geworden und die Länder wetteifern untereinander, um immer mehr ausländische Studierende anzuziehen.

Es gibt drei Kategorien von Studenten: diejenigen, die aus eigener Initiative kommen, diejenigen, die ein Stipendium haben, und dann diejenigen, die als Flüchtlinge oder Asylanten kommen.

Kulturelle Integration ist nötig:

Man muß unterscheiden zwischen den Studenten, die im Aufnahmeland bleiben werden und denen, die wieder in ihr Heimatland zurückkehren. Allen und jedem einzelnen muß Gastfreundschaft entgegengebracht werden. Die kulturelle Eingliederung in die Niederlande hingegen ist Aufgabe der Regierung, besonders im Hinblick auf jene, die die Absicht haben zu bleiben. Für die Studierenden, die in ihr Heimatland zurückkehren wollen ist eine andere Art von Integration notwendig, nämlich eine globale, das heißt, in Verbindung treten mit den verschiedenen Gemeinschaften, Religionen und Kulturen, weltweit. Diese Art von Integration kann auf vielseitigem Wege von den Seelsorgestellen gepflegt werden 

Eine missionarische Aufgabe:

Missionare sind aufgrund ihrer Berufung aufgeschlossen für die Aufgabe Brückenbauer zwischen den Völkern sein. Sie sollen aber nicht aus Gründen des eigenen Interessens als Einzelne arbeiten. Diese Arbeit sollte von einer spezialisierten Organisation ausgeführt werden, die sogar bis zur Gründung einer Missionsgemeinschaft für internationale Studierende geht. Eine genau umschriebene nationale und internationale Organisation ist notwendig, noch umfassender als SECIS, und nicht nur auf die europäische Situation beschränkt.


Die Abwanderung von Wissenschaftlern ist für eine natürliche Entwicklung der Länder der Welt nachteilig. Die internationalen Studierenden sollten fähig sein, die Kluften zu überbrücken, besonders nachdem ihnen die Chance gegeben wurde, sowohl über ihre eigene, wie die nationale Situation nachzudenken. Zu diesem Zweck sollte Internet und E-mail nach besten Kräften benutzt werden und nicht nur einigen wenigen zugänglich sein, sonder weltweit allen Studierenden. Jede Entwicklung aber sollte immer den Menschen und das menschliche Leben in den Mittelpunkt des Interessens stellen.