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Realism about Numerical Targets. Exploring immigration targets and quotas in Dutch policy

The Advisory Council on Migration presents the English version of the advisory report on the use of numerical targets in migration policy. 

The original Dutch version of the report (Realisme rond richtgetallen – kansen en risico’s van streefcijfers en quota in het migratiebeleid) was published in December 2022 and is available here. The report was made at the request of the Dutch Minister for Migration.

For more information on the Council, see below.


The use of numerical targets in the area of migration can contribute to a more forward-looking, coherent and socially embedded migration policy. To ensure this, however, the numerical targets must be derived from a broader view of migration in society and applied realistically. It is also essential that the national government has sufficient policy space to actually implement the numerical targets. Otherwise, the government is simply setting itself up for failure. Due to external factors, such as war in another country, the national government has limited control over asylum migration, unlike labour migration. If the government wants to commit to the use of numerical targets, the Canadian model – with its emphasis on citizen consultation – could provide some guidance in this area. This is essentially the scope of this report.

Coping capacity and migration

Migration policy is constantly in the media and the political spotlights and is the subject of much public debate. The recent crisis over the reception of asylum seekers and the abuse of labour migrants is a clear example of this. There is a feeling in the Netherlands that migration is something that just happens to us and that we, as a society, have no control over it. As a result, citizens feel insecure and lose confidence in the government. This affects the ability of Dutch society to deal with migration.

Active migration policy

In this context, the Dutch government requested the Council to examine the possible advantages and limitations of setting or using numerical targets and to consider the objectives that might be served by the use of a numerical target in policy. The main focus of the Advisory Council in this report is to consider the extent to which a quantitative data driven migration policy, with numerical targets, would contribute to an active migration policy, which – as the Council argues in this report – should be forward-looking, coherent and socially embedded. ‘Forward-looking’ means taking a long-term view and considering the level and type of migration that the Netherlands would like to see. ‘Coherent’ means that migration policy is also shaped by related policies such as labour market policy, foreign policy and education policy. ‘Socially embedded’ means that the migration policy not only has the support of society, but also focuses on the reciprocal relationship between citizens and civil society organisations, on the one hand, and newcomers, on the other.

Effects of numerical targets

Can numerical targets contribute to better policies and improved implementation? And does the use of numerical targets help to give citizens a greater sense of control over migration? Based on these two perspectives, i.e. the political and administrative perspective and the social perspective, this report zooms in on the use of numerical targets. Here, numerical targets are seen as quantitative targets based on a qualitative objective to be achieved. There are important differences between the types of numerical targets. ‘Immigration quotas’ represent ‘hard’ commitments to outcomes, while ‘immigration targets’ imply ‘soft’ commitments to best efforts.

Opportunities and risks

Based on our literature study, interviews, expert meetings and country studies (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Canada), as well as the academic studies carried out at our request by Professors De Bruin, Mügge and Lubbers, the Council sees both opportunities and risks associated with the use of numerical targets in migration policy.

Above all, the use of numerical targets in the area of migration could lead to some improvements in the political and administrative process. However, this requires that national governments should have sufficient policy space to control and manage migration. For example, through the establishment of multi-annual political agreements, numerical targets can help create a sense of ‘political calm’. This can be seen in countries such as Germany where a so-called migration corridor (range) was agreed upon as part of the coalition agreement for 2018. This kind of political calm also exists in Canada, where a points-based system and numerical targets are used for selecting migrants.

As numbers are, and should always be, a way of translating political visions and ambitions, the use of numerical targets can also ensure a more evidence-based and well-informed political and public debate on migration. In addition, numerical targets can contribute to a more coherent migration policy by highlighting other policy areas that are relevant to migration. Furthermore, numerical targets can help to improve long-term planning and the cooperation between national and local governments.

Numerical targets can also satisfy citizens’ needs having control over migration. Through the use of such targets, citizens can gain a sense of control and begin to see migration as less of a problem. However, this is only true if they feel that the government is capable of exercising this control and if they are clear about what steps the government is taking to do so. The level of support for migration in the Netherlands has been stable for a long time now. The larger number of Syrian refugees in 2015-2016, for example, had little impact on this level of support. Therefore, the sense of control over migration, as experienced by citizens, does not seem to be determined by the number of incoming migrants. This is determined more by the speed at which the rate of migration increases and on who is arriving. In addition, it appears that people are not only concerned about migration, but also about underlying social concerns such as the labour market situation, the ageing population and housing shortages.

The greatest risk in using numerical targets arises when the government has little control and, as a result, citizens lose confidence when promises are made (in the form of numerical targets) that cannot be kept. In such a situation, the government is setting itself up for failure.

The high degree of accountability that accompanies policy and governance also plays a role here. With migration constantly at the forefront of public and political debates, there is a real risk of becoming fixated on achieving numbers and losing sight of the underlying qualitative policy objectives. There is also a risk of manipulation of the figures. A false sense of transparency can be created that obscures the view of reality. An overly strict focus on the numbers can have perverse effects, obscuring the purpose of the numerical targets themselves. With soft numerical targets such as immigration targets, the likelihood of such negative effects is much lower than with hard numerical targets such as immigration quotas. In migration policy, therefore, immigration targets are preferable to immigration quotas.


In order to increase the opportunities and reduce the risks associated with the use of numerical targets, the following five preconditions are important:

• Targets should be derived from the qualitative objectives of the migration policy, taking in account wider social problems that are of concern to citizens.

• There must be sufficient control by the government to ensure that political promises can be kept.

• Executive agencies and citizens must be involved in the formulation of numerical targets. Otherwise, the figures will not be seen as feasible (by executive agencies) or legitimate (by citizens).

• An immigration target must be applied with moderation and not as an all-or-nothing assessment mechanism for policy and politics. Therefore, ranges or a set of indicators should be used.

• The government must clearly communicate the limits of the instrument and be able to adjust the figures regularly. Immigration targets should be seen as a tool for discussing ambitions and intended actions in the context of a broad public debate.

Asylum migration and labour migration

There are significant differences between asylum migration (12% of the total migration) and labour migration (24% of the total migration). In the case of asylum migration, international and European treaties to which the Netherlands is a party (and from which it benefits) do not allow for immigration quota with an upper limit. As asylum migration is highly volatile due to external factors, the national government has little control over it. There are, however, certain indirect policy levers that - like turning a dial - can be adjusted further, including the area of foreign and European policy. However, these need to be accompanied by realistic ambitions and coherent actions. For intra-EU labour migration (at 51%, intra-EU migration is higher than extra-EU migration), more indirect migration policies are possible, for example, through labour market policy and industrial policies. The government has the greatest policy space with regard to labour migration from outside the EU. This is because the government is free to determine the admission criteria within its migration policy. However, its policies in other areas, such as the provision of adequate social facilities, will primarily determine how many and what kind of people eventually come to the Netherlands. The use of immigration targets should therefore be derived from a labour migration policy based on a well-being approach that takes into account not only economic but also social considerations.

Migration policy

In this report, the Advisory Council points to the need for a more forward-looking, coherent and socially embedded migration policy. Numerical targets are a tool in this process and should not be an end in themselves. Simply stating or setting a number without a clear purpose makes little sense. Numerical targets are only a tool and must therefore be embedded within broader and qualitative policy objectives. Such a vision must take seriously citizens’ concerns about migration, which are often linked to underlying social concerns about public housing, access to and the quality of care and education, social cohesion and the role of politics in general. These concerns cannot be addressed by using immigration targets alone: migration policy must be linked to a simultaneous and adequate process of addressing social issues. In this respect, the Dutch government can draw inspiration from the Canadian model, which formulates a forward-looking migration policy based on analyses of the future of the labour market and demographic and social developments, as well as input from citizens gathered through consultation rounds.


1 Develop a forward-looking, coherent and socially embedded migration policy, in which immigration targets play a role. Therefore, do not use numerical targets as an end in themselves but make them part of a broader vision of migration and a way of addressing other social issues that are related to concerns about migration.

2 In the area of migration policy, work with soft immigration targets rather than hard immigration quotas; use immigration targets mainly for types of migration where a somewhat greater degree of policy control is possible, as in the case of labour migration within the EU and, in particular, from outside the EU. It is not possible to use hard immigration quotas for asylum migration with a ceiling within the existing international and European legal framework.

3 Work with multiple targets, ranges, lower and upper limits and percentages that can be continuously adjusted and communicated, rather than with a single numerical target. Multi-annual numerical targets are preferred. In addition, take in account not only immigration but also return and emigration (i.e. net migration).

4 Properly identify, both within and outside migration policy, the coherent policy measures needed to achieve a defined immigration target. Link migration policies with integration and social cohesion policies. Ensure coherence with international, European, national and local policies.

5 Involve all stakeholders, including executive agencies, in the formulation of immigration targets. Allow citizens to help decide on immigration targets in a more socially embedded migration policy. Citizens can also help to understand society’s dynamic capacity to incorporate newcomers. The government would be advised to initiate this process by setting up pilots for citizens’ panels as part of the migration policy.

6 Improve the level of knowledge about migration (including the numbers) and migration policy to ensure well-considered policies, realistic numerical targets and a more evidence-based political and public debate.

7 As a government, communicate honestly about the limitations of working with immigration targets.