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Irregular Human Rights: The Status of Immigrants in the Netherlands


Greeted by a room full of supporters, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), takes the stage to address the crowd. "We have not said what is not allowed,” he declared. “We have not said what is wrong. So I ask all of you! Do you want in this city and in the Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?" In unison, the sheering crowd replied, "less, less, less, less." In a serious, yet nonchalant manner, Wilders responded, "Then we will arrange that!" The crowd laughed.

While appalling nonetheless, what is most surprising is that this rally took place in the Netherlands, a country known internationally as one of the strongest liberal democracies in Europe. Though the Dutch take pride in their identity as tolerant people, the popularity of the PVV raises questions about the degree of tolerance for new immigrants within Dutch society. 

Since the 1990s, Dutch attitudes towards new immigrants have been shifting. This swing in public opinion has allowed the PVV, a party known for its anti-establishment, anti-European Union and anti-immigrant platform, to become one of the largest political parties in the Netherlands. Wilders and the PVV reached the apex of their political power in 2010 when the party won 24 seats in the Dutch Parliament. Since then, the PVV has been losing strength yet remains the third largest party in the country.

The shift in public opinion towards immigrants is also reflected in stricter immigration laws that have created a humanitarian crisis within the country. Asylum seekers, a small percentage of the total immigrant population in the Netherlands, have often suffered the brunt of these policies. Without any legal status to remain in the Netherlands or the ability to return to their countries of origins, many of these people ultimately end up on the streets where survival is a daily struggle. 

The current condition of the undocumented in the Netherlands highlights a conflict between the universality of human rights and the sovereignty of nation-states to draft their own immigration and social policies. Do governments have an obligation to those who are undocumented under the concept of human rights? If so, is the Dutch government currently violating the human rights of its undocumented population by refusing to provide them with basic food, shelter and clothing? These are the main questions explored in this report. 

This paper highlights the current situation of the undocumented population within the city of Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. First, we will place the current anti-immigrant sentiments into context by providing a cursory historical background of Dutch immigration policy. Next, we will assess the legality of current Dutch policy towards the undocumented in the context of international human rights. Lastly, we will examine the current condition of undocumented peoples in the Netherlands.

History of Immigration Policy in the Netherlands

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Netherlands, along with much of Western Europe, faced a large demand for unskilled labor in its efforts to rebuild and revitalize its war-ravaged economy. Unable to meet labor demand with its domestic population, the Netherlands relied on a large influx of immigrants from its recently independent colonies in Surinam and Indonesia to supply low-skilled jobs in the 1950s ad 1960s. While Surinamese and Indonesian migrants were at first a novelty and initially faced problems integrating into Dutch society, their relatively early arrival into the Netherlands and familiarity with the Dutch language and culture facilitated their quick acceptance amongst the native Dutch population. 

After the first wave of post-colonial migration subsided, the country turned to Morocco and Turkey for its new guest laborer programs that recruited poor, low-skilled men for temporary work in the country (in the early 1970s there were 55,000 Turkish/Moroccan guest laborers and only 20,000 family members). The programs were meant to be temporary (the 1970 Memorandum on Foreign Employees even specifically declares the Netherlands to not be a country of net-migration) but eventually the tightening of immigration controls and the introduction of strict migrant labor quotas encouraged many of the guest workers to stay and take advantage of policies allowing for family reunification. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Netherlands began to embrace a policy of multiculturalism whereas immigrants were viewed as positively contributing to Dutch society and to be deserving of legal protection and basic social services. The 1974 Memorandum of Reply outlined the Dutch government’s responsibilities towards immigrants and improved their access to government benefits and cultural programs. Large-scale housing was erected during this period to meet the basic needs for shelter within the new communities and municipalities with substantial migrant populations introduced educational programs tailored to the culture and language of recent arrivals. 

Unfortunately, this embrace of multiculturalism coincided with the oil crises of the 1970s and the shift of the Dutch economy away from manufacturing and low-skilled labor. In the same time period that the Netherlands suffered from a slowdown in economic growth, the number of non-Western immigrants grew from less than 200,000 to more than 600,000. Strict educational requirements for new jobs resulted in high unemployment among immigrant communities, where quality of education and opportunities to pursue university studies were much lower than in the native Dutch population. Tensions between immigrant communities and Dutch society began to emerge amidst cultural differences and the slow integration of new arrivals into greater Dutch society. Political parties expressing a desire for effective assimilation policies began to gain appeal and societal differences began to be more apparent as both immigrants and native Dutch began to tilt towards social conservatism in each group’s own interpretation. 

Simultaneously, the Netherlands began to experience a boom in asylum-seeking refugees from an annual rate of several thousand in the 1970s and early 1980s to peaks hovering around 50,000 refugees per year in the 1990s. Changing perceptions of immigrants as net recipients of the Dutch welfare state rather than contributors sparked a shift towards strict policies on labor migration, with high-skilled Western workers given preferential access to the Dutch labor market. 

Asylum access was restricted in 1998 through the Linkage Act, which electronically connected the databases of all the socioeconomic services of the Dutch government, allowing for quick identification and invalidation of residency permits for those asylum-seeking migrants who attempt to covertly access government services in violation of Dutch law. Previously, undocumented immigrants were able to work in formal occupations and thus pay taxes into the Dutch welfare system; the Linkage Act forced many new immigrants into unofficial jobs found through community networks, where chances of being identified as illegal and reported are drastically lower. However, these jobs offer immigrants low pay, no outlet through which to pay taxes and a segregated workplace environment that does little to assist the integration of new immigrants into Dutch society. The growth of the informal job sector has only supported a large welfare imbalance between new immigrants (who do not benefit from social security and greater social mobility) and the general Dutch society. As immigrants were forced to rely more on their family networks and surrounding communities to receive basic social protections, they were drawn towards retaining the familiar culture and traditions of their homeland as a way to cope with the systemic rejection of non-Western allochtoon (person born to one or more parents with non-European origins) in the Netherlands. As a result of this law, the experience of immigrants to the Netherlands has varied drastically between those who arrived and were able to access services prior to the measure and those who arrived after its implementation. 

The establishment of restrictive immigration policies in the Netherlands during the 1990s laid the groundwork for a general political atmosphere that permitted direct anti-immigrant rhetoric and populist measures to be adopted by members of the Dutch political right, but also some on the left. Immigrants and refugees that have suffered from general social exclusion are blamed for not contributing more and not taking a more active role in Dutch society. Recent cutbacks in unsustainable welfare benefits have been attributed by populists to the growth of the socially constructed “non-active social benefit recipient” immigrants. 

The issue of immigration evolved from a debate on integration of immigrants to the full assimilation of a multi-generational sector of Dutch society according to Western norms and ideals. The highly-publicized murders of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004 changed the discourse behind public stances against immigration from being rooted in concerns of financial stability in the Dutch welfare system to a more general concern for an ongoing “culture war” between the neo-liberal Western culture of the Netherlands and the so-called anachronistic Islamic cultures of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who make up one-tenth of the Dutch population. A new discriminatory attitude has emerged towards the distinct groups of immigrants: migrant laborers from the EU are viewed as an economic threat that undercuts native Dutch competition for limited jobs by accepting poor working conditions and pay, non-Western residents of the Netherlands are perceived to be a cultural threat that can promote gender inequality, crime and religious violence and refugees (the vast majority of whom are non-Western) are considered to embody both types of threats. As leaders of anti-immigrant parties such as the PVV gain support amongst segments of the native population who choose to perceive their stance as the progressive, tolerant side of the politically-constructed culture war, the presence of Islamophobia in historically-tolerant Dutch society has become normalized and new laws have been passed that have generated friction between the human rights guaranteed by the conventions of the Council of Europe and the restrictive policies of Dutch institutions. 

The Tension Between Dutch Law and Human Rights Law

Human rights are not for everyone. At least not in the current legal situation of the Netherlands. Dutch law excludes undocumented migrants from certain basic human rights, such as food, shelter and clothing. This exclusion is founded in the Dutch Aliens Act. Its tenth provision stipulates that persons who are not lawfully present – thus undocumented – do not have the right to receive governmental services, except for the right to medical healthcare in urgent cases, education for children and limited assistance to legal services. Therefore undocumented persons living in The Kingdom of the Netherlands are legally excluded from full human rights protection. 

The basic rights to food, shelter and clothing are social and economic human rights. The significance of these human rights is shown through their adoption in numerous international human rights documents. One of them is the European Social Charter, an international treaty based on dignity, autonomy, equality and solidarity. The State of the Netherlands has been bound to the provisions of this treaty since 1980. Whether the Netherlands (just as any other State that has ratified the treaty) complies with its international obligations is a matter decided by The European Committee on Social Rights (hereinafter: the Committee). The Committee has shown its criticism on Dutch policies towards immigrants in several cases. 

In 2008, Defence for Children International started a case against the Netherlands. The subject of the case concerned the right to shelter in the Netherlands. The most vulnerable in our society, undocumented children, were denied the enjoyment of this basic human right.  Acknowledging the fact that leaving a child on the street creates a situation of  “outright helplessness,” the Committee decided that all children, regardless of their legal status, should have the right to shelter. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands agreed with the Committee and judged that Dutch authorities should grant every undocumented child the right to shelter. This has led to a shift in Dutch legal practice: undocumented children now have access to shelter. However, the law remains unchanged and continues to exclude these children from basic human rights.  

While the position of undocumented children is strengthened in practice, the position of undocumented adults remains weak. Therefore a group of undocumented people started the so-called “We Are Here” action in 2011, to show their degrading lifestyle. The participants of this action are mostly refugees that find themselves in a state of limbo: neither can they return to their home country, nor are they allowed to stay in the Netherlands. These persons encamped certain places in Amsterdam, such as the “Vluchthaven,” the “Vluchtgarage” and the “Vluchtkerk,” so that they can live somewhere inside, rather than on the streets. However, they remain under a continuing threat of forced eviction. The summer of 2014 has been one filled with forced evictions and continuing struggles for the refugees to find a place to stay. While the government keeps on denying them the right to shelter, their fight for human rights seems to grow stronger. 

The We Are Here Group has not been ignored by the Dutch government. In fact, the Dutch authorities have adapted their policies on the right to shelter for undocumented adults. The government came up with three reasons which are not mentioned in Dutch law, but which increase the possibilities of obtaining shelter. Extreme winter conditions, the prevention of security problems and to end the deadlock are now new reasons that enable refugees to invoke the right to shelter. 

Since this change of policy, the Dutch highest Administrative Court has granted the right to shelter to certain undocumented adults. However, the granting of shelter was only the case when these persons found themselves in an extreme vulnerable situation of hardship. This has led to the situation where a 61 year old man with a reduced heart function, swollen liver and diabetes was not granted shelter and denied access to food and clothing, because he could not provide enough evidence as to his extreme vulnerable situation. Thankfully many refugees do not stand alone. Some good-hearted lawyers help them in the fight for human rights. 

Fischer Advocaten is a Dutch law firm specialized in human rights law. The lawyers at the firm provide legal assistance to persons that have to deal with exclusion in Dutch society. Not only has the firm won its above-mentioned case of Defence for Children International versus the Netherlands, but it has also – together with The Conference of European Churches – obtained an important immediate measure within the procedure of the European Committee of Social Rights.  

The Conference of European Churches started a case against the Netherlands in order to recognize the right to shelter, food and clothing for undocumented adults. On October 25, 2013 the Committee decided on an immediate measure concerning the refugee situation in the Netherlands. Immediate measures are only given exceptionally. According to the Committee, undocumented persons in the Netherlands found themselves “at risk of serious irreparable harm to their lives and their integrity when being excluded from access to shelter, food and clothing.” The Committee further noted that the Netherlands could find other solutions, instead of excluding undocumented persons from basic human rights. Therefore the Committee decided to apply an immediate measure, instead of awaiting the entire procedure, which could take a long time. 

The Dutch authorities, however, seem not to care about the decisions of the Committee. Judgments of the Committee are not legally binding and therefore the Dutch government does not attach much weight to its case law. Another (legal) obstacle to the European Social Charter is the Dutch Constitution. Not all human rights treaties have direct affect in the Dutch legal system. Only treaties that are “binding on all persons by virtue of their contents” can be directly invoked by individuals. Generally speaking only civil and political human rights such as those laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights are binding on all persons by virtue of their contents. Civil and political human rights are – for example, the right to life, the right to freedom of speech and the prohibition of torture. These rights are directed to individuals, whereas social and economic rights are mostly directed to States that have to take measures to improve and ensure those rights. In practice it is therefore hard to establish that social and economic rights are binding on all persons by virtue of their contents. Therefore Dutch judges are reluctant in granting social and economic rights the same status as civil and political human rights. 

Because civil and political rights can be directly invoked by individuals in the Dutch legal system, the European Convention on Human Rights could help strengthen the positions of undocumented persons within the Netherlands. But how do social and economic rights fit into this Convention? Article 8 of the Convention provides an answer. This provision entails the right to private life. According to this treaty everyone that is within the territory of the Netherlands has the right to respect for private life. This right is very broadly interpreted by the European Court on Human Rights, because a private life includes many factors. The Court has even interpreted this provision as including the right to environmental protection. Furthermore, the decisions of the Court are binding upon the Netherlands. This means that the State has to comply with its decisions. The Convention provides supervisory mechanisms to ensure the compliances of the decisions of the Court. The challenge is thus to convince Dutch authorities that basic economic and social human rights to food, shelter and clothing are included in the right to private life as mentioned in the European Convention. These rights should then be granted to every individual, with or without documents. 

Aren’t human rights for every individual in the first place? According to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This principle has been acknowledged since 1948. However, this masterpiece in human rights theory seems nothing but a dead letter in Dutch immigration practice. In 2014, some humans are still suffering and fighting for the rights that they are entitled to have in the first place. This is exactly what human rights lawyer Jelle Klaas points out. “It is uncivilized to withhold the basic rights to food, shelter and clothing. That’s something that every sane and rational person should think. The only thing we are asking is to live up to human rights treaties, that also say this.”

Current Condition of Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants are a vulnerable population. The undocumented are legally restricted from gaining employment. Those that manage to find a job are susceptible to abuse and exploitation from their employers. Because of widespread fear of the police, these violations usually remain unreported. The absence of a stable income means that many undocumented immigrants suffer from poor living conditions. The undocumented do not have the right to access social welfare services. They also do not have the ability to gain health insurance. The Dutch government currently recognizes the right of undocumented adults to a lawyer and to receive medical care under emergency and life threatening circumstances. Undocumented children also have the right to primary education. Even these recognized rights prove difficult for many undocumented to access in practice. 

Immigrants become undocumented for various reasons. Some migrants are smuggled into the country. Others become undocumented after overstaying their visas or legal documents. A small percentage become undocumented after the Dutch government rejected their application for asylum. For these various reasons, it is difficult to estimate the size of the total undocumented population within the Netherlands.

This report will focus on former asylum seekers, the most visible of the undocumented. According to Amnesty International, the Dutch government rejected 56% of the applications it received for asylum over the last four years. In 2012, 9,810 people requested asylum from the Dutch government. This means that roughly 5,000 people were rejected in 2012 and joined the ranks of the undocumented.

Dutch government currently follows a policy of neglect towards the undocumented. After the government rejects an application for asylum, the individual has the option to appeal the case. The appeals procedure can take months to a couple of years. During appeals procedure, the government continues to provide the individual with basic food, shelter and clothing. However, if the appeals procedure fails and the individual formally becomes undocumented, the government ceases to provide these services. Immigrants are expected to survive by themselves. Without the ability to work or a support system, the vast majority ends up homeless, hungry, cold and often ill on the streets. The rationale of the government for this policy is to make the situation of the undocumented so bad that they will voluntarily return to their country of origins. 

The Worldhouse

The Worldhouse is a center for undocumented persons in the Netherlands. People come together to share their stories and to enjoy cultural activities. The Worldhouse also organizes language courses, computer classes, trainings in basic human rights and provides lunch and dinner for undocumented people. Thursdays are dedicated specifically to women’s activities.  

While kids play, some women participate in yoga classes as others improve their Dutch in a language course. The rest of the women chat and enjoy a cup of tea together with a Stroopwafel in the common room. The women share one dream: they want to work. They want to be able to take care of themselves. They are healthy, but frustrated. Frustrated because they are able to work, and yet they are not allowed. The Dutch law is their enemy. “We are not lazy!” exclaimed a frustrated woman. “They should give us access to work.”

If undocumented persons cannot take care of themselves, then who should take care of them? Most families do not receive benefits from the government, and if they do, they only get a small amount of child support. One woman claimed the government grants her three young children only 50 euros each month. How could one woman support a family consisting of three children with only 50 euros? The women are dependent on their family, friends and charity. Certain organizations provide them with food packets. However, many of the food packets contain expired and rotten products. One woman displayed a box of “Special K Kellogg’s” that she received with a month-old expiration date. 

Detention Centers

If for any reason an undocumented person comes in contact with a police officer and their immigration status is found, they are placed in one of four immigration detention centers to await deportation. Amnesty International calculates that 5,740 undocumented people were held in detention centers in 2012. About 40% of these are former asylum seekers. Detainees do not know for how long they will be detained. The average length of detention in 2012 was 75 days, but the length of detention varies on a case-by-case basis. 

The situation of former asylum seekers is more complicated. The Dutch government cannot deport them involuntarily to their country of origin if the government refuses to take them back. Some nations like Somalia do not have a working government. Unable to deport them, the Dutch government has no choice but to release these immigrants. However, their legal status remains the same. For the vast majority, this means a return to destitution and potential return to detention. Many undocumented reported having been detained more than once.

“We Are Here”

Neglected by the Dutch government and invisible to a large part of Dutch society, a group of undocumented immigrants has begun to organize to bring attention to their condition. In the spring of 2012, group members pitched tents on a street in the neighborhood of Osdorp. Their message to the Dutch authorities and public was clear: “We Are Here.” Their camp attracted attention from local and national authorities and press. Consequently, their efforts have brought immigration back to the national consciousness. Specifically, We Are Here aims to bring attention to the poor living condition of the undocumented. The group is demanding that the Dutch government recognize their basic human rights.

A couple of months after first pitching their tents, the Amsterdam police cleared the Notweg camp and placed protesters in detention. After being released from detention, the refugees decided to continue their struggle. Since then they have occupied different places across the city. One of these places is an abandoned municipal parking garage in the Bijlmer, a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the southeast of Amsterdam. The Refugee Garage (Vluchtgarage), as it is commonly known, currently houses 80 men mostly from Africa and the Middle East. 

In hopes of better understanding the current condition of undocumented people in the Netherlands, we travelled to the Bijlmer to visit the Refugee Garage. As we approached the garage, we see “No man is illegal. We are here” written in Dutch on the side of the building. Two men noticed us approaching the building and came to greet us. We explained the purpose of our visit and they welcomed us inside. Inside the room a man from Iraq sat on his mattress talking to a Dutch couple from a local church that had brought the group some food. 

The man fled Iraq eight year ago after allied forces invaded the country and ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. According to him, Dutch authorities granted him temporary asylum, but refused to renew his permit three years ago. When asked why, he seemed confused. “I don’t know. They told me that Iraq is safe now. You can go back now.” When he refused to return to Iraq because of the rampant violence in the country, Dutch authorities simply said, “‘We can’t give you papers. You are illegal now on the streets.’ I say, is that solution? After five years [living in this country], is that fair?” 

According to the man, Dutch authorities have tried to deport him on several occasions, but have been unsuccessful. “They cannot deport me,” he said. “They do not have the right to deport me because my country wouldn’t accept it.”

For the past three years, the man has been living undocumented in the country. When asked what does that mean, he responded, “No papers, no work. You don’t have any income. And if you are sick, you cannot go to the doctor. No insurance at all.” I could sense the frustration in his voice when I asked him how he survives. “I fight everyday to survive.” Pointing to the Dutch couple in the room, he said, “Those people feed me.” As other We Are Here groups, the people in the Refugee garage depend on food donations from local churches and donors. The man added, “I can’t work. What should I do then? If I travel and they find me without ID, they put me in jail. I cannot move. I cannot work. What do you want from me?” He continued, “Survive?” Pointing to the room, he said, “Like this. That’s the situation.”

The conditions in the garage are substandard for eighty men to live. There is no heating and little electricity. They only have five working toilets, a couple water taps and no showers in the building. They have two cookers connected to gas tanks. Groups of five to eight men, usually from a common nationality, share each room in the building.  

They are not demanding to stay, but only basic human rights. “We don’t want extra things,” he responded. “I ask for my rights only. Do not leave me on the streets. That’s not right.” Currently the government is fighting to get them out of the garage and into the streets again. “They [the Dutch government] want to take us out. They do their best to get us out and into the streets again and we are fighting to stay here.” He concluded by saying, “That’s the life of us undocumented.”

After we finished our interview with the Iraqi refugee, another man came into the room. He came to the Netherlands in 1994 fleeing the conflict in Somalia. He requested asylum on multiple occasions, but was denied. “They [the government] told me my history is not enough to give me documents.” He has lived on the streets of Amsterdam since. He explained that, “I was again and again on the street until now.” I asked him how he survived, he said, “It depends. Sometimes you have a place to eat and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have a safe place to sleep and sometimes you don’t.” He moved into the refugee garage a couple of months ago. He joined We Are Here because, according to him, “It’s the only group who cares about us refugees.”

I then asked him if he feels he has any rights. After thinking for a minute, he said, “Yes, because I am a human being and I am a refugee.” He concluded by saying, “I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I hope to finally have a normal life like all the people.”

While some of the men were very open to share their stories and be interviewed, others were understandably more skeptical. After concluding our interview with the men from Somalia, we went into a different room in the garage. There we found lawyers from Fischer Advocaten, the only law firm that specializes in human rights cases in the country. It is there that we met another man from Somalia. He had just met with the lawyers and asked us what we were doing. He asked for ID to verify that we in fact were students. He said that they usually get many visitors claiming to be doing human rights work. He then invited us to go upstairs to his living space. 

“You can see for yourself the conditions. No showers. No toilets. We shower once a month.” He added that, “We rely on good Samaritans. They bring food and take and watch our clothes.” Like the others we interviewed, this man only wants the Dutch government to provide them with basic necessities. “Shelter, food, a place to sleep. Only basic necessities.” Some refugees are optimistic that their condition will improve in the future, but others are growing more pessimistic as time passes. “It [We Are Here] started in 2011. Nothing has changed.” I then asked him about the future. “We don’t believe in the future. You need education to have a future.” 


As our team investigated the political climate and reality facing undocumented immigrants in the Netherlands, it quickly became apparent that the Dutch government was turning away from its responsibility over ensuring humane standards of life for all people residing within its borders. Rising populist sentiments enables Dutch leadership to pass measures in direct violation of European treaties, offering little in the way of legal appeal by undocumented immigrants for a normal life in the Netherlands. If the Dutch government continues to sweep the plight of undocumented migrants under the rug, it risks losing credibility in the sphere of international human rights leadership as long as the Netherlands’ domestic policy actions contradict the standards it sets abroad in its foreign policy measures and global development initiatives. The Netherlands must not only open the doors to the world’s oppressed, destitute and helpless victims of geopolitical crises, but also offer a warming embrace once they arrive; if basic standards of living are offered to newcomers, then the country will grow rich from their prosperity.


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European Social Charter (revised) (Turin October 18, 1961).

European Convention on Human Rights articles 1 and 8 (Rome November 4, 1950).

European Committee of Social Rights Defence for Children International (DCI) v. The Netherlands (Decision on the Merits) Complaint No. 47/2008  October 20, 2009. 

European Committee of Social Rights Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. The Netherlands (Complaint) Complaint No 90/2013  January 17, 2013. 

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van Wierst, Jonneke (2014, June). Immigrantion Detention and Undocumented/Irregular Migrants in The Netherlands. Humanity in Action. Lecture conducted from Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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Worldhouse woman 3. (2014, June 19). Personal interview. 

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