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“Down, Out, and Lost” Undocumented Migrants Sleeping on the Fringes of Society

Unseen, indistinguishable, and camouflaged; undocumented immigrants make up an entire segment of Dutch society without any finite statistics. No one knows exactly how many there are or where they reside. However, it is common knowledge that they exists. Only when a tragedy or large scale criminal scandal takes place is the matter brought into the open and political rhetoric ensues. Through trials and tribulations the undocumented persevere in Dutch society, where they have an increasingly hard time finding acknowledgement and acceptance. Without the ability to legally obtain housing, where do irregular immigrants sleep at night?

Many who end up being labeled an “undocumented immigrant” come to the Netherlands hopefully seeking citizenship and a new life. Many of them spend months or even years in detention centers waiting for a decision on their case. Many are rejected and sent on their way with a slip of paper commanding their leave. Some remain in the territory without legal permission either because they choose to remain or because they are unable to obtain travel papers from their home country. Others risk their lives to enter the country’s borders unnoticed and without authorization, either on their own accord or as a commodity of human trafficking, and are now living an informal and hardly noticed life within the Dutch borders. 

Stricter controls, whether effective or not, are part of a trend in policy changes in the Netherlands that confronts undocumented migrants with increasing barriers when trying to survive in Dutch society. Primarily, the 1998 Linking Act was introduced, which connected all the information of Dutch citizens, including housing, healthcare and tax data, in order to create a coherent and clear system of identification. Upon the enactment of this law it became impossible for non-citizens to receive a working permit or legally rent an apartment. In 2001, a law was introduced which allowed for the arrest of a person on the grounds of a ‘reasonable presumption’ of illegality instead of a ‘concrete indication’. In addition, since 2005, all Dutch citizens are required to carry identification with them, making it even more difficult for undocumented people to move in public space. On a municipal level the creation of special taskforces, consisting of the foreigner police, labor inspection, social service and insurance, collectively search for undocumented people. It was argued that clearer policy and its stricter enforcement would improve safety and wealth for those living in the country, but the more blatant change in Dutch reality is that the undocumented are being pushed further into the margins of society. 

Afraid of being imprisoned or deported, undocumented people try to find their way in society, unseen. It is estimated that a total of 80,000 to 200,000 people reside in the Netherlands without papers, of which 13,000 to 40,000 live in Amsterdam. Most end up in the bigger cities of the Netherlands, where they believe they will be able to move relatively unnoticed. In Amsterdam, with its 175 different nationalities and many ethnic communities, immigrants try to build up a new life. Most manage to find—at least temporarily—a job and shelter, but the fear related to their uncertain status remains, disillusion grows and many decide to leave the country. 

In 2004, Minister Verdonk began a war, proclaiming his intention to make the Netherlands a nation free of illegality, a principal term used when describing the undocumented. This political rhetoric exemplifies a trend in Dutch society of moving towards a more repressive attitude towards the undocumented. “The government has stigmatized illegal immigrants as negative because it is profitable to be tough on illegal immigrants (criminals) to public society. It is all about electoral wins,” says Arno Pinxter, a legal adviser for Vluchtelingenwerk, an organization that fights for the rights of refugees in the Netherlands. 

“It is easy to say that things used to be better, but we cannot deny that the policy towards undocumented people has grown significantly more repressive over the past years,” says Rian Ederveen, an employee from LOS, the national information center for the undocumented. This center serves as a point of reference for a number of Christian, leftist and ethnic communities that try to informally support this vulnerable group in society, often acting on the fringes of the law themselves. They try to provide clothing, healthcare, education and employment in the informal sector. However, their powers are limited by a lack of funding and the restrictive laws and political rhetoric. One of their major challenges is locating safe shelter. A recent scientific report, conducted by the Ministry of Justice, indicates that ‘illegal’ immigrants often live with friends, family or rent a temporary room with landlords from their own ethnic communities. Those involved in supporting the undocumented agree: the creation of  harsher laws only further marginalizes and criminalizes an already very vulnerable group in society; those who are down, out, and lost and for whom nobody wants to take responsibility.

The Informal Communities: Shelter for Thy Brother

“We [in the Bijlmer] are the poorest community in Amsterdam; yet, we also carry the heaviest burden” Tom Marfo

Last November, a man died from falling off the balcony of a seventh floor apartment in the Bijlmer, Amsterdam South-East. His name was Michael Osey, a thirty-four year old Ghanaian. The tragic accident occurred when Osey tried to flee from the police, who entered the apartment to arrest him and his friend, both residing in the Netherlands without papers. “The foreigner police knock at a door and if the people do not open, they break in. This is an unlawful way of entering a house, but it happens,” tells Tom Marfo, a Ghanaian Pastor. Marfo came to the Netherlands fifteen years ago to promote the cause of the Sub-Saharan poor who come to Europe seeking economic and political security. After their long, exhausting and often traumatizing journey, the reality they find is starkly different than their expectations. Once they enter the country they are quickly informed about the hostile political rhetoric and the severe limitations on their possibilities in life. They have no right to work, no proper access to healthcare facilities, no money, and no access to decent housing. Ironically, Amsterdam has a historic reputation of acceptance and integration; yet, the majority of undocumented migrants find refuge only in communities of their own nationalities. “The Bijlmer offers them a refuge. It is a basically a country within a country,” says Marfo.

Either through word of mouth or—ironically— indication from the IND, the Dutch Integration and Naturalization service that is responsible for the detention centers, rejected undocumented migrants, especially those of African descent, seek out Tom Marfo and his Church in the Bijlmer. The Bijlmer community houses the largest population of undocumented people in all of Amsterdam. Without funds from the government, people in this community provide temporary charity to those from their home country. In addition, Marfo funds five mission houses for undocumented migrants to reside in. If they are able to obtain work, then those residents will financially contribute whatever is feasible. In the past there were nine mission houses, but with the increasing severity of repercussions for charity to the undocumented and the rapid exodus of African people from the Bijlmer, the funds are rapidly running dry. 

A large part of the undocumented community finds its way amongst their individual ethnic society through an informal system of sub-leasing. Yet, their situation is growing more alarming. Cor Ofman, a Pastor at Open Door Church, explained the “economic effect” within the support communities. “The law and enforcement become stricter; the risks become higher, and as a result the prices for shelter become higher and the position of the undocumented immigrant weaker.” He retells the story of a male undocumented immigrant, Gabriel, who is staying in the home of a Dutch man that is living the majority of the year in England.  Gabriel not only pays all of the rent and bills for the flat but he also is required to pay the airline ticket whenever the Dutch man returns home. “Sometimes the Dutch man takes the money for the airline ticket and buys a rail ticket instead, making 50% profit”. 

With his organization Kerkhuis, Ofman tried to create a network of the different support communities to combine forces and fight exploitation. He lobbied the Amsterdam municipality and was given a budget of €200,000 to help out the “undocumented.” “The money is given for the sake of law and order,” says Ofman, “to keep people from the streets.” Unfortunately, his attempt to combine strengths and unite communities hosting undocumented persons was largely in vain, because language and cultural barriers could not be sufficiently overcome. 

In the ethnic communities where undocumented migrants seek their refuge, there is an increasing incidence of exploitation and criminal practices. This leads towards more police repression on the one hand, and increasingly dire circumstances for those in need on the other. For example, a large scale police raid occurred at a café in the Bijlmer not long before this incident with Osey. In the café, a Nigerian artist was hosting a concert and the police had ‘reasonable presumption’ of the presence of large amounts of undocumented people, of which a considerable percentage were thought to be involved in criminal practices. It is rumored that at the raid, only non-white people were forced to show their ID. Those who could not were taken away. One hundred and eleven people were arrested and placed in detention centers. 

“Some communities actually do quite well,” says Ederveen, who as a LOS spokeswoman has a good overview of the situation. “Turkish immigrants, for example, often find a little place to stay and a job in the large Turkish informal sector. There are economic incentives, but there is also true solidarity there.” Her experiences with the Chinese undocumented are more alarming though. “In the Chinese community we find a lot of exploitation. There is a huge illegal circuit, vulnerable immigrants are economically exploited and live in large numbers in very small and dirty places.” People from Morocco also often have a hard time finding a sense of stability. Frequently, Moroccan communities are less economically developed than their Turkish counterparts. “We see a lot of problems with addiction, homelessness, and prostitution with undocumented immigrants from Morocco.” The informal communities are undocumented migrants’ best chance for shelter in Amsterdam; yet, even there the opportunities are becoming fewer and more expensive with an increase in demand.

In the Night-Shelters: Charity is for Those the Government Recognizes

People sit at tables playing chess and reading the paper while sipping coffee. Women hand out bread from behind high counters. People here are relaxed and enjoy a moment of peace from the outside world. The doors of the shelter stand wide open so that a breeze runs through the hall, and those that wish to can stand outside and have a smoke. The facility itself shines cleaner than most hostels. 

Unable to attain a legal lease and confronted with exploitation and psychological stress, many undocumented migrants find themselves in night-shelters. However, homeless night-shelters in Amsterdam receive funding from the municipalities in which they are located, and that money is allocated from the central government, the Welfare Ministry. The official procedural line is clear: night-shelters are strictly for the betterment of those registered in Amsterdam. Therefore, despite sympathetic sentiments, night-shelters can do very little to accommodate the needs of irregular immigrants. In fact, any individual that simply stepped off the street in the middle of the night and tried to enter a night-shelter would have a difficult time, because the majority of those admitted to the shelters are referred by a social worker. 

“Of course if we see someone outside in the snow barefoot we will let them in,” says Mark Voorneveld, Health Coordinator for De Haven, a night shelter in the center of Amsterdam.  However, in most situations the shelter’s proverbial hands are tied. Informally, some shelters, such as those functioning through the Salvation Army, will permit an irregular immigrant who is involved in his or her second procedure (the appeals process which can occur without legal status) to remain in the shelter for about a week.  But this instance can be applied to only one individual a week, at a maximum. The De Haven, Salvation Army considers their policy “more lenient than most.”

For some homeless shelters, such as the Gastenburgh, admission excludes those that are extremely physically or mentally ill and referred through an organization called Vangnet en Advies. In most cases these individuals are from Western cultures and arrived in the country legally on some type of tourist or student visa but then, for one reason or another (illness, addiction, handicap, etc.), remained in the country illegally. This group is referred to as “legal-illegals.” In contrast, if an “illegal-illegal,” an undocumented migrant from Africa, Asia or South America that is not suffering from a serious medical condition seeks out the Gastenburgh for assistance, the police are called. 

Bound by strict regulations, limited funds and social responsibilities, night shelters are a rare opportunity for those undocumented immigrants who fall outside informal support structures or who want to break out of oppressive and criminal circumstances and seek more regular support. With estimates of undocumented migrants in Amsterdam as high as 30-40 thousand people in January of 2008, the night-shelters barely offer a solution. 

Apartments & Squats

After their first rejection there is an appeals process which can take more than a year. Those individuals who persevere and go through this appeals process are referred to as being in their “second procedure.” ASKV is an organization that assists those going through or planning to begin this process. Their Housing Project provides temporary apartments for approximately 40 hopeful cases, for a period of about six months. Meanwhile, they also encourage individuals to improve their social network so they will have the ability to sustain themselves without ASKV’s support and independently find alternate accommodations.  Unfortunately, the apartments can only accommodate a limited number of people—priority is given to women with children.  For some who don’t find space there, ASKV is able to place them in former squats. 

The shelter assistance from ASKV and other similar organizations is a positive opportunity and a rare source of kindness that, for undocumented people, is hard to find. Yet those people that have come to the country and never sought out asylum are still excluded. The government would label that group “criminals.” Do they take into consideration the young girls and boys that are stolen from the streets of their home countries and sold into a life of prostitution or work? They did not seek out the asylum process. Do they take into consideration the 20% of African men who struggle and actually manage to cross the dead sea of sand, the Sahara Desert, entering the country dehydrated and suffering from starvation?  They do not seek out the asylum process. Do they take into consideration those that are fleeing from oppressive and violent regimes, distrusting of the Dutch asylum process because their family and friends before them have said it holds nothing but disappointment? One ASKV employee shared that the majority of people she meets and tries to help “are well-educated with high hopes for better lives.” Are these people criminals simply because they were forcefully taken from their homes or were just desperately seeking a better life? These confronting moral questions are barely audible in a time where emphasis is openly placed on clarity of regulations and their strict enactment. 

The Police’s Reaction, or Lack Thereof

“There is no capacity to remove all undocumented people from the Netherlands,” says Marfo, “it is just political gimmick, and psychological warfare.”

Occurrences of police raids have sparked waves of protest, especially among local African communities and left-wing organizations. They claim that undocumented immigrants are increasingly marginalized and criminalized without ever being offered attainable solutions. Osey, just two weeks before his death, was released from a detention centre for undocumented migrants in Zeist, where he had been held in excess of ten months. The raid on the café in the Bijlmer was claimed by the police to be an attempt to ascertain computer criminals. What is the actual role of the Dutch police in reference to undocumented migrants? Do they act as the puppets of rhetorical politicians like Verdonk, or are they simply trying to create a safe environment for those that live here, legally or otherwise?

According to the neighborhood police, who kindly gave us soup and hot chocolate during our visit, undocumented migrants are “not a priority” for them. They focus on catching criminals. The foreigner police and the IND are responsible for handling the situation of undocumented people. In fact, if a fight broke out in the street and the police broke it up and then learned that one of the individuals was illegal, if he had not committed any crime, he would simply be sent on his way. Mr. Marfo also praised his good contacts with the local police in fighting crime.

The conversations with the IND, the Foreigners Police, and the Municipalities were much shorter. In response to the question: What is your role in obtaining undocumented peoples in Amsterdam? A robotic response followed from each institution: “We have no policy on illegal immigrants.” Each institution transferred us to the next, yet the answers remained the same. Apparently, undocumented migrants are no one’s responsibility or priority. 


As millions of people in the Netherlands get into their beds at night, snuggling deep under the covers, laying their heads on clean, cotton pillowcases, shelter remains unavailable for thousands of undocumented who, in their search for proper and permanent shelter, are confronted with criminality, oppression and exploitation. Politicians and their electorate might dream of a society without undocumented people, but the reality is that hundreds of thousands of undocumented people still reside within the Dutch borders. In an increasingly unwelcoming environment, those who have enough means and confidence might return to their home country or find their luck elsewhere. Those who are down, out and lost, however, will stay, and the dire circumstances in which they are forced to live their lives are hardly known and even less acknowledged. Within a political climate that is turning further against the so-called “illegality” of undocumented migrants; with laws and policies aimed at increasing clarity and control over Dutch citizens; and with decreasing funds for the solidarity within ethnic support communities; the position of the undocumented in Dutch society is undeniably getting worse. Repression might work on a societal level, but it denies the humanity of those in the margins. Survival in Dutch society will continue to be a struggle until a change in popular opinion affects legislation and illegality will no longer be seen as problem of society but of individuals whose needs, like all our needs, must somehow be met.


Dr. Jeroen Doomernik. Lecture. June 18, 2008.
Looking for Loopholes: Processes of Incorporation of Illegal Immigrants in the Netherlands. 
Joanne van der Leun. 2001.
Reactie op het onderzoek “Illegaal verblijf in Nederland” van het wetenschappelijk onderzoeks en documentatiecentrum Ministerie van Justitie, 20 juni 2008
“Illegalen, euh boeven vangen, de politie shopt naar believen in straf- en vreemdelingenrecht” in NRC, 04-08-2007 by Ruth Hopkins
“Woede bij illegalen over inval politie” in NRC, 11-10-2007

*Special Thanks to Dieuwerke Luiten, Jelle Klaas, & Wilma Lozowski for pointing us in the right directions.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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