Background illegal and undocumented *

When is someone illegal?
Someone is illegal in the Netherlands when he/she is not allowed to reside here and is not returning to his/her own country. There are different ways to become ‘illegal’:Achtergrond-VillaVrede

  1. Someone never applied for a residence permit. This could have happened (un)knowingly because for example, someone wasn’t planning on settling here but just wanted temporary employment. It’s also possible that someone is born here to parents with illegal residence. For both groups this means you have always been illegal in the Netherlands.
  2. Someone has applied for a residence permit, but wasn’t granted one. If, after the application process, a residency permit is denied the applicant must leave the Netherlands. If you do remain here, you will become illegal.
  3. Someone has received a residence permit, but it hasn’t been extended. When someone receives a residence permit, usually it’s provided for a certain period of time. Eventually there will be a reassessment to see whether someone is entitled to a residence permit. When this is no longer the case, for example, if country of origin is deemed safe, the residence permit is not renewed and the person will then become illegal.
  4. Illegal because you don’t have a choice. It happens regularly that the Dutch government decides someone is not allowed to live here (anymore), but at the same time the country of origin doesn’t allow the person to return and/or doesn’t cooperate with a return process. For example because the person has no/incorrect documents.


What does undocumented mean?
There are an estimated 66.000-133.000 undocumented people in the Netherlands, who are primarily living in the five big cities (about 5000 in Utrecht). Undocumented people are all people without a residence permit. Not everyone in this group is illegal, because there are quite a few people who are still in a legal procedure and therefore have the right to reside in the Netherlands. Usually undocumented people can’t get a social security number (BSN-number), can’t have insurance, are not allowed to work and have no right to social amenities. It’s a very diverse group, which partly consists of migrant workers, but it also includes refugees who haven’t obtained a residence permit and tourists with an expired visa. Most undocumented people (26 percent) have an Asian background. Africans are in second place with 23 percent. Not included northern Africans (such as Moroccans). They account for an estimated 13 percent out of the total amount of illegal immigrants. Also in 2009 there were over 2000 illegal Americans. Accounting for 2 percent of the total (source: van der Heijden, Cruyff, Gils 2011).

Although exact figures on people without papers in the Netherlands are difficult to determine, research shows there are considerably more male than female undocumented people (source: Engbersen 2001; van der Heiden e.a. 2006). As for the age of undocumented people, the 21-30 year olds appear to be the largest age group in the whole of Europe by far (source: Van der Leur & Ilies, 2009; Castaneda, 2009).


Achtergrond1-VillaVredeLife as an undocumented person:
Life for undocumented people is hard because of the situation they’re in, their fear to get arrested and financial problems.

Undocumented people are not allowed to work (or volunteer ) and depend on financial aid or undeclared work, mostly with a private individual, to survive. Finding accommodation is also very tough. Most undocumented people don’t have access to general homeless shelters and finding a sublease is only possible if you have enough money. Welfare organisations can sometimes help with arranging temporary accommodation for vulnerable undocumented people, but there are also people who are forced to live out on the streets.
Undocumented people are often afraid to get arrested. This fear is certainly not groundless. Immigration detention can officially be used as a drastic measure to speed up the return process to the country of origin.
In reality undocumented people are often detained for no reason in border detention (Schiphol) or in the six immigration detention centres (Alphen aan de Rijn, Zeist, Rotterdam, Schiphol en Maasberg).

In 2012, 252 people were detained in the border detention centre and 5420 people at immigration detention centres (source: Dienst Justitiële Inrichtingen), because they are not allowed to enter the country or are actually obliged to leave the country. Among these are dozens of children. Immigration detention can last as long as there is ‘a clear prospect of deportation’. The maximum duration of detention for children is 2 weeks. From the 1st of March (2014), a new rule has been added – immigration police and the Koninklijke Marechaussee are now allowed, in order to investigate a foreigner’s identity, to search a property without the consent of the occupant.


Basic rights undocumented people:
Undocumented people have the right, according to the Dutch and European treaties, to receive legal aid, necessary medical care and for children under 18 years old, the right (obligation) to education.

From 1998 undocumented people can no longer get medical insurance. Health care providers should provide necessary medical help. This means that all health care (no dental care), which a doctor considers medically necessary for the well-being of the patient, should be provided. If necessary, the cost of care will be partially compensated by the Dutch Care Institute (NZi) (formerly CVZ).
The health situation of undocumented people can deteriorate because they either postpone to ask or don’t ask for help at all. Besides, many are (psychologically) scarred by their experiences in the country of origin and/or life as an undocumented person in the Netherlands.
Since the 1st of January 2014, undocumented people are required to pay a 5 euro contribution per prescribed medicine. This new rule causes many problems and there’s a strong lobby, also from within the City Counsel of Utrecht, to retract this rule.

[1] Based on different websites, articles and personal experiences of undocumented people.