Blog: #I would stay home if I had one. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on unauthorized migrants in Amsterdam

Part 3 - by Mieke Kox and Ilse van Liempt

Stay Home (image: freepik)
(vector image made by freepik -

The current COVID-19 crisis also affects unauthorized migrants, i.e. rejected asylum seekers, informal migrant workers and others without the right to reside in the Netherlands. Despite the advice to stay home some of them were literally in the streets as the municipality of Amsterdam offered only shelter during the night in the beginning of the crisis. Informal migrant workers feared a similar situation as they could not work and had no income due to the crisis. In the last of a series of blogs based on ongoing research at Utrecht University we discuss the impact of the corona crisis on unauthorized migrants in Amsterdam.

#I would stay home if I had one

The municipality of Amsterdam only offered shelter during the night at the outbreak of the crisis as the local health service (GGD) feared risks of contamination in a 24-hour shelter. Since then, about 75 undocumented migrants have been sleeping on camp beds in a gymnasium (Sporthallen Zuid). Every morning at 9 am, these migrants are given a sandwich bag and a cup of tea and then forced to leave the shelter meaning that they cannot comply with the guidelines of the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM). This causes distress among these migrants according to an interviewee. A group of approximately 80 unauthorized migrants initially refused to make use of this night shelter because, in a representative’s view, the municipality's offer was insufficient and would come at the expense of these migrants’ health. They instead preferred to stay in the squatted parking garage De Kempering, despite its poor conditions and the shared tents. May 8, this garage was evacuated meaning that most of these migrants had to sleep at night shelters after all.

The first days of the crisis, the migrants in the night shelter had nowhere to go during daytime as the communities where they used to spend their days were forced to close their doors. An employee of such a community says: "We could not justify opening our doors.” The building was simply too small, social distancing not possible and hygiene tools too limited. Another respondent tells us: "They had nowhere to go, there was nothing for them." These unauthorized migrants had for instance limited access to public toilets and could not wash their hands as homeless facilities closed too. Besides, they increasingly feared discrimination as they were spending their days in the streets while they should stay home. They spent their days in the Amsterdam parks and played football to keep warm. Several citizens initiatives such as Here to Support and Amsterdam City Rights visited them, brought them hot coffee and provided gift cards for a supermarket to alleviate their needs. They jointly protested #I would stay home if I had one.

After a few days, the aforementioned aid organizations and De Regenboog Groep were able to organize day shelter for small, fixed groups of unauthorized migrants. From then onwards, these migrants could comply with applicable guidelines, cook together, shower and – as far as possible given the limited number of laptops – participate in online Dutch lessons. However, respondents indicate that providing shelter to such vulnerable people should be a task of the Dutch authorities. Nevertheless, they offer – in their view - a cozier and safer place that is characterized by interconnectedness and solidarity. They would like to offer 24-hour shelter themselves, if subsidized by the authorities. A volunteer believes that this makes more sense: "Isn't that smarter than throwing people all together at night and keeping that strict separation during the day?" By now, these organizations receive funding from the municipality to provide this daycare, meaning that they are no longer dependent on crowdfunding as in the initial phase of the crisis. Besides, homeless facilities have been reopened.

Fearing eviction

Unauthorized labor migrants fear ending up in the streets as well. These migrants are no longer able to work in the informal economy and have little or no income due to the crisis while they are not allowed to use the crisis safety nets for self-employed either. Several interviewees indicate that this group fears eviction from their homes. A respondent says: “This group’s need is high. After one week they often cannot pay their rent anymore while they do have obligations in their country of origin." Unauthorized migrants staying with friends or family equally fear that they will be forced to leave the house as those friends and families are staying at their – usually small – homes as well during the lockdown. Furthermore, this group experiences problems with payment as they are not allowed to have a Dutch bank account and an increasing number of stores refuses cash payments.

Since the beginning of May, the municipality of Amsterdam does offer shelter to unauthorized families, but only if they register themselves. This means that these migrants put themselves on the radar of these authorities and facilitate their deportation after the crisis. This raises the question to what extent they will use these shelter. Besides, organizations indicate that they want to prevent informal migrant workers to end up in these shelters. Given the difficulty to (again) gain access to the tight Amsterdam housing market, dependency on shelter could become long-term. Although one respondent argues that an unknown number of undocumented migrants immediately returned to their home countries at the outbreak of the crisis given their fears of eviction and concerns about relatives in the home country, other interviewees believe that many unauthorized migrants will not consider this as an option. Besides, current travel restrictions make this hardly possible.

Access to health care

Unauthorized migrants are entitled to medically necessary care and the local health service in Amsterdam has a quarantine protocol with isolation options for - among others - unauthorized migrants. However, interviewed organizations wonder to what extent unauthorized migrants will make use of their rights. A respondent argues that this could result in ethical discussions on whether unauthorized migrants deserve using scarce health care and/or beds at the Intensive Care Unit at the expense of others. The pressure on health care services has decreased but several organizations do observe reluctance amongst unauthorized migrants to seek health care. A care provider tells us for instance that the unauthorized migrants he supports currently ask less for paracetamol or ibuprofen while they used to be “major users” of these painkillers. Another respondent indicates that there seems to be a taboo on having corona complaints. Unauthorized migrants fear the stigma of being sinful or of having prayed too little which is – in these migrants’ view – associated with the cause of contamination. Besides, some respondents argue that migrants fear quarantine given the traumatic memories it brings or the unfamiliarity with sleeping in seclusion. Finally, some undocumented migrants would fear the consequences of seeking help in terms of detention or deportation. Regardless of these migrants’ reluctance, several organizations argue that it is impossible for unauthorized migrants to walk around without complaints being noticed in the day shelters.

Furthermore, as discussed in a previous blog, it is hard for newcomers in the Netherlands to adequately inform themselves on the current crisis. This also applies to unauthorized migrants. A respondent involved in these migrants’ day shelter explains: “It is great that initiatives have been taken to translate the information, but these initiatives translate government policy literally. A boy here tore up the poster with those measures because Rule 1 says ‘Stay at home’ but how do you stay home if you don't have a home? Rule 2 is that you are obliged to stay home in case of complaints, but these people are sent out in the streets! Rule 3 is that you should keep a distance, but how should you keep a 1.5m distance in a shelter for 100 people? A much more custom-made approach is needed.” This respondent believes that the lack of customized information entails the risk that these unauthorized migrants will flout the measures completely as they cannot comply anyway, while these migrants are – in this respondent’s view - actually very supportive. Such solidarity comes to the fore in the current face mask project in which unauthorized migrants from different shelters collaborate to provide all unauthorized migrants in Amsterdam with self-sewed face masks with accompanying instructions and - adapted - information to prevent contamination.

The pains of being unauthorized

Some interviewees express their concerns about the unauthorized migrants’ health, also because living without a legal status brings - even without a crisis - all kind of pains of being unauthorized. Besides, the living conditions of unauthorized migrants often negatively influence their health, a situation that is exacerbated by the insecurities of the current crisis. Furthermore, essential nutrition like fruit would – without citizen initiatives – not be available to these migrants according to a respondent. Finally, a group of unauthorized migrants is detained in immigration detention with the purpose of removal although the conditions have sobered there and the chances for removal have decreased. Although the director of the detention center Rotterdam expresses that it has never been so quiet in the detention center, the Hotline Immigration Detention expresses its concerns about the detained migrants.

To conclude

In this series of blogs, we showed the impact of the current COVID-19 crisis on asylum seekers, newly arrived refugees and unauthorized migrants in Amsterdam. Civil society organizations - sometimes (partly) subsidized by the authorities – have filled the gaps left behind by state structures. These organizations, for instance, provided day care, counseled for medical care, translated crucial information, offered online Dutch lessons, language cafes and help with homeschooling, and much more. Such initiatives contribute to fulfilling these migrants’ primary needs, making people feel welcome and creating senses of belonging. However, it also raises fundamental questions. After all, should such primary tasks as shelter, education and access to health care be taken up by informal initiatives or are these – especially in times of crisis - primary tasks of the authorities themselves?

Mieke Kox
Ilse van Liempt