Blog: Ignorance, delays and backlogs. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugees in Amsterdam

Part 2 - by Mieke Kox and Ilse van Liempt

Pictograms Covid19 in Arabic
COVID-19 pictograms in Arabic

Recognized and recently arrived refugees, the group in focus in this part, are severely impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis. While some can assert themselves by working in the health care, sewing mouth caps or cleaning shopping carts, many others are negatively influenced by this crisis because their language development slowed down, their work contracts are not extended and participation in Dutch society is hampered. In part two of this series of blogs based on ongoing research at Utrecht University among young refugees, we discuss the impact of the corona crisis on recently arrived refugees in Amsterdam.

What? A crisis?

"The government seems to forget that a significant part of the Dutch does not speak Dutch yet," as noted by a representative of an NGO committed to refugees. In the initial phase of the crisis, the communication of the Dutch authorities was only in Dutch, English and sign language. Languages, according to this representative, not all refugees do adequately understand (yet). Besides, some refugees are low-literate. Therefore, it took quite some time for a substantial group of refugees to be adequately aware of the seriousness of the situation, according to several NGOs for refugees. Besides, this group experiences problems with the access to health care in the Netherlands as the use of interpreters for health services is no longer reimbursed. Consequently, these refugees did not know for instance what they could - and should - do to prevent spreading the virus and they were unaware of the corona crisis measures taken by the Dutch authorities.

Several organizations have responded to the lack of information for those not adequately understanding Dutch, English or sign-language. Already before the authorities announced the – what they call - “intelligent lockdown” - some organized information cafes to inform refugees about the crisis and to give them the opportunity to ask questions. Besides, there are various initiatives that support refugees in need of health care by mediating or translating for them in response to their needs.

About two weeks after the lockdown, Pharos - a center of expertise in the healthcare field - translated and circulated government information about the virus, precautions and government policies into, among others, Arabic, Tigrinya and Farsi. Since then, the Tolk- en Vertaal Centrum Nederland (the Dutch Interpreter and Translation Center) has been translating the government press conferences into eight languages, so that refugees are directly informed on the developments and measures as well. This means that, by now, most refugees have the opportunity to inform themselves about the crisis, are aware of the measures being taken during this crisis and can- if aware - use informal initiatives to access health care services.

Pictogram Covid19 in Tigrinya
COVID-19 pictograms in Tigrinya

Complicated civic integration processes

Refugees are severely impacted by the current crisis though. It complicates for instance their integration processes as the Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO) has postponed all Civic Integration Exams. As a consequence, some refugees fear that they cannot pass their mandatory exams within the set three years and that they will be fined, something that causes a lot of uncertainty among refugees that planned their exams. While the civic integration deadline has been extended with two months and some of the worries have been taken away, several organizations express that other refugees are still concerned with the consequences of not being able to pass their language exams. These exams are not only mandatory for their integration processes, but also one of the entry requirements for the education they hope to start after the summer. These refugees are therefore concerned whether these measures will cause any delay in their personal development.

A wide range of organizations currently deal with refugees’ integration processes. Many of these organizations formed a digital community quickly after the outbreak of the crisis. They offered online language lessons, language cafes, information meetings, and other types of activities for refugees, asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants. While this seems to be really appreciated by these newcomers in the Netherlands, it cannot fully resolve refugees’ concerns regarding the consequences of the corona crisis for their integration processes. Online, progress is usually slower than in the physical classroom according to a representative of an organization Not everyone can participate in these online lessons and part of the lesson is used for social aspects. One of those involved in these language lessons tells for instance: "Sometimes the lessons are more about catching up and hearing how someone is doing than it is about learning Dutch."

While this is considered important by both teachers and newcomers the situation raises concerns as well. Will they still be able to realize the entry requirements for further education? Are they able to accomplish the required level for civic integration within the set time? And do they have to repay the loans if they – due to the current circumstances – did not pass within the stipulated period? Such concerns cause stress. Or as an employee of an NGO that offers language lessons, theaters and cafes points out: “People are concerned, not only with their own health, but also with the consequences. There is still so much unclear about it, while the measures may have major consequences for them, for their integration, their financial situation, their work, and so on.” This employee raises the question whether enough is being done to address these concerns and to limit the far-reaching consequences for refugees.

What about the children?

This is especially true for refugee children who cannot attend school. Refugee children usually first participate in intensive language classes or an international transition class to learn the language before they take the step to regular primary and secondary education. Currently, the schools in the Netherlands are closed but homeschooling is - as it is for some other families - extra complicated for these children since parents may lack the right language skills, digital skills or required facilities to provide the necessary support to their children. The municipality of Amsterdam has made laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots available to vulnerable families through schools, but this does not necessarily mean that children of status holders are actually able to participate. Organizations for refugees fear that this will prevent these children from moving to a regular class after the summer because of the delays they have incurred. Or as one of the respondents argued:

I'm afraid this crisis will further widen the gap between refugees and others.

Refugees’ position on the labor market

In addition, various experts are concerned about the position of refugees on the labor market. A substantial part of the refugees works in the catering industry and/or on the basis of temporary or flexible contracts in Amsterdam. They do not see their contracts renewed. Prior to the crisis, refugees already faced numerous difficulties in accessing the labor market (pdf, In Dutch), something that is likely to further increase due to this crisis and the accompanying recession that is expected. This has direct consequences for their income and makes them worry about their situation. A resident of a complex where young refugees and Dutch people live together says: “People have lost their jobs in the catering industry. They are afraid that they will no longer be able to pay the rent and that they will end up on the street.” Refugees will still feel the consequences after the crisis, in terms of their income and their participation in society.

A helpdesk for refugees

Several (grassroots) organizations jointly established the Corona Action Committee for Refugees (CAS) because they were concerned about the position of refugees during the current crisis. The CAS has started a helpdesk where refugees may ask all types of questions in Tigrinya and Arabic. These are answered by volunteers that – if necessary - forward refugees to care providers, provide information about all kinds of procedures and offer a helping hand. However, volunteers from this help desk experience several problems.

One of the initiators, also a volunteer, says for instance: “Normally refugees have someone literally standing next to their computer and helping them, but that is not possible now. And it is very difficult for us to remotely apply for social or unemployment benefits. That is a hell of a job. And it is not that you can say: ‘Just turn on Zoom or just turn on Skype’ because they don't have that either."

Several organizations indicate that newcomers are (again) stuck in the Dutch bureaucracy while it is very complicated to remotely support them. Because how do you explain by telephone how someone with an outdated computer system can fill in the UWV forms for the emergency measures? How do you help with homeschooling if facilities are missing? And how do you ensure that socially isolated refugees are aware of the helpdesk? And moreover, this is all volunteer work. According to one of the initiators, these volunteers are enthusiastically committed and convinced about the need for the helpdesk but they are confronted with a lack of time and resources and not receiving any formal support, in other words financing.

After the crisis

Care work, sewing mouth caps or cleaning shopping carts. For some of the recently arrived refugees the crisis offers a chance: the possibility to contribute and commit to society and earn some extras. But a substantial number of refugees are – according to several organizations – seriously affected by the corona crisis. The virus outbreak and the measures taken result in delayed integration processes, educational disadvantages and a deteriorated position on the labor market. Some organizations fear that refugees might experience loneliness and become socially isolated, while it is – especially in the current situation - difficult to gain insight into (the needs of) this group. Furthermore, refugees might have to wait longer to reunite with their families who might live in insecure countries. Finally, refugees’ access to health care services is hampered by the lack of reimbursement for interpreters for health care services. The impact of the crisis on permit holders is therefore already visible.

At the same time, interviewed organizations are particularly concerned about the status of refugees after the crisis. After all, how will be dealt with the consequences of the delayed integration processes? How will the increasing gaps in education and the labor market be bridged? How is it ensured that children and young people can start their desired education after the summer? How long do they have to wait before they can reunite with their families? And how will be dealt with all these extra barriers refugees experience in terms of participation in society? The Dutch government currently focuses on the health care and the reduction of the economic impact. We believe that refugees also need attention to limit problems for this group, now and after the crisis. 

Mieke Kox
Ilse van Liempt


  • Next week: part 3, in which we discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on unauthorized migrants in the Netherlands.
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