Stuck: mental health and future perspectives of undocumented refugees & migrants in the Netherlands

Photo: Bas Baltus

Photo: Bas Baltus, ASKV/Steunpunt Vluchtelingen, Amsterdam


By Arja Oomkens -


“Before I was afraid to die, now I am afraid to go crazy.” 


During the Basic Rights Festival for undocumented refugees and other migrants I hosted a workshop about the right to education. Many people who fled their country of origin and did not (yet) receive a residence permit, joined in with expectations of learning more about their rights. Because in practice the right to education is difficult to access, we focused instead on their obstacles and possibilities in the Netherlands. One young woman, I will call her Igna, who has been here for more than 6 years, summed up the feeling of many people around the table: “We have been here for years, feeling frustrated because we can do nothing with our talents, so we stay in bed, anxious for what the future holds for us.”


In the Netherlands, tens of thousands undocumented refugees and other migrants are currently stuck in similar situations as Igna, without a clear future perspective. Among them are people whose residence permit has expired, refused asylum-seekers, victims of human trafficking who are afraid to press charges, or stateless people who cannot return to their country of origin. They have either lost or have not received a residence permit. Theoretically speaking, these people have three options: obtain a residence permit; return to the country of origin; or migrate to another country. In practice, though, many people remain undocumented, and, unable to work or study, become increasingly frustrated, anxious, and stuck.


This stuckness, as Igna lamented, often increases the occurrence of stress, anxiety, and depression, which is complicated by the often already traumatic pasts many undocumented people face. In an interview, the Dutch psychiatrist Rembrant Aarts, who works with undocumented people, points out that:


“Psychiatric complications impede on the ability of people to make clear choices about the future, such as a decision to start a new asylum procedure, to return to the country of origin or to migrate to another country.”


Another study by Faiza Siddiqui, Ulf Lindblad and Louise Bennet indicates that these symptoms actively rise among refugees and migrants due to economic insecurity and physical inactivity. This study is relevant for the Netherlands, because a specific Dutch law (the 1998 Koppelingswet) inhibits undocumented people from doing any kind of (volunteer-) work, and restricts access to education for anyone over eighteen. With this law, the government tried to discourage undocumented people from staying illegally in the Netherlands. In practice, the effect is contradictory to the purposes of the government, since most undocumented people remain stuck precisely because they cannot do anything, instead of leaving because they cannot do anything. Due to insecurity and inactivity, they face increased anxiety and stress, which obstruct the ability to think constructively about their future options, prompting many to ‘stay in bed’ as Igna put it.


Recently, research by Amnesty International and Stichting LOS (May 2017) into the lives of undocumented people in the Netherlands sought to address the socio-psychological issues around the lack of security and activity. Sabine Koppes points out that the specific conditions in The Netherlands, in the form of having nowhere to go and having nothing to do, leads to many different forms of stress and mental health problems. Koppes interviewed 84 refugees and migrants about their experience of being undocumented in the Netherlands. The quoted reactions by the interviewees form vivid examples of the hardship of undocumented existence:


“Boredom, having no idea about future living conditions, makes you crazy.”


The human dignity and future perspective of undocumented people in the Netherlands is closely linked to the trauma, stress, and anxiety they experience. Mental health issues that arise because of inactivity cannot be left unaddressed. Providing basic shelter simply is not enough, if the pressing issue of mental health because of inactivity looms ever larger.


ASKV/Refugee support provides education (based on personal talents) and entrepreneurial skill-development for undocumented people. There are a variety of courses to follow, such as furniture building, web-design, and hairdressing. As a project coordinator, I have experienced several attitudinal and behavioral changes among participants. For example, one student found renewed energy to start a new legal procedure for a residence permit, and another felt renewed self-confidence to start his own barber shop in his country of origin. If a lack of access to security and physical activities leads to anxiety, depression, and a general inability to think about the future, education and entrepreneurial skill-development can increase the ability to consider the future and to get a grip on daily life.


It is clear that the official prohibition on work and education for people over eighteen does not support return, but creates a situation in which undocumented people become stuck – exhausted by the idea that the future is unsafe and insecure. To protect human dignity, and to truly provide perspective for those who are stuck, like Igna and so many others in the Netherlands, their ability to actively think for themselves about their own future must be the leading principle.





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