09 september 2014

Undocumented persons have human rights too

While Dutch society professes to protect and promote human rights, it seems that many people still see undocumented persons as less than human, writes Laura Henderson, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law.

Undocumented persons are human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Yet the Dutch central government lets these individuals live – and die – on the streets, which is anything but humane. While Dutch society professes to protect and promote human rights, it seems that many people still see undocumented persons as less than human.

It is a story I often hear: A young woman flees to the Netherlands from Syria. She applies for a residence permit as an asylum seeker, but it is denied. If she agrees to cooperate with her deportation back to Syria, she can stay in a refugee center pending her return.

Life on the streets

But her decision to leave her home and her family was not taken lightly. It was not a simple fight with a neighbor or a boring job that she was fleeing – she fled because of the violent conflict she experienced as an every-day reality in her homeland. Cooperating with a return to such a situation would be suicidal.

Instead she chooses life and thus refuses to cooperate with her own deportation and is condemned to a life on the streets and in the margins. Without any right to work and provide for her own basic needs, and without any provision of basic services from the Dutch government, this young woman sleeps on the streets at night and begs for food during the day. While the Dutch government provides services such as housing and food-aid for other people in need, she is barred from these because of her status.

Basic human rights

This denial of the basic human rights to food and shelter has been criticized widely. Most recently, the European Committee of Social Rights considered this matter and ordered the Dutch government (in a decision on immediate measures) to take all possible measures to ensure the basic needs of all humans in the Netherlands. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has joined in this call. Still, the Dutch government refuses to change its policy. Apparently, for the government, ‘all persons’ does not include undocumented persons.

Luckily, some cities, religious organizations and volunteers have stepped up to assist these individuals, even as the Dutch central government maintains its unlawful policies. Certain municipalities take action to prevent undocumented persons freezing to death on winter nights. Recently, the mayor of Amsterdam has called for a joint effort with Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague to protect the basic needs of all people in their cities – including refugees without a residence permit. And undocumented refugees themselves are joining forces and demanding political attention.

Less than human

We should be deeply troubled by Dutch government’s current policy to treat undocumented persons as less than human. It is time to recognize undocumented persons as people and their needs as legitimate.

Laura Henderson is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law. She has worked on cases for undocumented persons at Weaver & Henderson On Point Legal and also volunteers at a foundation that assists undocumented persons in the Netherlands (Stichting Dienstverlening aan Buitenlanders).

Laura Henderson

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