Early on in the pandemic, dozens of migrant rights charities and church leaders wrote to the prime minister calling for temporary leave to remain to be granted to all migrants and asylum seekers, to prevent exploitation, destitution and homelessness and to ensure universal access to benefits, public services and medical care. The government always claimed that the point of hostile environment policies was to make undocumented migrants leave the country, by making it impossible for them to live here. Obviously this logic could not apply when borders are closed. But the punitive policies continued. The government refused to grant any form of leave, and refused to suspend hostile environment policies – meaning that exclusion from subsistence benefits, sanctions for landlords letting to undocumented migrants, for those employing migrants and asylum seekers not permitted to work, and criminalisation of the workers themselves, as well as charges for medical treatment (with the exception of testing and treatment for coronavirus), all remain in place.  The government knows that the effect of these policies is to make life intolerable for those subjected to them – that is their purpose. This is a violation of rights to health, to physical and psychological integrity, to livelihood, to housing, and constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment.

The work done by undocumented migrants is nearly always manual. It can’t be performed remotely. It is almost always exploitative, frequently paying below the minimum wage. There is no statutory sick pay for those falling ill, no tax credits, no furlough or self-isolation allowance for those told to stay at home.

Being undocumented during the pandemic

A June 2020 report by RAPAR and Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, A chance to feel safe: precarious Filipino migrants amid the UK’s coronavirus outbreak, points out that the official reports all omit the undocumented migrant workers, many of whom work in social care and domestic work, in close physical contact with others, but invisible, and unable to benefit from any of the measures put into place to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. None could work from home. Respondents to their survey, mostly undocumented middle-aged Filipina women living in the UK for ten years on average, had an average wage of £6 per hour (the minimum wage in London is £8.72 and the London Living Wage £10.75). Some earned less than £2 per hour, working 16-hour days in private homes. Their undocumented status prevented them negotiating better pay or conditions.

The pandemic has had catastrophic effects. More than half of the respondents had lost all work and all income, and were relying on informal loans and charity. As three-quarters had no formal tenancy agreement, they could not benefit from the government-imposed ban on evictions. Remittances home – after rent, the main priority – had become impossible, and awareness of the hardships this caused family back home was a source of huge distress. Those who still had work could not afford to stop, even if they had Covid symptoms.

The stresses of being undocumented and the fear of discovery, and the added stresses of unemployment or overwork, no or scant income, debt, homelessness or the fear of it, and the inability to support family, exact a toll on mental as well as physical health.

A filipina woman, undocumented, (6 years in the UK) testify : 

I’m a live-out domestic worker. I worked for three employers before the lockdown. One was a doctor. I cleaned his house. He was very sick and hadn’t been to work for long time … I started feeling unwell. I lost my appetite, had low fever and body ache and coughed a lot. These are symptoms of Covid-19. I was so scared. Because I’m undocumented, I have never registered GP. I can’t go to hospital. For a month, I was unwell. I took care of myself. I lost all my jobs, I don’t have any income. My family asked, ‘when are you going to send money?’ I said, ‘I can’t. I don’t have jobs now.’ I feel very stressed. I don’t know when I will have my jobs back. I started looking for new jobs. Last week I had an interview. They said they could offer me a live-in job, but the conditions are so hard. … I won’t be allowed to go out at all before September. It is too hard. I feel like I’m in jail. I didn’t accept the job offer. The stress has made my asthma even worse. I can’t get any help from doctors because I’m hidden. I’m staying with my friend. There is no internet in the house. I feel very I can’t even talk with my family and friends online.

The London hearing of the PPT (November 2018) explored the hostile environment and its effects on living and working conditions for migrants and refugees. We refer you to the evidence presented at that hearing for details[1].These effects, as well as the impacts of racism, have been exposed and magnified by the pandemic. Low pay, inability to maintain social distancing and lack of PPE combine with pressure to work while sick to produce high death rates in sectors employing migrant workers, often on zero-hours or agency contracts, factors multiplied by precarious status and the hostile environment. In May the Office for National Statistics found that security guards and taxi drivers had some of the highest death rates from Covid-19, and cleaners, chefs and shop workers all at increased risk. Food processing workers, many of whom are migrants, are key workers. Cramped conditions and inadequate hygiene facilities had led to nearly 1,500 cases linked to food processing plants by late summer. The World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 envoy said Britain’s demand for cheap food could be fuelling the spread of the virus.

The experience of domestic workers during Covid

The Voice of Domestic Workers (VDW) reports that each year, the Home Office issues 19,000 visas for domestic workers – cleaners, cooks, chauffeurs, nannies and personal carers – in private households. Unlike other workers, domestic workers have no route to settlement: their visas are limited to six months. Of 528 surveyed by VDW, over three-quarters have suffered abuse and less than half have enough to eat, but their visa conditions make them likely to become undocumented if they leave employers. During the pandemic, live-in domestic workers have sometimes lost their jobs and homes, while those kept on are often overworked and hungry, wages have been cut, some are confined to their workplaces, with no PPE and social distancing impossible even when required to care for those infected with Covid-19. Twenty VDW members who live out, have lost jobs and income, and cannot get any state benefits or assistance. Some, who have been accepted on to the modern slavery referral scheme (NRM) and are awaiting a final decision, are given £35 per week (€38) to live on but not permitted to work.

As comments this Filipina woman, 38, 2 years in UK : 

“I felt like I’m in a cage, in prison. Since two weeks before the lockdown, I have been forbidden to go out by my employer – not to buy food or take exercise. My life evolves in this flat. I’m locked inside. My employers are elderly people from Iraq. I only received two weeks’ salary last month. I asked why, they just ignored me. Before the lockdown, I had one day off a week. Now I have none. I work from 8am to midnight everyday. They let me do online classes with VDW, but no days off. I don’t have enough money to send back home to support my 3 children. I borrowed money from a VDW member and she helped me to arrange remittance. I feel very sad.”


[1]How the hostile environment creates sites without rights, 2019. See the website of the PPT London steering group on migrant rights.

Migration is not a crime. Nevertheless, the detention of undocumented migrants and out-of- procedure refugees had become commonplace in the Netherlands – as it has in other EU countries. Immigration detention has a deep negative effect on individuals and families. It has a profound impact on the physical and mental health on the detained and on their relatives and friends outside. The most experienced mental health problems are depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the longer the detention continues, the longer lasting the implications will be. The regular use of isolation and solitary confinement is a serious risk factor for long lasting mental health damage, so is the use of segregation units.

Testimony of Kofi, migrant in the Netherland:

Furthermore, next to the direct impact on mental and physical well being, detention is often associated with the additional stigma and narrative of being “criminal” – both by those who experience unjust detention and in the public perception.

In case of children in detention: in principle that is not allowed in the Netherlands. For the purpose of deportation, children and their family are detained in so called “closed family facilities”. Families have their own living units, where they can cook for themselves and there are activities for the children. However – there is a closed fence around the facility. The families are often moved to other facilities, there is no privacy and there are hardly any care to deal with the traumatic experiences.

Deportations occurs early in the morning, what is particularly for the children extremely stressful and traumatic: they are lying awake in anticipation will this be the day that they will be deported. And every day they are missing friends that were deported in the morning.

There is a widespread perception that undocumented migrant and refugee children are particularly vulnerable to trauma – including the trauma of being “unaccompanied” on their migrant or refugee journey. It is also recognised that detention and confinement in prison or detention centres or in locked-in camps is particularly devastating for children. However, this practice has become “normalised”. In the many instances of arrival in or deportation from Europe, including the Netherlands.

Undocumented Children and Youth and Access to Health Care

Less recognised or acknowledged is the impact on the psychological and mental health of teenagers and young adults who because of being undocumented (even if they are born in the Netherlands) if their parents are undocumented, they too are undocumented.

Undocumented youth, whether born in the Netherlands or if they arrived as children or teenagers, have the right to education until they reach the age of 18th. After the age of 18th only the education that was already started, may be finished, including a vocational training. However, to finish a vocational training it is often mandatory to follow successfully an internship, but undocumented are not allowed to follow an internship in the Netherlands.

With this exclusion, their options for the future are set on a pre-determined path of being only able to find employment in the “undocumented sectors” where their parents are employed in informal and exploitative work. It also leads to a rupture with friends from second level education and a break with peers – an important element in personal development; isolation in not being able to share the normal social experiences of teenagers and frequently leads to depression and a sense of a closed future.

As Alma, one such teenager expresses:

“I have done well in my second level education. I don’t understand why I should be excluded and denied the right to pursue my studies and training. And I am afraid to lose my friends as our pathways go separate ways now – they go to university or professional training and I am left outside… but I will continue to live with my dream”.

Since identity is a crucial factor in personal and social development – this “crucially different identity” as “undocumented” is a stigma which most teenagers will keep as a secret. It also has a very significant impact on their sense of identify, self-confidence and psychological and mental well-being. It is also linked with the “security” and continued stay of themselves and their parents in the country and leads to anxiety and a strong sense of a deprived future horizon.

Migrant women organisations and women’s rights organisations are applying CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) concerns about access to healthcare for undocumented women.

As Sara, a migrant woman in The Netherlands, comments:

“Migrant (undocumented) women and healthcare professionals still lack knowledge on the right to health of women and the existing regulations. As a consequence, undocumented migrant women often achieve access to the healthcare system when it is too late –symptoms got worse, their cancer is too advanced. The continuity of needed care is seldom or not guaranteed, and sometimes they are denied any care at all.

In practice, undocumented migrant women are often dependant on NGO’s that act as intermediaries between undocumented migrants and the healthcare system”.

Women Migrant Workers

The vast majority of undocumented women – migrants as well as refugees – find employment mainly as workers in the private household – either as live-in or live-out workers – including those who are working in the homes of diplomats or as au-pair – or in hotels and catering industries. Most of them came legally to the Netherlands – with a temporary work permit, through family reunification or with a tourist visa. They were forced to become “over-stayers” and therefore undocumented when their visa for various reasons expired. Likewise, women who are refused asylum, also became undocumented.

While there are employers who uphold treatment of workers according to their human rights as workers and as women, however this depends on the “goodwill” of the employer. Because of the undocumented status of the worker, the relationship is a very unequal power relationship, constantly under threat of reporting to the police or immigration authorities. This relation frequently also leads to other forms of exploitation and violation of rights.

Associations of migrant domestic workers such as IMWU, RESPECT Network or TRUSTED as well as researches and shadow reports to CEDAW their exploitation have been extensively documented – in terms of wages (underpay and overwork); on-call work when live-in, multiple tasking (child minding, or elderly care work, cooking, house-cleaning, laundry, gardening, shopping), unsafe and unhealthy labour conditions, without personal protective equipment (PPE) and experiences of gender based harassment and violence on the work floor. The work done is precarious work – very often without any agreed contract or the working relationship can be unilaterally ended by the employer – either because of change of circumstances – transferring to another city or country, illness, loss of employment or other unexplained reasons on the side of the employer.

We will discuss about the right and access to health and other issues concerning the rights of refugees and migrant people in the EU from the 23rd to the 25th of October in the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) Berlin Hearing. Organized by activists, health, human rights and migrant organizations, we strongly denounce the violations refugees and migrant people experience in the context of the European asylum policies.  Especially in the light of recent events and political decisions in the EU it is more important than ever to make sure voices and testimonies are heard. All information here.

Venue of the official Hearing
Location: Refugio Berlin, Lenaustr. 3-4, 12047 Berlin

If you would like to attend the Berlin Hearing, in person or online via Zoom (with translations from English), you can register below in the form or send an email *: ppt_berlin[at]riseup.net

Due to the COVID-Situation, the hygiene and distance regulations allow only a very limited number of participants. Therefore unfortunately we cannot guarantee your presence at Refugio.

Participation online is being organised direct via Zoom or via Livestream (please click here for more information)
The Language del PPT Berlín is English – to access interpretation in Spanish, French and German – registration for ZOOM is required
The livestream will not have interpretation

El Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP) tendrá lugar del 23 al 25 de octubre. Y será un evento híbrido – parte en persona en Berlín limitado debido al C-19.
Y la participación en línea se está organizando 1) a través de Zoom o 2) a través de Live streaming, mas informacion click aqui
El idioma del PPT/Berlín es inglés – para acceder a la interpretación en español, francés y alemán – es necesario registrarse en el ZOOM
El livestream no tendrá interpretación

Et la participation en ligne est organisée 1) via Zoom ou 2) via Live stream
Le langue du PPT/Berlín est l’anglais – pour accéder à l’interprétation en espagnol, français et allemand, il faut s’inscrire au ZOOM (plus d’informations cliquez ici)
Le streaming en direct n’aura pas d’interprétation

Registration form for the hearing

For more information & media questions

Please contact

Nadine Rosenkranz [email protected]  (German & English);

Paloma Chen [email protected] (English & Spanish)

Julie Lalloue [email protected] (English & French).

Opening (14h)
Hearing 1Access to Health Care in Germany
Hearing 2Access to Health Care (Europe)
Hearing 3EU Border Politics
SaturdayHearing 4Situation on the Greek Islands
Hearing 5Criminalization of Solidarity
Hearing 6Racism and Criminalisation of Refugee and Migrant People
Hearing 7Encampment and Risk of Deportation in Germany
Hearing 8Migrant Workers‘ Rights
SundayJury‘s Comment on the Berlin Hearing (10h)