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.