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23 februari 2010

Illegal aliens like Helen can't hack it in the Netherlands

Thousands of illegal aliens lead clandestine lives in the Netherlands. Mayors fear an amendment to immigration law will hit the most vulnerable.

By Sheila Kamerman

Helen is eight months pregnant and lives in an apartment provided to her by the Rotterdam municipality. A great improvement from the street she used to sleep on. Helen (36) left her native Ethiopia more than 20 years ago and came to the Netherlands in 2000. She has been homeless and, more importantly, illegal.

Meet Helen. She is one of the vulnerable illegal aliens, those who live at the bottom of the bottom. Anyone willing to look can see them scrape by on the margins of society in all major cities. Illegals who manage to make a living often seem invisble. Helen isn’t, because she can't.

Next month, the Dutch parliament will vote on an amendment to the aliens act passed in 2000. A crucial element of that amendment is that people who stay in the Netherlands illegally for any length of time jeopardise their right to a residence permit.

The change has not caused commotion amongst the weakest illegals. They are not aware of it. However aid workers, scientists and some politicians are up in arms. They fear that the most fragile amongst the illegal aliens will be affected. These include victims of domestic violence and human trafficking afraid to report crimes committed against them; former asylum seekers who can't return home because their native country won't let them and children without a permit. The problems with illegal aliens are not solved this way, some say. In fact, the contrary will take place: the group of people without any prospects will grow. People like Helen.

Picking up the pieces

Estimates of the number of illegal aliens in the Netherlands range from 45,000 to 120,000. In Rotterdam alone, there are believed to be between 15,000 and 20,000. Accurate data are unavailable. Officially, illegal people don't exist.

National policies are aimed at discouraging illegality, but that is easier said than done. For this reason, the mayors of the four major cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, have written a pressing letter to justice minister, Ernst Hirsch Ballin, expressing their worries about the proposed amendment last month. They fear they will be the ones picking up the pieces when things take a wrong turn. And they are concerned that the number of illegal people will increase, at least the number of visible ones who can't take care of themselves.

Favor is one of those who would never make it on his own, said Theo Miltenburg, in a recent interview at his centre for undocumented immigrants in Rotterdam. Favor says he was born in Sudan, but immigration services believe he is really from Sierra Leone. They also dispute his mental disorder. He could be faking it in the hope of getting a residence permit.

Favor sat quietly crouched on the couch in Miltenburg's shelter; when spoken to he jumped up startled. Voices in his head were telling him he needed to get out of the centre and go outside to the bridge. Favor didn't know what they wanted him to do there, but he was scared. The voices upset him. Every now and then he got up to scream into the empty space behind the sofa: "Go away, go away!" He later explained, "they are standing there, laughing at me."

Caretaker Miltenburg knows those he tries to help do not always tell him the whole truth. Maybe Favor is really from Sierra Leone. But he doesn't doubt his mental illness. "He would be an absurdly good actor if this was fake," Miltenburg said.

Left by her mother at 15

He also helped Helen when she was out on the street, pregnant and refusing help. She crashed on the floor of a shelter for a while, until Miltenberg alerted the municipality to her case. National policy does not allow local authorities to help illegal aliens, but how could they leave a pregnant woman on the street? She was put up in an vacant apartment.

Helen appeared well-composed as she talked about her life in English. She was 15 when her mother left her in a children's home in Germany. Helen said she doesn't know why. But she remembers her mother never took care of her very long. She was too busy working.

She was illegal in Germany, which she had entered on a tourist visa, but she never got in trouble. The authorities allowed her to stay as long as she kept up the story that she was brought there by a stranger and had no family. She got a visa for a fixed time, she attended school and received welfare after she turned 18. She had a Polish boyfriend.

Things fell apart in the 1990s. Helen said her troubles began after she had a miscarriage. Then it went from bad to worse. She became afraid of the daylight, afraid of other people, afraid of the street. She had to get away from where she was and came to the Netherlands in 2000, on impulse, with one bag of clothes.

Released back onto the streets

Here she moved from city to city, fare-dodging on public transport. She survived on the street. "There are places in each city where you can stay and get food," she explained. She begged for money. "People in Maastricht and Utrecht give very little, those in Rotterdam are more generous, especially around Christmas. Most cities have a system where homeless people can make money collecting rubbish with a pricker, but you need a national insurance number for that. I don't have one."

She avoided shelters until it became unbearably cold on the streets. "There you are on a stretcher, between alcoholics and drug addicts. The smell! The snoring and the yelling. I couldn't deal with that."

She was arrested several times and attempts were made to deport her. "Ethiopia won't give the entry papers. I don't want to go. What would I do there. I haven't heared from my mother in 20 years. I don't know if she ever came looking for me, but I think about her a lot," she said.

After days, sometimes weeks, in prison, Helen was always released back onto the streets, where she conquered some of her own fears. "I was my own shrink. Psychiatrists confront their patients with their fear, I saw this on television. Someone with agoraphobia had to go to a square, holding the therapist's hand. I was afraid of light and the street, but I couldn't avoid those. I had to fight my fears. And one day, I remember, I was in Utrecht, the fear was gone."

Now she is about to become a mother. She didn't find out until she was three months pregnant and says she has no idea who the father is. She has often turned to the Missionaries of Charity in Rotterdam, but this time she didn't dare. "I was afraid they would take my baby away after it was born. I was confused."


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