Shelters for undocumented migrant women in the Netherlands

Migrant women are powerful women. It requires determination and perseverance to make the journey from your home country to a new and unknown country. Certainly, if it is not clear how the future will look like − asylum seekers and other migrants cannot count on a warm welcome.

Migration legislation is cruel − not everyone who needs it gets a residence permit. The connection between migration legislation and social legislation denies irregular migrant women access to social security, including women’s shelters.

Right of residence for women without residence

An undocumented Iraqi Kurdish woman with a minor child had fled from home because of domestic violence (and after her flight also honour crime). She reported to the police, but the women’s shelter refused to offer help as this woman did not have a residence permit. Eventually, an application for a residence permit as a victim of domestic violence was submitted by a temporary informal shelter. However, this informal shelter could not provide proper support because of the high risk of honour crime and because the ex-husband was actively looking for the woman and knew the city where she stayed. She eventually got a residence permit.

In 1998, the Netherlands excluded irregular migrants from virtually all forms of social security. This applies, for example, to the right to social assistance, homeless and women’s shelters, health insurance and the right to adult education. Obviously, irregular migrants are also not allowed to work legally and pay taxes. The purpose of this legislation was to discourage illegal stay and prevent irregular migrants from extending their stay by making use of social security.

However, the consequence of this legislation in a regulated country like the Netherlands is that irregular migrants are dependent on their social network and illegal structures for their survival. Sometimes, they can stay with acquaintances, but that is almost never possible for a long time. Irregular migrants with money can rent illegally, but they do not have any protection as tenants and can easily lose their residence. When it comes to work, they can use someone else’s papers, but, of course, they have to pay the real owner of the papers a part of their earnings. In the private circuit, they can sometimes find work as illegal cleaning aid. In all these cases, they are vulnerable and can easily be misused. This applies in particular to irregular migrants who are completely dependent on their partner and do not have their own housing or income.

Immigration legislation

A. Partners with a dependent residence permit
Strict immigration laws make it difficult to legalize the residence of a foreign partner in the Netherlands. Many conditions must be fulfilled: the Dutch partner must earn enough, and the foreign partner must obtain a visa from abroad and pass an ‘integration test’. In this situation, the foreign partner is dependent on the partner in the Netherlands for at least five years, before independent residence can be obtained.

B. Partners without a residence permit
Often partners cannot meet the above conditions, and therefore choose to live together illegally. For example, if the partner’s income in the Netherlands is not high enough, the foreign partner is unable to pass the ‘integration test’, or the threshold for returning in order to obtain the visa is too high. Couples often live together for many years without a prospect to legalization.

C. Rejected asylum seekers
Finally, there is a large group of rejected asylum seekers who lose their right to shelter at the end of their asylum procedure. Without residence permit, there is no right to work, social services or access to homeless shelters. Living-in, sometimes combined with other personal services, is then the only option left over. These are not relationships that are based on free will. Dependence from the person who offers shelter is very high in such circumstances.

In all situations described above, the foreign partner is in several areas dependent on the partner in the Netherlands. This can easily lead to abuse and domestic violence.

Practice of assistance for victims of domestic violence with insecure residence

A. Partners with a dependent residence permit

A Moroccan woman with dependent residence permit was a victim of domestic / honor-related violence. Her husband had abused and raped her for 10 days and then sent her to his mother, who sent her to the streets the next day. She then sought help at the mosque who referred her to an informal shelter. The women’s shelter did not want to receive her despite the demands of the municipality, because there was no direct threat from her husband at the time. She eventually received her residence permit as victim of domestic violence through the informal shelter.

For partners with a dependent residence permit who are victims of domestic violence, access to women’s shelters is not self-evident, as shown above. Still, there are also many women’s shelters that can help. Since these women had a residence permit before entering the shelter, they meet the criteria for admission and the shelter receives welfare for them too.

In case of demonstrable domestic violence, a long-term residence permit can be obtained relatively easily. The condition is that domestic violence is reported to the police and a statement from a doctor or social assistant is provided. Such applications are granted relatively often: 83% over the period 2013-2016.

B. Partners without a residence permit

Because of a quarrel between an irregular Guinean woman and her partner, the neighbors called the police. The case turned out to involve domestic violence. The police asked the woman to come to the desk for a statement. The statement was recorded, but the woman was then detained in order to expel her! Police have not referred her to a women’s shelter. When the expulsion failed and the woman was set free, she had to seek shelter in the informal circuit.

For irregular migrants who stay with their legal partner, because they could not comply with the conditions for a residence permit, it is much more difficult to be admitted to women’s shelters. According to national legislation, women’s shelters have no obligation to accept irregular women victims of domestic violence, although at the same time irregular women in women’s shelters can be eligible for financial support as well. Some women’s shelters have a limited number of beds available for irregular women, and other shelters set a deadline for their stay. Still, others become stricter in the admission criterion ‘threats of domestic violence’ when it comes to irregular women. The women’s shelters need such measures, because it is very difficult to support irregular women to become independent: often regularization is not possible and there is no alternative. Staying forever in the women’s shelter is not an option either. This dilemma leads to stricter criteria for admission of irregular women in the shelter. Figures show that from this target group only about 1/3 of the applications for an independent residence permit are granted.

C. Rejected asylum seekers

At the local informal shelter for rejected asylum seekers, a Guinean woman arrives totally in distress. She had been sent out of the asylum seekers’ center the day before, because her asylum procedure was over and she was no longer entitled to stay. She did not know what to do, asked passers-by and was eventually taken home by one of them. There she was abused.

Rejected asylum seekers are not entitled to shelter anymore. However, municipalities can develop their own informal shelters, which some 35 municipalities in the Netherlands have indeed done. However, the beds available for rejected asylum seekers in these municipalities are insufficient. In addition, these municipalities usually do not want to accommodate people from outside their region, so that for rejected asylum seekers from certain regions no shelter is available at all. It is unclear how these people survive and to what extent they experience domestic violence.


Practice shows that women without a residence permit are more vulnerable and at high risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. In the Netherlands, the law does not provide for shelter and protection of this group of women, although the Netherlands is obliged to do so under the Istanbul Convention and the Victims Directive. A rapid change in legislation is necessary, because only then can irregular women actually claim protection.

However, this is not enough. If irregular women have no option to survive independently, they will return to the same vulnerable situation after they have to leave the women’s shelter, facing the same risks. For sustainable protection, it will be necessary to provide these women with an opportunity to survive independently. With a realistic prospect to get out of irregularity, it will also be easier for women’s shelters to accept irregular migrant women.

This article was written by Rian Ederveen. She works for Stichting LOS, the national support organization for undocumented migrants in the Netherlands.


This article was edited by Elena Floriani,  WAVE intern.

This article appeared in the 2017 edition of Fempower. Find the archive of all Fempower magazines here.