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Prof. Gijsbert Vonk: ‘The treatment of illegal immigrants is not consistent with international human rights’

07 March 2012

In recent years, social protection has taken second place to aliens policy. The regulations for migrants are becoming increasingly stringent, particularly if their right of residence is unclear or their residency permit not entirely in order. ‘We are in a downward spiral’, claims Gijbert Vonk, Professor of Social Security Law at the University of Groningen. ‘The aliens process is at odds with international human rights. ’ Vonk advocates the development of a social agenda for excluded migrants.

In Vonk’s opinion, the current regulations for the reception of illegal immigrants are insensitive and dogmatic. ‘The primacy of the aliens policy is maintained with a religious zeal. Pragmatic solutions are no longer possible. Since the 1980s we have apparently been unable to close our borders to immigrants we don’t want in our country. As a result, the regulations have become stricter and stricter. The civic integration programmes were originally designed with the aim of helping immigrants to participate in society. After a time, civic integration was also used to control immigration by introducing ever-more stringent requirements. As a result, not only social protection but also civic integration has become secondary to aliens policy.'

No support

Immigrants without a residence permit can in no case count on being housed or on having access to other facilities and support. Vonk: ‘In the Netherlands we are very strict about that. Other countries sometimes make exceptions. In emergency situations, the duty of care has priority over strict adherence to aliens policy. That doesn’t happen here. That is why the courts tend to adopt a corrective approach. Housing and care for vulnerable illegal immigrants has come under the control of the courts.’

Condemned to a life in the shadows

Physical controls on the conduct of illegal immigrants are also increasing. In Vonk’s opinion, the need for control is, in itself, logical and legitimate. ‘But as a result, illegal immigrants are increasingly condemned to a life in the shadows. If someone is not given a Citizen Service Number, cannot open a bank account, and therefore is not entitled to a public-transport chip card, entirely parallel worlds are created. You create a make-believe world in which illegal immigrants apparently no longer exist, but in which the risk of abuse and other wrongs is greater.’

Local authorities

According to Vonk, a different approach is possible. ‘First and foremost, ensure that local authorities are allowed to offer help to illegal immigrants in a vulnerable position. It serves no purpose to send families with young children out onto the streets without money, or show them the door, if they are in medical or psychological need.’

It also happens that illegal immigrants find employment. This results in sanctions for the employer. And rightly so, claims Vonk, but illegal immigrants should have a realistic chance of being able to join a trade union and seek legal assistance. This would force employers to comply with labour law.

Social agenda

Furthermore, deportation policy should be linked to the social agenda. Vonk: ‘The deportation of illegal immigrants is not just about using force. People who voluntarily cooperate in their deportation should be given assistance to help them build a new life in their own country. It would help if they were given money, for example. But it should also be possible to reach agreements with the home country.’ Countries including Albania, Sri Lanka and the Philippines are active in organizing social protection for their citizens abroad. If other countries are encouraged to follow this example, fewer illegal immigrants will fall between two stools.

Logical step

Vonk acknowledges that giving money to people who are returning to their home country is a sensitive matter. ‘But you can also provide the money via organizations that help repatriates to build a decent life in their own country. The transition from a repressive to a social return policy is a logical evolution.’

‘You can compare this to the situation in Europe at the end of the 19th century’, Vonk explains. ‘What Europe is doing now with regard to African countries, is what we did at that time on a European scale. Everyone who was not welcome was simply sent home. That was the practice until countries concluded mutual agreements for the proper exchange of impoverished migrants. From that point onwards, each country was responsible for the people within its borders. This was the first form of cooperation. A social development agenda is the next logical step: from European agreements to worldwide agreements.’

Curriculum Vitae

Gijsbert Vonk (Sittard, 1960) studied law at the University of Amsterdam and was awarded a doctorate by Tilburg University in 1991 for his thesis De coördinatie van bestaansminimumuitkeringen in de Europese Gemeenschap (The Coordination of Subsistence Benefits in the European Community). From 1991-1992 he worked at the Centraal Bureau voor de Arbeidsvoorziening (Central Manpower Services Board), where he was responsible for international labour-migration policy. Gijsbert Vonk is Professor of Social Security Law at the University of Groningen.


The results of the research will be presented on 13 and 14 March 2012 in Amsterdam, during the international conference Access Denied, Towards a New Social Protection Approach for Formally Excluded Migrants . The book of the same title will also be presented at the conference.

Last modified:28 November 2017 4.56 p.m.
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