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Netherlands: The refugees from Ukraine who now are in limbo

Teri Schultz
September 4, 2023

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Netherlands granted refugee status to everyone fleeing — regardless of nationality. But that policy is now being argued in court, leaving thousands unsure about their futures.

Protesters stand in the middle of a brick street in the Hague, Netherlands holding up signs and Ukrainian flags
A protest in the Hague, calling for temporary protection to be extended for third-country nationalsImage: Derdelanders.org

When Mariam Adeshoga arrived in Kyiv in 2019, she could see a future she said would not be possible for a woman computer programmer back in her native Nigeria. The 30-year-old had received a student visa to pursue her master's degree and immediately felt at home.

"When I got there, I got fascinated with people, and the environment was calm and lovely," Adeshoga recounted with a smile. "So I was like, okay, I could just start my whole life and continue with my future there."

She lived with Ukrainian students, studied the language and culture and worked toward her dreams of inspiring other young women to enter the programming field. Her personal photographs show a beaming Adeshoga with friends at the beach, in a cafe, clowning for the camera in the streets of Kyiv.

"I never planned to leave Ukraine," she told DW. "Ukraine felt so safe to me."

Four people sitting at a table in Kyiv
Mariam Adeshoga (second from right) fled to Amsterdam after the war in Ukraine beganImage: privat

But then, in her words, "everything vanished" when Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Like her Ukrainian counterparts, Adeshoga ran for cover in bomb shelters. After a few days of non-stop fear, she sought safety across the border in Poland. Then she went on to the Netherlands, ending up in Amsterdam, housed in a floating hotel in a tiny cabin intended for short-term accommodation. 

Adeshoga arrived on March 2, 2022, coincidentally the same day the European Union decided to activate its 2001 Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) for the first time to quickly assist those escaping the war in Ukraine without forcing them to go through an asylum application process. The Dutch government chose the most liberal application of the directive, welcoming everyone who left Ukraine without regard to their countries of origin. 

Until now, Adeshoga and the other third-country nationals who fled received the same assistance package as most citizens and permanent residents of Ukraine, including housing, medical care, a living allowance and access to education. 

Third-country nationals who fled Ukraine stuck in limbo

Change of heart — and help

But earlier this year the government decided that the remaining roughly 3,000 people who do not have a permanent right to live in Ukraine must also leave the Netherlands, ending all rights and benefits by September 4.

One of those affected, who preferred to stay anonymous, shared the letter he received from the mayor of Haarlem demanding he leave his state-sponsored accommodation  by midnight on September 4.

A letter from the city of Haarlem on a gray background
Letters like these were sent to third-country nationals in the Netherlands informing them they had to leave the countryImage: Derdelanders.org

"[I]f you do not leave the shelter on time, the municipality may take steps to enforce your departure … [and] hold you liable for the costs of doing so," the letter reads. "If you are not lawfully resident in the Netherlands, you must leave the country and will no longer be permitted to work here." It notes that if the recipient does not leave the Netherlands voluntarily, the government "can organize your forced departure." 

In connection with the decision, the Dutch government offered €5,000 to the affected third-country nationals to leave of their own accord, with the only other option being to apply for asylum in a system that's already strained. Then, they would need to make the case that their lives would be at risk if they were returned to their home countries — a burden on the system the Temporary Protection Mechanism was explicitly created to avoid. 

In its decision, the country's Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND), part of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, said the system of third-country nationals coming to the Netherlands under the EU directive was being "abused."

"It is extremely important for us to provide protection to people who are not safe in their own country," Minister for Migration Eric van der Burg said. "At the same time, we do not want to overburden municipalities."

The Justice Ministry turned down multiple requests by DW to interview van der Burg about the decision.

Calling on the courts

Many third-country nationals appealed the order and various courts are considering both their individual cases and the right of the government to make the decision at all.

The pressure finally proved to be too much for van der Burg to maintain his position on ending protection before those legal determinations are being made.

Over the weekend, he agreed to suspend his order ending the benefits and residence permission.

Lotte Van Diepen with Everaert Immigration Attorneys in Amsterdam represents some third-country nationals, including Mariam Adeshoga, in lawsuits appealing for the right to remain. She believes those people initially covered by the directive continue to have the legal right to stay if they haven't violated Dutch law or other stipulations in the mechanism.

One of Van Diepen's arguments is that since the European Council, comprised of the heads of state and government of EU countries, activated the Temporary Protection Directive, removing those rights must also be a decision made by the Council.

"It's not the authority of the minister to decide when it ends. There are provisions in the directive that stipulate in which scenarios the temporary protection can end, and those scenarios are not applicable, at least not in my cases," she explained.

"My clients are either working or studying. They started building a life here under the presumption that they were allowed to stay here for as long as the Temporary Protection Directive would be applied."

Protesters standing on a stony street holding up white, brown, blue and yellow signs
A group called the Derdelanders are protesting for third-country nationals to stay in the NetherlandsImage: Derdelanders.org

Protests and petitions 

Now those who have been organizing demonstrations, promoting an online petition and an appeal to the government  to reevaluate its decision have a bit more time, but they don't have any more answers yet about their future.

Mariam Adeshoga received a personal decision on Friday allowing her to stay in the country and work as she awaits further court decisions. While this is a temporary relief, Adeshoga says she's just trying to stay focused on the dream that one day she can unpack for good, inspiring more women to become computer programmers in whatever country ends up being home.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer