Undocumented youth get access to higher education in Amsterdam

Amsterdam will be the first city in the Netherlands to give undocumented youth the opportunity to study at a college or university. To this end, the municipality made agreements with all higher education institutions in the city on Thursday. ‘These young people are as Amsterdam-like as my own children,’ said the alderman concerned.

By Irene de Zwaan

The University of Amsterdam is one of the educational institutions participating in the trial. Image Joris Van Gennip

Participants include the Free University, the University of Amsterdam and the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. This is a two-year trial, starting next month. The municipality wants to prevent young people without a valid residence status from ending up in illegality, thus reducing their opportunities.

Undocumented migrants include refugees who have exhausted all legal remedies and economic migrants without the right of residence. They often work in the black economy, such as cleaning and construction. They depend on their own network for housing and financial help.

Children of undocumented migrants born in the Netherlands also do not have a valid residence status. As a result, their right to education expires on their 18th birthday. Further education at a college or university is therefore often not possible.


‘This social exclusion has a big impact on their lives,’ says Rutger Groot Wassink, alderman for Social Affairs and Diversity in Amsterdam. ‘These young people are just as Amsterdam-like as my own children. They are often born here, can go to school here, go to a sports club, but after they turn 18 it suddenly stops.’

The educational institutions that have signed the covenant – the Inholland University of Applied Sciences and the Amsterdam School of the Arts are also participating – are looking into allowing students to sit in lecture halls at a reduced rate. In addition, the institutions will assist undocumented students in applying for study visas. This is a complicated process, already possible under current laws and regulations, that requires undocumented workers to travel to their country of origin.

Under the radar

It is not known how many undocumented people live in Amsterdam. The Scientific Research and Documentation Center (WODC) assumes 15 thousand, but many NGOs’ estimates are double that.

Because undocumented migrants live under the radar, it is difficult to reach this group. The City of Amsterdam, therefore, expects only about five young people to participate in the first year of the pilot. ‘Of course, we hope there will be more,’ says Groot Wasskink. ‘For us, this pilot is also of great symbolic value for the further normalization of the position of undocumented people in the city.’

The alderman wishes that more municipalities would follow Amsterdam’s example, and that eventually it would even become national policy to allow undocumented people access to higher education. That does not seem realistic. In recent years, The Hague has actually been committed to an austere regime for undocumented migrants in order to prevent a suction effect.

Granting study visas to people without the right of residence goes against this policy. If an undocumented person completes a study, he or she can apply for a work permit, which can then be used to rent a house.

According to Alderman Groot Wassink, further legalization of the position of undocumented workers can actually make a positive contribution to reducing shortages in sectors such as health care or education. ‘On the one hand, we see enormous shortages in the labour market and on the other hand, there are many undocumented workers who want to and can work. Let’s all embrace these people and make them part of our society.’

This article was published earlier in De Volkskrant (March 10, 2022).