“When you live as an undocumented migrant, one thing that keeps you alive is contact,” says Izzy, a migrant from Sierra Leone whose simple daily encounters with people going through similar struggles have been seriously diminished due to Covid-19. With the pandemic looming over everyone’s daily life, migrants such as Izzy face particular hardships. Cut off even from small jobs and activities, they are not eligible for social benefits that provide the stability needed to cope with a pandemic.
“Because these people are considered illegal, they cannot rent a house, they cannot work legally, they don’t have social security, they don’t have bank accounts,” says Joquebede Mesquita of the Company of Friends, which provides practical and legal assistance to undocumented migrants living in Netherlands. Some, she says, end up sleeping in the street, afraid of sharing a room with people who may be infected. “A lot of people want to go home to their parents,” she says. “They say, ‘If we are going to die, we want to die together’.”
These stories are a stark reminder: while COVID has been cruel for all of us, it has been catastrophic for migrants. Even in the most developed countries, migrants often don’t have access to critical Covid coping mechanisms such as mental health care, safe housing (since they often share apartments) or working conditions (with proper hygiene protection measures), according to the IFRC report Least protected, most affected: Migrants and refugees facing extraordinary risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of all that, they are even farther from loved ones and more exposed to media disinformation in languages they may not fully master.
Still, there are many bright spots amid the challenges. Born in Brazil, Claudia has struggled to find unofficial jobs while taking care of her four-year-old daughter Maria. But she now has a steady job and Maria is enrolled in school, learning Dutch. “She plays with other children and has more contact with kids her own age,” Claudia says.
For Izzy, as well, the challenges he and other migrants face have only intensified his desire to something positive for others. “I’ve stayed here a long time and this country has supported me,” says Izzy, who likes to help out at a local shelter and food service for other undocumented migrants in need of a warm meal and a welcoming space. “So, I think I have to give something back.”
Claudia, from Minas Gerais, Brazil
Originally from the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Claudia has been working as an undocumented migrant in The Netherlands for a year. “I feel bad because I am considered illegal here,” says Claudia. “But I have been able to find work here and I feel safer here. I can walk on the streets with my daughter. The quality of life I can give my daughter is better than in Brazil. So, I feel more secure than in Brazil, but less secure because I am illegal”.
As evening falls, Claudia and her daughter Maria take a break on a bench in Amsterdam. “Corona has made life difficult because so many things are closed,” she says. “There is nowhere to go and I have to spend a lot of time with Maria, sitting in the very small room that I rent.”
Claudia brings Maria to her first day of school in Diemen, just outside Amsterdam. Children in Netherlands begin school soon after their fourth birthday. “I am very happy now that Maria has started school … I want to learn Dutch but Corona has made it more complicated because a lot of the schools are closed. And with Maria it was difficult to find time to study. And now that she is at school maybe I can learn Dutch at a school in the future.”
“Maria has a better life now,” says Claudia. “She plays with other children and has more contact with kids her own age. Maria is very happy. She talks about her new school all the time. She is learning Dutch. The school is very good compared to what we had in my neighbourhood in Brazil.”
“Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it has been a terrible time,” says Joquebede Mesquita of the Company of Friends, which provides practical and legal assistance to undocumented migrants in The Netherlands. “The telephone is ringing all the time. They want to go back to Brazil. They want to go back to their family, to their children. We helped more than 200 people go back to Brazil. Their work has stopped and they don’t have money to pay the rent or to pay for food. A lot of people were sleeping on the street and they were very afraid. People get the Corona virus and some of them are living with up to nine people in a small room. How can they survive? And a lot of people want to go home to their parents. They say, ‘If we are going to die, we want to die together’.”
An undocumented migrant from Brazil signs up to receive a supermarket food voucher from the Company of Friends organisation in Amsterdam. The vouchers are provided by the The Netherlands Red Cross to help migrants who have fallen on hard times since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Because these people are considered illegal, they cannot rent a house, they cannot work legally, they don’t have social security, they don’t have bank accounts,” says Mesquita. “The idea is that they come here for a couple of years, get some money and then return to Brazil, buy a house and have a good life. But most of the people end up staying five or ten years, they don’t learn the language because they work and don’t have time to integrate into the community.”
In her kitchen at home, Claudia and a friend unpack some food donated by the Netherlands Red Cross. “The Brazilian community here in Holland help each other a lot. And if you are a Brazilian woman with a child, they help you even more.”
Claudia and her daughter Maria look at a Christmas display in a shop window in Amsterdam. “I don’t know how we will celebrate Christmas. It’s a difficult time. I have to find a new place to live. Normally in Brazil we celebrate with family and friends. But here? I just have Maria”, she says. “My dream is to make some money and then return to Brazil and buy a house for my family. But if the chance came to stay here legally, I would consider it. But at the moment, the future is today. I take each day as it comes.”
Izzy, from Sierra Leone
After a decade-long civil war engulfed west African nation of Sierra Leone during the 1990s, Izzy felt he had no choice but to leave the country. The conflict took a high personal toll. “I lost my father, my brother, my sister and then later my mother disappeared,” he says. “I still have some uncles there but it’s difficult to know exactly where they are. I’ve been away a long time”. Although his application for asylum in the Netherlands has dragged on for over eleven years, he is confident he will be granted residency soon and he now considers Holland his home.
“I miss everything about Sierra Leone,” says Izzy. “The food. The weather. The people. Absolutely everything. But it would be very difficult for me to go back because the scars of the war are still there. I was born there. I grew up there and from time to time, you feel this nostalgic. You have to look at your health situation as well and if I went back I would feel overwhelmed to be in my country again. But at the same time, you have this fear of going back and bringing up all the memories again. It’s a difficult thing.”
“When you live here as an undocumented migrant, one thing that keeps you alive is contact. When you meet friends, that gives you the energy to do things every day when you wake up. But because of Covid, that has stopped.”
“Covid has affected me a lot. First, because I lost a few friends, people that I knew— both Dutch and foreigners – to the disease. But also, and I think more importantly, because of the situation where you have no contact with friends. Things are no longer the way they used to be. You don’t allow people to come and visit you any more. That’s one thing we lost.”
Izzy and his friend Kieta from Guinea buy some ingredients for the meal he will prepare for at the World House, a place where undocumented migrants can get a warm meal. “There are a lot of Africans in Amsterdam and many of them come to the World House,” says Izzy. “It is a place for refugees and, for most of them, it is their last hope when they have to leave the asylum camps. They have to go somewhere and usually the only place they can go is the World House. We feed them. We help them to find shelter and get back into the asylum application procedures.”
“By law I’m not allowed to work or go to university in Netherlands because I still don’t have a residency permit. But I do like to help out because I think I have to contribute to society as well. I sometimes cook food for people in the World House, a place where undocumented people can receive help, spend the night and get a plate of warm food. I also help out at the Red Cross sometimes, preparing food packages for undocumented people and people without income. I help at some churches as well, cooking and storytelling, teaching kickboxing, but because of Corona, most of the church activities have been suspended.”
“I am doing a course in website design. It is funded by an organisation that helps refugees. I have always had the idea of creating my own website, and maybe doing it for other people as well. So when this opportunity came, I decided to grab it and try to make something of it. I really would like to do something that will contribute to society here because I’ve stayed here a long time and this country has supported me, so I think I have to give something back.”
Migrants and refugees know what it means to be cut off from society, and from their loved ones and cultures far away. At a time defined by separation, let’s listen to what they have to say about coping and connecting in the age of Covid-19.