investigation Report Vaccinating the invisible | Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the undocumented struggle for access to the vaccine

People living in the Netherlands without official papers have had a hard time getting vaccinated against COVID-19, shows an investigation by Lighthouse Reports.

Published on 18 March 2022 at 15:45

The Netherlands was classified as ‘open and accessible’ in an analysis of its COVID policies. The reality on the ground looks different. A year after the vaccination campaign was rolled out, there are still undocumented people trying to find their way through a complex system. 

According to five interviews conducted by Lighthouse Reports with undocumented migrants in three major Dutch cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht – clear information is still hard to come by. Those interviewed had difficulties getting through to hotlines of the Dutch municipal health authorities (GGD).

👉All the articles from this investigation

Many of them concluded that they would need assistance from a Dutch person or organisation when booking of an appointment, in order to get past the bureaucracy and language barriers. For the few who tried to book an appointment by themselves, the process was so tedious, long and confusing that many gave up halfway.


It was only in February 2022 that Rama* (from Guinea) heard for the first time that she was entitled to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This was after she walked into the Ros Foundation in Rotterdam, which supports undocumented people. 

"I have been wanting to get vaccinated since last year, but it's just too tiring to get the information,” she said. “I went to the Rijksoverheid [the government website] for information. I couldn't find any information for people who are undocumented, it was all about those who are already in the system" she explained. “It wasn't clear at all for me that I was included. I even searched the website with the specific word for ‘undocumented’, but still I couldn't find any information. So I concluded that I was not allowed to, and that there was no law yet that allows undocumented to get vaccinated." 

The investigation not only showed that people have trouble finding out whether they can be vaccinated, but that there is also a lack of clarity about whether and how undocumented migrants can get a booster shot.

One of them is Ali (from Iran), who is currently living in a shelter run by Stichting Toevlucht in Utrecht. "I think it would be very good to get a booster," he said. "It is a good protection against the new omicron variant. But there is no way for me to get the booster. When I go, they ask for my papers, and an identity card, which I don't have."

"I am going to leave it until I get an opportunity here at Ros Foundation,” said Rama. The complicated procedures have discouraged her from pursuing it. Being undocumented, getting the vaccine is only one of the problems she has to solve. “It’s too much to think about for me to plan a vaccination that is not even easy to get".

"Although undocumented migrants have a right to vaccination and in principle can easily get it, it is a challenge to actually reach the community," said Janine Wildschut of Doctors of the World , which provides medical assistance to undocumented migrants. Not just for practical reasons, but also because "there is a lot of mistrust towards the government."


The authorities maintain that undocumented migrants can go to various locations where no appointment or citizen service number is required. During the second half of the vaccination campaign, the municipal health authorities started rolling out mobile vaccination units. They aim to attract hard-to-reach communities, like homeless and undocumented people. But many of these people were not aware and never reached.

"The staff of the GGD are not well informed," says Stefan van Maurik, coordinator of the Toevlucht foundation in Utrecht. "Even to get suspected corona cases tested it was very difficult. Recently a couple of guys fell ill, and I needed to get them tested. It took forever because they don't have a BSN number [a national citizen identification]. The same goes for vaccinations."

Alpha (from Guinea) lives without papers in Amsterdam. He recalled how he was told at the beginning of the vaccination campaign that he could not get a shot without a citizen service number. "Together with a Dutch friend, we called the GGD three times for an appointment - this was before you could go in without an appointment – and they kept saying 'it's not possible'," he said. "But a Dutch friend fought for me so I could get the vaccine anyway."

The difficulties do not end after vaccination, either. To get access to a digital proof of vaccination, everybody - including undocumented migrants – needs a QR code generated by a mobile app called ‘Coronacheck’. A login which requires the BSN citizen service number is required to register on the app, and undocumented people do not have this number.

"The biggest struggle we face right now is how undocumented people can prove that they are fully vaccinated. Without this they are not allowed in restaurants and public places, or they need to show a test not older than 24 hours. The authorities say that they are working on this but we see no progress." says Janine Wildschut of Doctors of the World.

The GGD GHOR, the national body coordinating municipal health authorities, cannot say how many undocumented people have been vaccinated because the residence status of people is not registered in their systems. In any case, it is impossible to know the number of undocumented people that could still get vaccinated. After all, nobody knows how many people are living without papers in the Netherlands. Estimates range from 20,000 to 60,000 people.

The Dutch government announced on 15 February 2022, that QR codes were no longer necessary to access restaurants and other recreational facilities. 

The full names of Alpha, Rama and Ali are known to the editors.

👉  Original article in Trouw

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