Invisible in the Eye of the Law : A Story about Students who Become Refugees

  • The Netherlands rejected 70% to 80% of asylum applications in recent years
  • The policy frameworks of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service lack transparency and are in need of an update
  • The ‘student who becomes a refugee’ is a new category of asylum seeker that is invisible to national and international policy frameworks

This article was written based on an interview with Luc van den Akker – the main contact for refugees at Maastricht University who works on a Premium Project that aims to shed some light on the stories, challenges and the way forward for people who find themselves in this situation.

According to UNHCR’s recent statistics, nearly 26.4 million people in the world today are refugees. In addition, there are 4.4 million asylum seekers worldwide, out of which 471,300 have submitted applications within the European Union. As a consequence of the administrative measures applied by some countries in the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic which included the temporary closure of asylum authorities, suspension of asylum interviews, suspension of lodging applications, etc., the number of applications has declined. When it comes to the Netherlands, a country that hosts around 78,911 refugees, this statement is all the more relevant. While in 2020, the number of asylum seekers was a mere 19,132, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) states that in 2021 this number almost doubled – 36,620. Based on recent years’ acceptance rates, we can predict that only 20% to 30% of the applications will be approved. In this context, we have to ask ourselves:

Why are there 70% to 80% of asylum applications being rejected? Why would so many people that risk everything and venture on journeys, facing incredible dangers for a chance to live a better life, be refused the chance to live a normal life?



Rendering Asylum Seekers Invisible: The Systemic Issues Within the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service

While the IND provides some information on granting refugee status to asylum seekers, we could find no recent research articles or statistics that could explain the reasons why so many asylum seekers are being rejected the right to stay. Having access to this kind of data is essential if we are to challenge the grounds on which the applications are being rejected. 

The only research article we could find that investigates the arguments used to admit or reject asylum seekers uses data from the 1957-1967 period. The researcher found that during this time, the gender, age and marital status of the applicant, as well as, avoiding bad publicity or the possibility to create a legal precedent, were part of the framework used as grounds for admission or rejection. Whether the government uses the same admission process nowadays is unclear, however, this goes to show that the frameworks used by these institutions are historically problematic. 

Today, the IND’s admission procedure is based on the same international treaties on protection of refugees as it was at the time of the above mentioned research. Although these conventions provide some guidance for regulatory frameworks, they remain over half a century old and fail to capture the new meanings and developments that may cause a person to seek a new home. For instance, while the principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, it does not prohibit governments from abandoning asylum seekers and letting them figure out how to survive by themselves when they do not fall under the policy criteria agreed on an international level. Consequently, in spite of their benefits and calls for solidarity, international conventions of this kind also come with a major setback: they are in constant need of time consuming updates in order to maintain their status and significance. Although there is some flexibility when it comes to accepting asylum applications nowadays, in this article we seek to show that the institutions in charge with the definition and admission of eligible refugees are still lagging behind.  

While many refugees fit in the narrative created by these international conventions, the institutionalisation of this definition becomes problematic when other situations that drive people to apply for asylum emerge. As such, while the asylum seekers that fit these institutional narratives receive help, the people that become refugees as a result of circumstances invisible to policy frameworks find themselves in a difficult position.

A type of asylum seeker that goes undetected by the IND’s regulatory framework is the person who comes to the Netherlands with a student visa and becomes an asylum seeker as a result of a change in their home countries or due to reasons related to their personal or sexual development. To our knowledge, students who become refugees are not represented in the institutional policies of either governmental or educational institutions. These people are on nobody’s radar. The policies meant to address their needs have rendered them invisible. As the student who becomes a refugee does not fit in the categories created at institutional level, governmental and educational bodies find it very difficult to help this type of asylum seeker. 

Luc van den Akker: How can Students Become Refugees and what are Their Main Challenges?

Based on the interview conducted with Luc van den Akker, in the following paragraphs, we show precisely what are the challenges created by the institutional invisibility of students who become refugees. 

According to Luc, who has been working as the central contact person at Maastricht University for years now, there are several reasons for a student to become a refugee. Some students lose their financial means because their parents are arrested in their home country and chances are great that these students cannot go back, because they will be arrested as well. Students will also risk getting arrested, after posting content on social media which is critical against their home country’s government. Among the refugee students at Maastricht University, some people had to escape countries where they suffer social exclusion due to their sexual development. Today there are 65 students with refugee status enrolled at Maastricht University, and even though each has a different story, they can be divided into two main groups.

Students may apply for asylum in the Netherlands because an event occurred in their home country or they need to flee their country. Rather than arriving in the Netherlands on a “rubber boat”, they prefer submitting an application at Maastricht University and applying for a visa. Then, when they find themselves in the Netherlands, they request refugee status. However the process is not smooth, and the students must deal with various obstacles from the social and bureaucratic points of view.

Given the precarious financial situation they often find themselves in, one of the main aims for students applying for asylum is obtaining a financial benefit. Students who managed to get a scholarship are the luckiest ones since they will never lose this financial benefit due to their status. However, the situation is different for the ones who did not obtain a scholarship. If you are enrolled in an educational institution in the EU, you automatically obtain legal residence. This is beneficial until you need to apply for an asylum residence permit. The Netherlands grants asylum to people who would be in danger if they were to return to their own country. Usually, people obtain asylum protection first, and then they obtain a legal residency permit.  Therefore, as Luc explains, it is unusual for the Dutch government to grant asylum protection to someone who already has legal residence. That is because having residence in a country makes it very difficult for a person to obtain asylum protection. Not obtaining asylum protection for a student means not obtaining financial help from the government. 

The stories of Paul and George, two students that found themselves in this situation but wish to remain anonymous, can testify to these obstacles. 

Testimonies of Students who Became Refugees

When Paul started the process for obtaining refugee status he contacted the IND. The suggestions that the IND gave to the international student were either to leave the Netherlands or find a friend’s place to stay, namely, he had to arrange the situation by himself. Normally an asylum seeker who is in due process of getting a refugee status obtains from the government €50 per week and a place to stay. However Paul at that point was not an asylum seeker but an international student, hence he was deprived of any financial benefit, housing, and health care. We find this kind of answer unacceptable. Governments should always provide assistance and help people in desperate need for asylum status in their countries. However, since the current international legislation does not cover these types of situations and the government is not equipped to deal with cases that do not follow the usual pattern of a person applying for asylum, even more people will be deprived of help on their journeys. 

George had to deal with the same experience, but he was luckier. When George applied for a scholarship in the Netherlands he was not thinking about what was going on in his country. His only thought was to fulfil his dream, make his parents proud of him and show his potential to his beloved but also his fellow compatriots – because pursuing a degree in the European Union is viewed as an additional value. So, he applied for a visa and a scholarship to financially sustain his studies in the Netherlands. He would have never thought that what was going on in his country would have brought him to think about applying for asylum. He flew just a couple of days before ‘the chaos’ happened.  Before leaving his country, he made sure that his parents were in a safe place in Europe. Once in the Netherlands, he found himself in an odd situation: an international student who could apply for asylum. His status would change from an ordinary student to an asylum-seeker and, if the asylum application procedure went smoothly, a refugee. 

George started looking for support to understand better what was the best option in his case. He addressed the Student Service Centre of his university, particularly the department dealing with refugees. He had two options on the table: apply for asylum in the Netherlands or try to join his family in Europe through a family reunification visa. While doing some research, he discovered that he would not lose his scholarship if he decides to apply for asylum. So, he would be financially covered until the end of the scholarship. Despite that, George is reluctant to apply for asylum because he hopes to go back to his country one day and show his potential to his compatriots – which is one of the reasons why he left the country. Now, George is still an international student who is eager to complete his studies successfully.

While George was open to sharing his stories with us, the emotional attachment to the country of origin is also a key to understanding why international students, who are in the same situation as George, would not tell their peers about their situation, remain silent and do not ask for help. For some students, being a refugee or an asylum-seeker would be a label that they would always carry with them, a sign of vulnerability that students becoming refugees do not want to share.

Students becoming refugees need guidance and assistance, but they will never get help until there is enough awareness, and there is not enough awareness because incredibly enough there is not enough research. According to Mr. Luc van den Akker, these cases may be happening for as long as the university exists. There is no way to know exactly when this phenomenon started, and how many students are involved in it. This lack of data leads to weak or no representation in policy frameworks which in turn renders these categories of asylum seekers invisible. Because of this, the IND does not know how to guide people who find themselves in these problematic situations and leaves students like Paul to figure things out by themselves. This institutional abandonment makes students vulnerable and creates negative social consequences, such as lack of healthcare, housing and mental health problems. The solution would be updating the policy criteria for obtaining asylum, so that students becoming refugees, and other categories of asylum applicants would be included. 

A Way Forward: Luc’s Premium Project

For these reasons, Luc started the Premium Project. The Premium Project consists of research about UM students who have to deal with the process of becoming refugees. Hopefully, when enough data will be gathered, then it will be possible to find a UM-wide approach for these students. This can help vulnerable students understand what is the best time to apply for asylum, and could increase their chances to receive financial assistance. Having enough information to create a timeline that could guide both UM students and UM advisors is essential if we are to help these people live a normal life. The more people recognize the existence of this problem, the more chances we have that there will be more collaboration, time and work spent helping these students. 

We hope to have stressed enough the importance of revisiting and improving the policies responsible for guiding the IND and the European Union in their management of asylum seeker’s applications. The policies created to address the issue of people who become refugees need to keep up with real life situations and allow for a more fluid approach when it comes to granting people in need of asylum the human rights they deserve. Thanks to the Premium Project initiated by Luc van den Akker, we can finally hope for this gap in policy to be addressed. If you would like to hear how the situation develops from Luc himself, you can listen to our new podcast episode on ‘students who become refugees’ which is coming out in the following days.

Special thanks to Luc van den Akker for accepting our interview, to the two students that shared their stories with us, and to our anonymous readers!

Written by: Tedi Cohai and Iris Diotallevi


P.S. Dear readers, we invite you to engage with our article and open a conversation on our social media channels to help us create awareness and shed some light on the challenges of students who become refugees. (