They fled Ukraine to the Netherlands. Why are they being expelled?

Thousands of third-country nationals who fled Ukraine must leave the country this week, a court has ruled.

An African woman tries to find some clothes for her as refugees from many different countries - from Africa, Middle East and India - mostly students of Ukrainian universities are seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing fleeing the conflict in Ukraine
Refugees from Africa, the Middle East and India - mostly students of Ukrainian universities - gather at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing after fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, in eastern Poland on February 27, 2022 [Wojtek Radwanski /AFP]

Thousands of third-country nationals who found refuge in the Netherlands after Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine have been told to leave the country by Monday, though a four-week reprieve to exit the nation has given them a little extension.

Many of those affected, mostly students and young workers from Ukraine, have been gathering in the streets of Amsterdam to protest in recent weeks, accusing the recently-elected far-right Dutch government of discrimination.

The expulsion order came after a high court of the Netherlands ruled in January that a European Union policy that allowed both Ukrainian nationals and residents to settle in the country since the war would no longer apply to temporary residents. Those affected must exit the country by March 4 or risk forced deportation.

Here’s why the Dutch government is asking this group to leave now and how lawyers are hoping to overturn the ruling:

Why is the Netherlands asking third-country nationals to leave?

Like most of the European Union, the Netherlands initially opened up its borders to those fleeing Ukraine right at the start of the war, in March 2022. A Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) from the EU provided that Ukrainian refugees and permanent residents be offered refuge for two years until March 4, 2024, and that permits could be extended by the bloc as needed on a yearly basis.

However, unlike several other EU members, the Netherlands did not assess individual cases to distinguish Ukrainian nationals from those with temporary permits, like the thousands of students – mostly from India, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt – who lived and studied in Ukraine for years before the fighting.

“The point was to alleviate the burden on the asylum system,” Lotte van Diepen of Everaert Advocaten, an immigration law firm, told Al Jazeera. In most other countries, authorities assessed if people were able to return safely meaning those with temporary permits were then either allowed to stay on or return to their countries, according to the strength of individual cases.

The Netherlands’ approach, however, was more attractive. Thousands of third-country nationals trooped to Dutch cities and about 4,500 were registered in municipalities across the country. The government provided most people with accommodation in refugee centres, a stipend, healthcare access and work permits.


African students fleeing Ukraine stand around at Polish border
Refugees who fled the conflict in Ukraine at the Medyka pedestrian border in eastern Poland on February 27, 2022 [Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP]

Change of heart?

Early in 2023, the Dutch government announced it would end protection for third-country nationals, and informed them via multiple letters to leave their shelters and the country by September 4, 2023 – or be kicked out.

Dutch authorities argued that third-country nationals who could safely go back home to their countries had “abused” the protection system. Minister of Migration Eric van der Burg said not taking action would “overburden” municipalities and promised 5,000 euros ($5,422) in “remigration” compensation for those willing to leave voluntarily.

“We didn’t know what to do because those letters were very petrifying, very scary,” said Isaac Awodola, a Nigerian graduate of Odessa State University and co-founder of the Derdelanders group, which represents third-country nationals. “We had like six months to prepare to do whatever we wanted, [but] at that moment we were still traumatised,” he said.

Some third-country nationals working with immigration lawyers like van Diepen sued the Dutch government, questioning if it could terminate protection for a group it had previously greenlit under the EU directive. Many of those cases were fast-tracked in the courts, while others were left pending.

With the legal intervention, Migration Minister van der Burg was forced to suspend the September 4 deadline, granting thousands like Awodola temporary relief.

Now, uncertainty looms again for the refugees.

Many want to stay because they are still tied to Ukraine, Awodola said. There are those who need to return to recoup lost certificates, or those, like medical students, who need to stay close because, although their university studies are held online, they have to be physically present for practical exams – and flight costs from their countries are not cheap.

“We are also human beings regardless of our background or where we come from, because the bombs and rockets that dropped on Ukraine did not ask for a passport,” Awodola added. “There should not be any segregation or separatism involved.”

What did the courts say?

In several individual cases, including those filed by van Diepen who represents at least six people, district courts ruled that the authorities did not have the power to terminate the stay of third-country nationals without an explicit EU directive. However, other courts ruled that van der Burg could ask third-country nationals to leave, even without a European law saying so.

Due to the split, appeals went up to the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the Netherlands. The court had to decide if the Dutch government had the authority to expel people protected under the EU directive. In October, the EU extended the temporary protection directive for a second time until March 4, 2025.

On January 17, the council ruled that Dutch authorities don’t have such powers, and that the minister could not separate third-country nationals from Ukrainian nationals when everyone had been initially provided with blanket protection. If the directive applied to Ukrainian refugees, the court said, it should apply to third-country nationals, too.

However, the court also said permits for third-country nationals would expire on March 4 – the initial, flexible expiry date the EU set at the start of the war. In its ruling, the court said the EU extension in October did not explicitly mention third-country nationals, and thus, protection no longer covered that group.

It was a convenient win for the Dutch authorities, but shocking for third-country nationals and their lawyers.

The court “went beyond [the] scope of the initial dispute brought before it,” van Diepen argued, referring to the original question around the powers of the Dutch government. “The consideration about the end date being 4 March 2024 … was not a topic of the debate in court. It was only an additional expression of opinion uttered by the court in the final judgement, not essential to the decision and therefore – we argue – not legally binding as a precedent.”

What next?

The Council of State’s ruling cannot be appealed. The Dutch government has granted an extra 28 days for people to organise their exits and will let them keep their accommodation until the first week of April. State-covered amenities like stipends or healthcare have ceased though, and work permits are cancelled. After the grace period, people could be deported.

Dutch authorities have asked third-country nationals who don’t feel safe returning to their homes to file for asylum, but most don’t fall under that category. About 2,700 to 2,900 of the original 4,500 who initially settled in the Netherlands still remain.

“I don’t have a plan yet,” one person from Zimbabwe, who just graduated from their online Ukraine university, said of this week’s deadline. Awodola, the Nigerian, has vowed to keep protesting.

Van Diepen and other lawyers are going back to lower district courts to argue in pending cases that the EU’s extension did not have to explicitly mention third-country nationals, since it protected them before. If the lower courts disagree, they can request the EU’s Court of Justice to intervene. A ruling from the bloc supersedes national law.

Third-country nationals say Ukraine was home for them, too, and that they are affected by the war. In several instances, African and Asian students said they were refused exit from the war zones back in 2022 because they were not Ukrainian.

But migration is a tense topic in a Netherlands that voted for the far-right, anti-migration Party for Freedom – headed by politician Geert Wilders – in November’s parliamentary elections. Some Dutch citizens say third-country nationals are diverting resources meant for Dutch people and Ukrainian refugees, and that the government has a right to cancel their stay.

“We recognise their move was very generous in the first instance,” van Diepen said. “But the issue is, for those who were already allowed in, you can’t now turn around and say we don’t want you again. It’s an unjust decision with no legal basis.”

Some of the lower court cases, the lawyer said, will be heard in the next few weeks. But time is fast running out for the thousands of third-country nationals who now have to pack up. Again.

Source: Al Jazeera