“Undocumented immigrants have been working in the Netherlands for decades, but are not entitled to basic care” – Martijn van Leerdam of the Pauluskerk in Rotterdam
The living room is the first thing you see when you step inside the diaconal center Pauluskerk. The center opens its doors every day at 9 a.m. to a steady flow of people. They come here for a cup of coffee, an appointment with a street doctor or a social worker, or to take a load off. Martijn van Leerdam is here all the time to talk with visitors. He has been the preacher-director at the Pauluskerk for two months.
How has your experience been in these first months?
“First of all, it’s an exciting and dynamic working environment. I’m dealing with all sorts of people, such as our visitors, volunteers and employees, council members and alderpersons. I have found out that the Pauluskerk is a well-known institution. Local politicians and the media certainly know how to find us. Which is a good thing because it is very important that we expose abuses. I still find it hard to believe that in a prosperous country such as the Netherlands, there are people who have nowhere else to go. The Netherlands profits from cheap labor, but according to the rules, there is no money for anything, not shelter for these people or basic care. I have spoken with undocumented migrant workers who have worked here for decades. If they lose their jobs, get sick or are evicted from their homes by their boss, they immediately face huge problems. The way we deal with these people is absolutely shameful.”
Can you give an example of that?
“A 58-year-old man who had lived here for more than 15 years recently died from an epileptic seizure right here in one of our beds. He had done physical labor for more than 20 years. His hip started bothering him, but his medical problem wasn’t urgent enough. Undocumented immigrants only have a right to medical care in a life-threatening situation. At one point, he was in so much pain that he couldn’t do anything anymore. All people with a worn hip experience pain, but undocumented immigrants have to wait that little bit longer. The street doctors at the Pauluskerk did their hardest to get him a hip replacement. After the operation, he was immediately put out on the street again. Without any rehabilitation because that is not considered an urgent medical need. Due to the lack of adequate care, his situation worsened rapidly. We held his funeral here. The church was full of all the care providers he had been in contact with in recent years. It was nice that we could do this for him.”
What are your plans for the coming period?
“We are participating in a trial in which the local authorities cover the expenses for the use of our beds. Unfortunately, we have found that public servants apply too many criteria when determining whether a person is eligible for a bed. The result is that about 40 percent of our beds are not used. We know that people who do not meet these criteria sleep on the streets. That is why we no longer participate in the trial as of the beginning of next year. Not only is it preferable to retain control over the distribution of our beds, but things just work better when we, as a ‘thorn in the side of the authorities’, are not dependent on public money.”
Support from Adessium
Adessium’s Social Initiatives program supports organizations that help people in need. Organizations that not only provide them with direct support and relief but also give them hope for the future. Offering help and hope to undocumented immigrants is at the heart of the work of the Pauluskerk. The church offers them a place to share meals, shower, receive medical assistance and get help with voluntary return to their homeland. In Rotterdam and in cooperation with organizations from other cities, the Pauluskerk advocates for a structural improvement in the situation of undocumented immigrants.