Huge backlogs and chaos at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service IND have left international PhD students in Wageningen without valid residence permits. This means they have no proof of identity and cannot leave the Netherlands to visit family or attend congresses abroad. Wb spoke to three PhD students about the problems they have encountered.
Reaching the IND by phone is virtually impossible. “Our secretaries spend ages on the phone. At one minute to nine you get the answering machine, saying that they are not yet open, and at nine o’clock sharp all lines are engaged,” comments Dr Rient Niks, Jiang’s supervisor. According to Nuffic (Netherlands organization for international cooperation in higher education), IND receives thousands of calls daily, but there are only eight people there to answer them. Jiang comments: “I am from the People’s Republic of China, where the totalitarian communist regime has a reputation for being appallingly bureaucratic. Although I have had some pretty bad experiences in my own country, I am shocked at the incompetence of the IND here, the chaos I have encountered and the indifference of civil servants.”
“IND damages the image that the Netherlands has of being a well-organised country,” adds Ramin Roohparvar, who has spent the last thirteen months trying to sort out his residence permit. He thinks talented researchers are likely to start avoiding the Netherlands. The IND lost his documents three times, even when he sent them by registered post. According to Roohparvar, the ministry in Iran has now called a halt to scientific collaboration with the Netherlands. In the past thirteen Iranians have come to Wageningen each year through the programme. Their research and living costs were paid for by Iran. “Many international researchers regret having come to the Netherlands. Friends of mine in Denmark and Belgium get their visa automatically renewed,” says Roohparvar.
Foreign members of staff whose residence permit has expired can request a re-entry visa from IND for short trips abroad. They are given a sticker in their passport, which allows them to travel within the Schengen area and re-enter it if they have been outside. This visa costs forty euros. To apply for the visa you have to make a telephone appointment first, but at present that is almost impossible to achieve. “It took a colleague of mine three weeks,” tells Jiang. But a re-entry visa is not sufficient to get a visa for a country like the United States, nor does it allow you to travel from one foreign country to another.
In the past, foreign students and members of staff could extend their residence permits at the Police Station in Wageningen. “It all used to go very smoothly,” recalls Jiang. “It only took fifteen minutes for the whole procdure.” Due to cuts the facility was moved to the aliens office in Arnhem, and students were always helped quickly there as well. Since December 2003, however, it is the IND office in Zwolle that deals with the applications. According to Nuffic the delays there are partly due to the introduction of a new administration system. At present there are thousands of applications for visa extensions awaiting a decision in Zwolle. Nuffic also mentions that there is a problem at the company where the residence permits are printed.
Wageningen University is currently discussing with IND whether it is possible to set up a hotline between the university and IND. The issue has also reached the national level, as the Dutch parliament has accepted a motion from the PvdA (Dutch labour party) that the Dutch government should draw up a plan of action for IND. Minister for Integration and Immigration Rita Verdonk, has submitted a plan which will make it easier for knowledge workers to apply for a residence permit. If the plan is approved, PhD students will get a residence permit for five years in the future. Then they will only have to extend the residence permits of family members who accompany them. According to spokesman Martin Bruinsma of the Ministry of Justice, under which IND falls, a call centre has been set up to make it easier to reach the IND, and extra staff have been put to work on the backlog of dossiers. And if Wageningen wants a direct line to the IND, all they have to do is ‘call him’.
Guido van Hofwegen