Tuesday 11 August 2020

Corona and relocation – packed up but stuck on pause

Removals in Amsterdam, 2020. Credit: Ela Caba

Can’t get into the Netherlands or can’t get out? DutchNews.nl investigates the situation for expats trying to relocate during the corona crisis and the support and information that is available to them.

Taiwanese national John Chen* (46) had always wanted the expat lifestyle. Securing a job with a company in Nijmegen was, he says, ‘kind of a dream come true’, and he flew over on March 1 to begin work. But now separated for weeks from his wife and three young children, who cannot join him until the corona restrictions are lifted, he admits to having ‘mixed feelings’. ‘It’s half dream, half nightmare,’ he says.

Isolation

With the Dutch embassy now restricting visits to emergencies, his wife’s immigration appointment has been rescheduled and is likely to be postponed again. The family-sized house Chen is renting is depressingly empty and an unnecessary expense, he feels, for just one person. ‘I put on the TV to have some sound,’ he says. ‘Otherwise, it drives me crazy.’

One lifeline has been New2NL, a relocation company specialised in finding schools for families, whose founder Annebet Van Mameren has been checking in on him. ‘She’s constantly asking me if I’m doing well … and giving me weekly updates on the school policy here and on the news,’ says Chen.

‘A lot of clients have postponed their move and school visits have been cancelled,’ Van Mameren told DutchNews.nl. But the good news is that most Netherlands-based companies have honoured the employment contract and allowed new recruits to work from their home country. ‘A strange way to start a new job,’ she muses, ‘but it seems to be working.’

Reliable information

Relocation and removals company SIRVA has also been extra busy supporting clients whose plans have been complicated by the corona outbreak. ‘We’ve had to repatriate people from different countries where there’s been either civil war or other things going on, but none of us has ever experienced anything on this scale,’ global account manager Alexandra Lugtigheid told DutchNews.nl.

‘The main thing we’re trying to do is make sure that people know where to get the right information,’ says Lugtigheid, pointing to the main government website,  RIVM (Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport), and their own news page as key resources. ‘Unfortunately, what we do see is that through social media and all kinds of platforms, information is shared which is sometimes not nuanced properly or not understood correctly,’ she warns.

Temporary solutions

One aspect of relocation that is causing considerable confusion is visas. ‘The Dutch immigration authorities are still reviewing and processing applications,’ says Gwen Keller, immigration director at Hillbrook Expatriate Tax Solutions, although she says that there are still problems when – like the Chen family – applicants are unable to retrieve their visa due to the closure of all consular embassies and consulates general. In addition, she says, there are issues with obtaining the legalised certificates due to the closure of local authorities which is causing a delay in the submission of applications.

There are some ‘temporary solutions’ in place, she says, and the Dutch immigration department is showing leniency in certain cases so that people can sometimes stay and work in the Netherlands based on their paperwork, for example, even if they’ve been unable to collect their residency card. Keller advises expats to consult the IND website for corona-related immigration questions and evolving policies.

One change is that the maximum time allowed to collect the mvv has been extended from 90-180 days if the applicant can prove that the delay is corona-related. For those who need to collect a visa, Keller recommends monitoring the embassies’ websites and making an appointment as soon as they reopen as the backlog is likely to create significant competition for time slots.

If you are working remotely as your relocation has been delayed, there may also be tax implications, says Keller. Non-residents with a Dutch employer are only taxable on the Dutch days worked; so if they work remotely, they remain – in principle – subject to tax in their home country and cannot really profit from the 30% ruling in the Netherlands.

For tenants whose lease is ending but are now unable to move or have found themselves in financial difficulty, the government is currently drafting emergency legislation so fixed term rental contracts can be extended temporarily. Tenants, reports Dafna Eccles of !WOON, are still bound by their contract but should contact their landlord to negotiate if corona regulations are preventing them from fulfilling it. !WOON is continuing to offer free legal advice to tenants in Amsterdam over the telephone and online. Residents outside the capital can contact Juridisch Loket or join the Woonbond.

The housing market

Despite the lockdown, people are still intending to relocate and the housing market is ticking along. ‘We’re still seeing names come through, just not as speedy because I think we’re waiting for visas, but we haven’t seen a hiring freeze,’ says Amber Buckridge, operations manager at Expat Housing Network in Amsterdam. ‘A lot of people who were due to arrive in the next two weeks can’t. A lot of the times, either their flights been cancelled or their country has put a travel ban out.’

‘Before corona hit, the rental market was so fast-paced,’ she says. ‘Now, because everybody’s working from home, it can take a bit longer to arrange a viewing and we have to spread the viewings out [due to the social distancing rules].’ If you cannot get to the Netherlands, Buckridge recommends organising a virtual viewing. ‘With a good video of an apartment, combined with giving yourself a walk around the streets on Google Maps, you can get a pretty good impression,’ she says.

And house sales in the capital are also holding up remarkably well. ‘Buying is just a little bit slower because people are waiting to see what will happen, but we haven’t seen prices drop … The rental market is still expensive and mortgage interest rates are low, which means that if you know you’re staying, buying is still attractive.’

Reassurance

For those relocating, this doubt about the future is often the hardest part. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Amsterdam, a major employer of overseas talent, told DutchNews.nl that they ‘do their best to put everyone at ease’, providing employees with frequent status updates and taking any questions. TCS is also offering special services, such as counselling and webinars on dealing with uncertainties, through the ‘TCS Cares’ initiative.

Olivia van den Broek-Neri of the Holland Expat Center South in Eindhoven agrees that for expats caught in limbo, ‘reassurance is the main thing’. The Expat Center has been fielding lots of questions from internationals who need an extension on handing in documentation or who have a residence permit which has expired but can’t leave the country, and from people who live over the (closed) border in Belgium and work in Eindhoven.

‘Right now, there are a lot of exceptions being made,’ says Broek-Neri, whose colleagues are working closely with the IND, the municipality and other stakeholders such as Brainport Eindhoven and the High-Tec Campus to give expats up-to-date information. Answers to the most common questions can be found on the Expat Center’s corona portal which went live on 3 April.

Broek-Neri has been impressed by the way different organisations have pulled together to help international residents residents in need at this time. ‘We’re trying to keep everyone positive and let people know that they’re not in this alone. We’re all going through this together,’ she says.

The future of relocation

Many European newcomers have ignored the recommendation against non-urgent travel and returned to their home countries. ‘With all the lay-offs and everything, people are probably panicking about not having a job and being stuck in Holland,’ says Michele Bar-Pereg of RelocateYourself. But for expats like Chen from further afield, it’s been a real test of strength. ‘Families from Brazil or Peru that I’ve relocated are thinking to themselves that it was a good idea at the time, but are not so sure now,’ says Bar-Pereg. ‘Everybody, when there is a crisis, just wants to go home.’

‘We’re just in limbo now because nobody’s coming,’ she says. ‘They’re not sending anybody anywhere and they’re going to review the ones that were in the line to go.’ Fortunately for Bar-Pereg, she has been working on an internet-based relocation model for several years now, supporting clients both pre- and post-move via online consultations.

The corona measures, she says, may reduce relocations in the long-term. ‘I feel that the mindset will change. I think we’re going to see that people who just come to do a job will discover that people can do jobs virtually and don’t have to come.’

But migrants like Chen, attracted to the expat way of life, will never stop coming, she says. ‘There’ll always be people who want to live in another country and have the opportunity to move, and they’ll still do that. I don’t think that’s going to go away any time soon.’

*Not real name

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