This information appeared in Wednesday’s issue of daily newspaper Trouw. According to the newspaper, this has had a major impact on former students. They are unable to travel, and some of them have lost their jobs.
Approximately one million people owe money to DUO, and 100,000 of them live abroad. Around 24,000 of them have gone off the radar and can no longer be located by the student finance provider. In response to a question, DUO spokesperson Bert Viel confirmed that 80% of the untraceable students are behind on payments of more than 5,000 euros.
“We always try to restore contact via all other available means first”, says Viel. “We consult public sources, contact consulates and embassies… we try whatever we can think of. But if all that fails, we have little choice but to report people for passport registration.”
That means they cannot renew their passports. They have to contact DUO first to agree a repayment arrangement. DUO could not say how many people are currently listed in the register. However, ‘a few hundred’ former students have since been removed.
Former students live all over the world, but these kinds of problems with payment arrears occur primarily in lower-income countries, such as in South America. He says DUO can take that into account.
It does so by conducting an assessment of the ability to pay. DUO looks at your current income and, on that basis, decides how much you should be able to repay. In the Netherlands, this happens automatically via the Tax and Customs Administration, but if you live abroad, you have to supply the information yourself. “If you don’t do it, you only create problems for yourself”, says Viel.
The active investigation of untraceable persons, using the passport-register method, got started in 2012 under then Labour Party (PvdA) Minister Jet Bussemaker. At that time, the rationale was that around 30,000 untraceable debtors owed an amount of over 80 million euros. The investigations are generating millions of euros.
This is not the first time that DUO has been criticised for blocking the passports of people living abroad. It was one of the reasons why the agency was once nominated for a Big Brother Award.
The National Ombudsman criticised DUO’s poor communication about the blocking of passports. According to the ombudsman, the agency has since improved this, however.
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And yet, the problem is still not fully resolved. Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen told Trouw, “You can’t enforce payment if the former student simply can’t afford to pay. Blocking someone’s passport rapidly becomes inappropriate, because of the tremendous consequences it can have for that person’s social and professional life.”