Statewatch article: RefNo# 28151
Netherlands: Immigration detention - systematic and inhumane by Katrin McGauran
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 18 no 2 April-June 2008
The Netherlands has the highest rate of immigrant detention per capita in the whole of Europe [1]. This is sometimes debated in the national media, when scandals about maltreatment by prison guards, lack of health care, suicides and deaths through negligence in detention come to light. Despite serious human rights concerns, the government has decided to build even more detention facilities, with the help, and to the profit, of private businesses. One of the last ones to open was in Alphen aan de Rijn, with a capacity to hold 1,300 detainees. It has its own court and hosts offices of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Dutch Office for Return and Departure (Dienst Terugkeer en Vertrek). More than 3,000 migrants are currently imprisoned in the Netherlands in various detention facilities, for the sole reason of not being in possession of the right documents. Indeed the latest report [2] on the Netherlands by the (Council of Europe) Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment finds:

It is noteworthy that, since 1990, the incarceration rate for adults in the Netherlands has risen from one of the lowest to one of the highest levels in Western Europe. At the same time, the overall capacity in prisons and alien detention facilities has increased from 7,195 in 1990 to 17,630 in 2006. The opening of new detention facilities is planned and in particular, the increase in the number of facilities for the administrative detention of immigration detainees is set to continue with, inter alia, the opening of a new detention facility in Zaandam and the further enlargement of an existing facility in Alphen aan den Rijn.

Flourishing business

Apart from the human rights concerns surrounding immigration detention for depriving liberty on administrative and not substantive criminal grounds, immigration detention is a dangerous place for migrants in Europe. Lack of adequate health care, inadequate safety regulations - which led to the dramatic death of 11 migrants imprisoned in Schiphol detention centre in October 2005 - mistreatment by private security guards, and the psychologically devastating effect of imprisonment without having committed a crime or knowing a release date, have led to many migrant and refugee deaths and injuries as well as depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

They are also the reason why immigration detention, according to many legal scholars and human rights activists, should be abolished. Detention however has become a profitable business, lowering the incentive for governments to abolish it. The Dutch "DC16" consortium, including companies Ballast Nedam, EGM Architects, ISS Facility Services and Smits van Burgst, for example, has just won a 25-year contract worth 100 million EUR to design, build and run a Rotterdam detention facility holding 576 detainees, to be completed in 2010. Again, the CPT also notes that:

as the budget of the prison service has not increased proportionately with the growth in cell capacity, the Dutch [authorities were] forced to make significant economies, primarily by reducing activities and work for inmates and by cutting staff costs.

In other words, whilst the care for detainees is plummeting, the prison-industrial complex is flourishing into a multi-million euro business.

Two floating detention boats in Rotterdam, the Reno and the Bibby Stockholm, have been troubled by sub-standard health care and maltreatment by prison guards as was revealed by ex-detainees. A journalist also reported the abysmal treatment of detainees after working as an "undercover" security guard. The Reno came into operation in September 2004, the Bibby Stockholm opened in January 2005. Due to the building of the above-mentioned detention facility in Rotterdam and the huge prison complex in Alphen aan de Rijn, as well as detention vessels that opened in 2007 and early 2008 in Zaanstad (two boats holding 576 persons) and Dordrecht (the Bibby Kalmar, 496 persons), the Reno and Bibby Stockholm will close in July. They are expected to be sold to Germany or the United Kingdom. More detention centres are located at Rotterdam (198 persons) and Schiphol airport (after the fire which killed 11 migrants, the centre was rebuilt not only with adequate fire provisions but also an increased capacity, to be completed by 2012), in Zeist/Soesterberg near Utrecht (Camp Zeist, 1100 persons) and Amsterdam (location and capacity unknown).

Migrants are not criminals

Criticism of Dutch immigration detention has been regularly voiced by Anton van Kalmthout, professor of criminal and immigration law at Tilburg university, and member of the (Council of Europe) Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). He has written numerous articles and appeared on several television shows pointing out that compared to other European countries, the Netherlands has an extremely restrictive system in place against undocumented migrants and failed asylum seekers. Besides the judicial and law enforcement regime, the Dutch media regularly reports "illegals" as if they were criminals, exemplified by the first news report that was aired after the fire at Schiphol detention centre: a helicopter, the television and radio stations reported, was searching for eight escaped "illegals". They had escaped not only immigration detention on that October night, but also the deadly fire that killed 11 migrants because the fire and safety provisions of the detention containers were inadequate. These details were left unmentioned.

According to international human rights law, such as Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which was further interpreted by Council of Europe resolution [3], and also EU law [4] and the Dutch constitution and Alien's Act of 2000, immigration detention should only be applied as a "last resort", when other measures are not able to achieve the aim of the measure, (i.e. to enforce return or deportation). There should be an administrative system entirely separate from the current prison complex because illegal residence in not punishable by law and the only purpose of immigration detention is to make people without papers available to the Dutch judicial system to investigate whether their deportation can be carried out. However, undocumented migrants are not only treated as if they had committed serious crimes, but their detention conditions are considerably lower than regular prison conditions. There is not even an absolute time limit for detention pending deportation for certain categories of detained aliens. When asked why the Netherlands was pursuing such a restrictive system which does not appear to deter people from migrating, remaining in the country without papers, or increase deportation numbers, van Kalmthout proposed that migrants were used as scapegoats for politicians and political parties wanting to appear strict on immigration, particularly after the recent short-lived general amnesty for long-term stayers.

Van Kalmthout not only criticised the Dutch authorities, but also urged lawyers to become more active in taking legal cases (on the grounds of the inhumane and degrading treatment of migrants in detention) to the European Court of Justice and Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (NOVA, 27 May 2008). Certainly after two recent deaths in immigration detention this year, which occurred after a failure to provide adequate medical health care according to fellow detainees, cases could be taken to court on the grounds of CPT rules that state that a doctor should be called without delay if a person requests a medical examination.

CPT report, detainees and activists demand change

During its visit to the Netherlands, the CPT visited the Bibby Stockholm floating detention centre in Rotterdam, the Kalmar detention boat in Dordrecht and the Rotterdam Airport Expulsion Centre. Their report was passed to the Dutch government in January 2008, and it should provide a response within six months and a full account of actions taken to implement the CPT's recommendations on grounds of Article 10 of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Among other recommendations, the CPT says that the Dutch authorities should:

* introduce an absolute time limit for the detention of all foreign nationals under aliens legislation;

* stop using boats as facilities for immigration detainees and clarify the reason(s) for the government's decision to classify immigration detention centres as remand prisons;

* consider that irregular migrants be accommodated in specifically designed centres, offering material conditions and a regime appropriate to their legal status and that the Dutch authorities should reconsider their approach towards the detention of immigration detainees;

* immediately cease applying physical means of restraint to detained persons who tamper repeatedly with the sprinkler system on the Kalmar and Stockholm detention boats;

* comment on the arrangements for psychiatric care for immigration detainees, and

* explore the possibility of increasing visit entitlements.

Unfortunately, the CPT's report appears not to have gathered enough information from non-state sources about repeated maltreatment of detainees by prison guards, which has long been attested to by detainees going on hunger strike and activist groups supporting them. A recent documentary by the investigative programme NOVA (27.5.08) interviews a whistleblower, a prison guard on one of detention boats and two ex-detainees, who tell of systematic abuse of detainees by prison guards. The whistleblower claims that guards show sadistic tendencies and are eagerly anticipating outbursts in the often tense detention environments so that they can "get some action" and lock detainees up in isolation cells.

There has also been a small but determined group of activists over the past years who have protested against the detention centres through demonstrations, civic inspections, and direct actions, cutting down barbed wire fences and chaining themselves to the gates to prevent deportations and the functioning of the centres. On 25 April, seven activists were cleared by a Haarlem court of "committing a violent act in a group". The charges concern a direct action of 9 April last year when a group of 90 activists, under the name 'Migrants Welcome', cut down fences around the then soon to be opened detention boats in Zaandam. The judge thought the public prosecution's dossier was "messy" and cleared the accused of all charges for lack of evidence. Around 50 activists celebrated the judgement with a solidarity action in front of the Zaandam boats. Soon afterwards in May, five asylum seekers escaped from one of boats; two were re-arrested, but the reaming three remain free.


[1] "Het regiem van de vreemdelingenbewaring. De balans na 25 jaar" ["The immigration detention regime. Taking stock after 25 years"] in JustitiŽle verkenningen, jrg. 33, nr. 4 2007, pp 89-102, accessed on 13.6.08 via

[2] "Report to the authorities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on the visits carried out to the Kingdom in Europe, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) in June 2007", 5.2.08, CPT/Inf (2008)

[3] Council of Europe, "Twenty Guidelines of the Committee of
Ministers on Forced Return", September 2005, Art 6.

[4] "Proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and the Council on common standards and procedures in Member-States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals", 1.9.05, COM2005/0391/final, Art 14.,,
The NOVA documentary on maltreatment of immigrant detainees can be viewed on
The CPT report can be downloaded at

© Statewatch ISSN 1756-851X. Personal usage as private individuals/"fair dealing" is allowed. We also welcome links to material on our site. Usage by those working for organisations is allowed only if the organisation holds an appropriate licence from the relevant reprographic rights organisation (eg: Copyright Licensing Agency in the UK) with such usage being subject to the terms and conditions oof that licence and to local copyright law. Statewatch is not responsible for the content of external websites and inclusion of a link does not constitute an endorsement.

Click here to return to your search results
For a print friendly version click here
To start a new search, click here
To return to the Statewatch home page click here
Statewatch, PO Box 1516, London N16 0EW, UK. Tel: + 44 (0)207 697 4266 Fax: + 44 (0)208 880 1727 email