[ 04. Mar 2009 ]

The Dutch detention complex

stop detention!

Introduction of a series of texts with background information on Dutch detention centres by M2M Radio, Migrant to Migrant. Information on the Schiphol Fire in October 2005.


An unknown number of undocumented migrants living in The Netherlands are the object of a sustained policy of exclusion by the Dutch state. They are not supposed to be here, but they are. Researchers have estimated the number of illegal immigrants at between 150 and 200.000 in the last years. Paradoxically, for a supposedly non-existent group of people, an amazing range of measures has been developed to get a grip on them in order to make them disappear. The dilemma for a state that claims to champion human rights around the globe is to find a way to execute the explicit policy of exclusion and ultimately deportation in a manner that does not harm this reputation. The Schiphol Fire has made it clear to all who are willing to see, that the endeavor to solve this dilemma has miserably failed. In this essay I hope to explain the fundamental reasons for this failure and to indicate avenues towards an approach that does justice to both the motives of migrants and to the needs of Dutch society.

The disaster generally known as the Schiphol Fire took place in the night of October 26th, in the year 2005. The fire took place in Block K, where migrants were being held for administrative reasons: they were either undocumented or had exhausted the legal means to obtain a residence permit, e.g. as asylum seekers These people were not charged with any crime or trespassing, they were being detained solely to be returned to their country of origin. As a result of the fire eleven of them died of suffocation, some 15 were injured and many of the survivors were traumatized. The exact origin of the fire has yet to be established beyond reasonable doubt. So far, only one man has been indicted and convicted to three years. The court of appeal will ponder his case from January 27th, 2009. However the Security Board, an independent body headed by Mr. Pieter van Vollenhoven, a member of the Royal Family, after considering the available technical evidence and administrative documents, concluded in its final report in September 2006 that the disaster would have been much smaller, if only the regulations had been followed and earlier incidents and warnings had been heeded . As a result of these conclusions, two ministers immediately resigned. Mr. Piet Hein Donner, the Minister of Justice, responsible for the penitentiary system and and Mrs. Sybilla Dekker, responsible for Housing, Planning and Envronment. The third minister who was directly involved was Mrs. Rita Verdonk, in charge of Migration and Integration, but she did not step down.

Verdonk was the first to react in public, stating that the personnel of the detention center had responded adequately to the fire. When she was informed of the conclusions prior to the presentation of the report, she hastened to offer conditional residence permits to the survivors of Block K and J, in order for them to be cured of their trauma known as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). The Dutch Parliament accepted the respective decisions of these ministers and returned to the order of the day. The details of the report have never been discussed, nor has the system of administrative detention come under scrutiny. A program of urgent technical measures to prevent another fire was lauched and an impressive building scheme to establish more permanent facilities has been rolled out.

Rather than repeating the technical and administrative arguments I will focus on the political and cultural history of the Schiphol Fire, because a reflection on these aspects has been largely absent and is essential to get to the root of the problem. One reason why the fire could so easily spread and kill somany detainees, was that it was a temporary facility. It was constructed by assembling rows of sea containers and putting a roof over them. The rational was that people would be detained here only for short periods, so there was no need to invest in facilities that are standard in regular prisons. And it was both a fast and cheap way to solve a political problem. Curiously, the political problem to be solved was not originally the large number of undocumented migrants to be deported. In 2001 the political problem was the rising number of drug-swallowers: people arriving from Latin-America at Schiphol Airport with condoms containing cocaine in their stomach. The majority came from Suriname, a former Dutch colony. Stricter controls at the airport led to many arrests. However the then Minister of Justice, Mr. Bengt Korthals, did not think it opportune to bring them to court. He preferred to return them to their respective countries without trial. In that year however, eleven of these drug swallowers were not sent back but were sent away, that is they stayed in Holland without being charged or prosecuted. hgis fact created a political uproar in parliament and the Minister was forced to promise a quick solution to at least guarantee that those people cuaght with cocaine in their bodies would be imprisoned until the drug would leave them the natural way. For this purpose a detention facility was created on the territory of the airport itself, known as Schiphol Oost.

Article by Jo van der Spek, director of M2M Foundation, published first @ :: M2M means from Migrant to Migrant, it is a meeting point for migrants.