Floating Dutch prison for illegal aliens

5th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

With building lots hard to come by, and cities reluctant to offer space for detention centres, the Dutch Justice Ministry has taken to the water to house illegal aliens awaiting deportation. We report on a floating centre which opens today.

The Netherlands already has two prison boats and this month they will open a floating detention centre to house illegal aliens in Zaandam near Amsterdam.

"We built this floating detention platform because the city of Zaandam had no building ground to offer us, but did have a mooring site," said Erik Nijman who heads up the Justice Ministry's special provisions sector.

"It's not a boat, but a detention building built much the same as we would do on dry land but floating on a moored concrete caisson," Nijman said. The floating centres cost about the same as their landlocked cousins.

Zaandam's floating platforms, which can house a maximum of 576 detainees at two men to a cell, were built to last around 25 years.

Once inside the only thing that reminds prisoners that they are not on dry land is the view of the canal and the surrounding industrial estate.

While detainees await their expulsion they are subjected to a fairly mild prison regime with the cell doors opened during the day. There is television in every cell and a communal fitness room, a recreation room, a library, a room for religious services, a film room and an arts and crafts room.

"Idle hands are the devils play things," says warden Jantien Leegwater.

"We want them to keep busy and that's why we offer such a range of activities," she adds.

The prisoners can only leave the platform for dry land when they are moved or to play sports in one of two outdoor sports domes especially designed by a Dutch artist.

In the last decade, the Netherlands has gradually introduced harsher immigration measures. As a result, a lot more illegal aliens, some 20,000 each year, need to be held while awaiting deportation.

Previously they were housed in regular jails.
"We don't want to mix the criminals with illegal aliens and this way we keep the same kind of detainees together and can concentrate the services we need like our unit which helps return people to their country of origin," Nijman explains.

"This way we can also limit the length of detention needed before people are returned to their country and that is best for everyone involved," he says.
The new floating prison will not lead to a new crackdown, the justice ministry stressed.

"We're not suddenly going to do street sweeps to round up illegal aliens to fill up this place," Nijdam adds.

The Dutch authorities do not actively hunt illegal aliens but if people are stopped or arrested in connection with other things and they turn out to reside here illegally, they end up in the special detention units.

When the platform opens on 5 November, the detainees will be mostly transferred from general prisons.

Apart from the justice's ministry's own unit to facilitate forced deportations, the detention unit will also have representatives of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) which helps people who are voluntarily returning to their country of origin.

As it stands now the Zaandam platforms will be the last of the new wave of floating prisons in the Netherlands.

After a flurry of building activity in recent years, the Netherlands no longer has problems with its prison capacity, Nijdam explained.

"There is a lot of interest from abroad in the way we are doing things here," Nijdam says.

The building of the prison boats has also been the focus of activist groups who object to the making of migration a criminal offence – something which is in itself is a contradiction of freedom of movement in a globalising world. 

5 November 2007

[Copyright Expatica + AFP]

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