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Being a “stranger” – a hidden story in The Netherlands

The Netherlands is often celebrated for its wide-spread tolerance and is generally regarded as a progressive and multicultural country. Less well known is that the Netherlands has been under attack by Amnesty International and the United Nations for years because of the Dutch immigration policy. Fenne van Loon examines the situation for Pandeia.

In order to protect the Dutch economy, not everyone is granted asylum by the government, leading to illegal immigrants who are referred to as “vreemdelingen” (strangers). Strangers often do not possess any documents, which makes it difficult to send them back, but also impossible to grant them asylum. What happens to strangers that are stuck in between?

According to Dutch law and international treaties, the detention of immigrants who seek a future should be a last resort. However, detention has slowly transformed into standard procedure. For humanitarian reasons, any activity of integration is actively discouraged, as this could only increase hope where there is none. Yet, it seems this system is increasingly taken too far, leading to harrowing situations that can be said to cross moral boundaries of humanity. It is therefore no surprise the lives of strangers are often hidden from society.

Behind closed doors
Some of these hiding places are the four detention centres in the Netherlands. The website of the Ministry of Justice and Safety provides a list of rules for visitors. “Physical contact: It is possible to engage in brief physical contact during the greeting and saying goodbye. During the visit more physical contact is prohibited”. This easily sets the tone of the place.

Zembla produced a documentary (De gevangenen van gebouw 4, 2012) examining the detention centre in Zeist. Through extremely strict access to the detention center, it is clear that the Netherlands officials prefer to keep the ongoings of the detention center hidden from the public eye. Once finally inside, strict rules apply. Neither filming nor interviews are allowed with the strangers or the employees.

The crew reports stuffy air that causes headaches, skin conditions and breathing problems for the immigrants. Two years earlier the health inspection officially stated the air quality was unacceptable. Nothing changed. If anything, the quality has gotten worse since new rules stated all doors must be closed for security. Doctors say it is absurd that pregnant women are living there and the building should be closed.

The use of isolation rooms is another issue. Doctors continuously say the use of isolation rooms is harmful. Everyone will become confused or even turn mad if locked up long enough. Still, a man suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was locked in an isolation room for ten days. The doctor was not surprised the man suffered from another psychosis after that. Acute medical health care is lacking shockingly often. As the health inspector voices, “We are a decent country, we even have animal police.” That is why the lack of a humane treatment for these people astounds him and many others.

Getting the message across
The documentary was made two years ago, pledging for improvements in the system and specifically drastic changes in detention centres. However, this did not help to prevent the Russian asylum seeker Dolmotov from committing suicide in detention one year later. Several investigations concluded, all too late that Dolmotov was placed in a detention centre on false grounds. Also, his suicidal thoughts should have been taken more seriously.

F. Daniëls, former chaplain of the detention centre, breaks the silence by stating that detention centres destroy any feeling of humanity. “By saying to someone he is absolutely not welcome, we don’t want to see you here, you are destroying him. They are no longer seen as people, but as an object that needs to be discharged as quickly as possible. And these people end up feeling exactly that way.”

Many immigrants in detention centres experience a sense of hopelessness, become suicidal or lose their minds. Kaba, an ex-detainee, explains in the Zembla documentary how it drove him insane. “You don’t know when you’ll get out of prison. And you didn’t even do anything wrong.” Even though the detention centres are meant to be a last short stop before people are deported, Kaba was stuck there for nine months, all the time treated like a criminal. “At least criminals know how long they will be in prison,” he says.

The rules in these centres are strict; there is nothing detainees are allowed to do. Kaba really wishes to integrate, to be part of Dutch society, but he is not given any chance since he is not allowed to stay. He cannot work or follow any form of education. Most of the time he is stuck in the system, and he says he spent his days doing nothing more than simply staring out the window. He became so depressed and desperate when he was locked up in Zeist that that he cut his arms and wrote with his own blood on the walls: “I would like to stay in the Netherlands.”

Surprising Europe (2010) is a nine-part television series documenting the experiences of African immigrants in Europe. Again the isolation room in Zeist is mentioned. “You have to undress, even your underwear. There you sit in pajamas. They have hit me with a stick. They put a foot against my neck. They held me to the ground that way and they tied me,” one man says, speaking to those who might be thinking of migrating from Africa. “Don’t ever go to the Netherlands. You should never come here. Never. If you come here, you must be very, very stupid.” Ultimately, this is the message the Dutch government wants to get across.

Life after detention
The officials’ response is that immigrants may leave prison and country whenever they want, as long as they cooperate. According to several experts, this is a lie. Only 25% of all strangers can be sent back to native countries. Another 25% are sent to a different country and 50% of the people are released to the streets without any documents, risking arrest and imprisonment at any time.

The Human Doc. documentary (Lost lives, 2012) follows several illegal immigrants released onto the streets. One man has been living in the Netherlands for 16 years now, four of them in detention. Officials questioned his nationality, and he was therefore not granted asylum. He has been deported to Liberia seven times, and to Ghana four times, always being sent back to the Netherlands right away. Nobody wants him.

Likewise, an Afghan man is not granted his asylum, despite his wife and children recieving theirs. He is officially labelled “suspicious” because he once served in the Afghan military and is accused of war crimes, though there is no proof. He attempted to prove his innocence by requeting his own criminal trial. It was refused because of insufficient proof, and he still remains a suspect. He cannot work and feels that he is missing out on life throughout this long process. “I lost a quarter of my life. It just disappeared, I didn’t do anything.”

A woman with a baby had 24 hours to leave the Netherlands, but nowhere to go. She voices the myth of safety in Europe saying, “Europe, you think human rights, friendly people. You’re finally safe. Nobody is going to discriminate you, or abuse you. All the things I flew away from. And then you come here, and nothing happens.” Many express that the worst part is the feelings of being unacknowledged, unwanted. Having to move repeatedly, always being sent away, with nowhere to call ‘home’.

In one of the interviews an eight year old girl who was born and has lived her entire life in the Netherlands reveals her biggest wish: “To get a passport.” Only then will her life finally be acknowledged.

The immigration debate remains a difficult dilemma that affects many lives. No country will allow free access to everybody. However, what is happening behind closed doors is steadily transcending the issue from an economical dilemma to a humanitarian disaster.

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