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Children Behind Bars: The Treatment of Children of Failed Asylum Seekers in The Netherlands


After all those hard and painful years, we ended up in prison. It was devastating. They treated us like animals. I cried all the time because I was thinking of my school friends who can be in school and who can be free outside. That was very painful. I’m still broken from these days. I will never forget it. Without being guilty, I have been in prison in the Netherlands. This has destroyed my heart.

Lydia Elia, a 13 year old girl from Syria, describing her experience in a detention center for failed asylum seekers at a public demonstration in the Hague (June 21, 2006). 

Imagine, just imagine for a moment, that you are a child living in The Netherlands. Your parents came here before you were born or when you were very little. Your parents came here fleeing persecution or conflict. You speak perfect Dutch. You go to school. You have Dutch friends. You are thankful for the life that you live. But one day your parents tell you that the family must leave the country. Their request for asylum, which was being processed for several years, has been denied. A terrifying thought strikes you. If what your parents tell you is true you will have to leave your friends, your classmates. You will go to a place where you know no one. What is going to happen? Things get worse. Your parents tell you that they need to go to a detention center until the Dutch government can deport you. You can either stay with a foster family that you have never met or you can go with your parents. If you decide to go with them you will be put into a cell. You do not know if you are going to stay there for a few weeks or for a year. You do not have a teacher or classmates anymore. You cannot play with other children. You do not know what is going to happen.

This could be the story of many of the children in detention centers in the Netherlands. It could be the story of any of the twenty children who sent a letter to Queen Beatrix informing her of their situation:

We are locked up with our parents, brothers and sisters. We come from different families, from different countries. We are children from the age of 1 to 17. We are spending months in detention. This is really hard for us. We lack everything that normal children should have on daily basis. They treat us like real prisoners, even though we are not. We do not have any freedom here. 

They voice the misery and distress of dozens of powerless children who are still in what are, in effect, prisons. We will try to explore their situation now. 

Children in Detention

When the Dutch authorities reject an asylum seeker’s claim the ‘failed asylum seeker’ is requested to make a “voluntary” return to his or her country of origin. If a “voluntary” return cannot be arranged within a reasonable timeframe, the person is moved to a closed expulsion facility – a detention center – pending forced deportation. A Ministry of Justice report from 2005 on children in detention states that families remain in detention from time periods ranging from 1 day to 1 year, with an average duration of 3 months (Inspectierapport, 2005). Failed asylum seeker’s with children are presented with two possibilities before being placed in a detention center: either the parents go into detention while the children stay with relatives or foster families or the children accompany their parents in detention so that the family can remain together. Carla van Os, from Defence for Children, says that in many instances acceptable foster families cannot be located or families refuse to be separated.  Thus it is not unusual that children have no option other than to accompany their parents into detention. Cory Dreesen, the lawyer of two Mongolian children who have recently been released after five months of detention, believes that there are at least 70 children currently residing in detention centers within the Netherlands.  Unfortunately, the exact number of children being held in detention is unknown because the Dutch government has refused to cooperate with disclosure requests.

Many people speculate that the Dutch government is attempting an unprecedented image-building move. “We are strict on immigration” the underlying message reads. It is the time to say goodbye to the days of tolerance and welcoming acceptance of people fleeing persecution. Toughness sells as a political solution. Dutch Minister of Immigration and Integration, Rita Verdonk, has been particularly skillful at playing on the idea of “the fear of the Other” and instrumentalizing the tensions between the Dutch population and recent immigrants. She has been successful. In the past few years, asylum attempts have fallen from a peak of 45.000 in 1998 to 10.000 in 2004. This efficiency in dealing with “the avalanche of refugees and asylum seekers,” as public opinion puts it. 

Despite the current sentiment towards immigration in the Netherlands, public attention has recently begun to focus on the rights of children in detention centers. On June 21st 2006 a group of human rights organizations hosted a demonstration in the Hague.  Around 150 people were present and so were the most important TV channels and newspapers, members of Parliament and several children formerly held in detention centers.  The attendees listened to speeches by child detainees and received a dossier with testimonials and drawings made by the children.  The event was timed so as to precede a debate on this issue being held in Parliament next week.  Event participants demanded that the Netherlands develop a timely solution to the current human rights violations being committed against children of failed asylum seekers.

The Human Rights Obligations of the Netherlands

In 1995 the Dutch government ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The vision of this Convention is that children should be seen as holders of human rights and that societies have particular obligations towards children.  It is the most relevant instrument for children in detention and is therefore the primary reference in this report. The following key principles of the CRC can be used to examine the treatment of the children in detention: 

•the best interest of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children (article 3(1))

•states must take all appropriate measures to ensure that the children are protected from discrimination based, among other things, on the immigration status of a child’s parent, legal guardians, or family members (article 2 (1)) 

•detention must be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time; children must not be deprived of liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily (article 37 (b))

•children in detention have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the person (article 37 (a),(c))

•children have the right to enjoy, to the maximum extent possible, development and recovery from past trauma (articles 6 (2), 39)

•asylum-seeking children and refugee children are entitled to appropriate protection and assistance (article 22 (1))

Moral Deficit: the Violations of the CRC

Despite international conventions like the CRC, the Netherlands is far from fulfilling its obligations under international law. Particularly alarming is a ruling of the Raad van State (Dutch Council of State) which held in 2002 that the rights embodied in the CRC are not applicable to children whose parents have no right to remain in the Netherlands (Human Rights Watch, 2006). By doing so it has set a dangerous precedent that allows lower court decisions to rule that such children are not entitled to any secondary rights deriving form the core Convention rights, even with regard, in theory, to basic care.

In a recent interview, Wilma Lozowski, policy officer for the Dutch Council for Refugees, voiced concern that children in detention centers currently do not have access to adequate educational opportunities.  Official reports claim that “basic education is offered but that the variable time periods of detention, uncertain departure times, the size of group in detention and their different cultural backgrounds make the provision of a structured education impossible” (Inspectierapport, 2005). However, this report only focused on the detention centers in Tafelbergweg and Rotterdam. The report also implies that the children are “not very interested” in their own education. Dreessen says that the two Mongolian children she represented, a brother and sister aged 14 and 16 respectively, were never provided with educational materials or teachers during their detention at Camp Zeist. The children that addressed the Queen in a letter also speak to this respect: “School is really important for us. Months ago we went to school, like everyone else. We have fallen behind our studies. Here we are not allowed to go to school. This is too much. This is too much. Time is going by and we have not learned anything new”.

Another point is the fact that there are no opportunities for recreation in the detention centers. This means that the children are not able to exercise their right to enjoy the life of a child. This restriction on play and recreation ignores the special needs and vulnerabilities of the children. 

The detention environment as a whole does not foster the health, self-respect and dignity of the children.  Many politicians are also outraged about the treatment of the children. MP Tinneke Huizinga of the Christen Union argues that there has to be a solution as soon as possible: “We are treating these children in a way that we should not do. These children are not criminals and should not be treated as such. Detention is also possible in a more human way. Children should be able to walk outside, play with their friends and have access to education. It is clear that detention is not in “the best interest of the child.”

The Way Forward: What is to Be Done?

So where do we go from here? There is obviously a need for a comprehensive reassessment of the way the Dutch government treats children of failed asylum seekers and their families. What pragmatic steps can help children out of this crisis? 

In a letter to the Dutch government the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that children should only be detained if it is absolutely impossible to place them in other accommodations (2005).  The letter also states that it is crucial that children not be held in prison-like conditions.  Special arrangements should be made for living quarters which are suitable for children and their families. And detention must be reserved as a measure of last resort and should be used only for the shortest period of time possible. 

Another option to the issue of detention is, as MP Jan de Wit from the Socialist Party put it, “no detention.” Children in detention centers have inadequate access to education, health care, psychological help and leisure time. The best way to ensure that these basic rights are respected is to allow the children to carry out lives as normal as possible outside the confines of a cell. 

Although Minister Verdonk, acknowledges this argument she has been unwilling to release whole families. Instead, she has proposed that at least one of the parents should remain in detention so as to prevent families awaiting deportation from fleeing, or “going illegal”.  Dreessen, the lawyer of two Mongolian children, finds this insufficient because the children still have the right to a family life. She maintains that it is unacceptable to force these people to choose between two constitutional rights: the right to freedom and the right of the family to stay together . Lozowski makes a similar point in suggesting that instead of going to detention centers, the families should reside in regular asylum centers. 

As PM Boris Diettrich from the Democrat 66 party has stated: “due to the decreasing number of refugees and asylum seekers in the Netherlands over the past years many asylum centers are being closed. They are empty!”  Lozowski comments further on the matter: “Put a fence around the asylum center if you want, but at least the children will not be in a cell. They will be able to attend the school, to play with other children and to be seen by the doctor.” Families and their children can be released from detention centers on the condition that they will reside at specific collective accomodation centers where they have the opportunity to obtain permission to leave the center and return at stipulated times. 

However, this alternative also presents a problem. In the past few years many of this asylum centers have been closed and the people in them have being moved and to other centers around the country. This constant movement poses a particularly damaging effect on the children. They find difficulties adjusting in their new educational centers. They become detached and unable to develop relationships with other children due to the fear of being moved again, This problem is confounded by  the prior experiences of children whose parents have sought asylum in the Netherlands. Undeniably, prolonged stay in detention centers and frequent relocations between centers has a negative impact on the children’s intellectual, psychological and emotional development. For this reason we find this alternative to be insufficient.      

Dreessen, Lozowski and others have also suggested that the families be allowed to remain in their own residences before deportation, reporting for duty with the IND or the police once or twice a week. In this way, the impact for the children would be minimized, as they would be allowed to carry on their lives until they are expelled. Anton van Kalmthout, professor of criminal and immigration law at Tilburg University, also points out that detention is not a cost effective option. Based on his calculation, basic detention costs the government 150-200 euros per person (not including the cost of the building). Because only one in three detainees are ever successfully expelled from the country, each successful expulsion ultimately costs the Netherlands 40.000 per individual.


Unfortunately, there is little reason to expect that the situation of the children will improve soon. More likely, the Dutch government will make small changes in its policy. Some fear that the children will be released, but they will be separated from their parents who remain in detention. The proposals mentioned above offer practical and politically feasible possibilities aimed at ending the violation of the rights of the children. 

The Dutch government has a responsibility to comply with the CRC. “The government only thinks about logistics, about processes. They don’t think about people,” says Lozowski. The Dutch authorities should change their approach to the issue of failed asylum seekers. The members of the political opposition can play a role in convincing the government to do so. 

It is also important that organizations like Defence for Children and the Dutch Refugee Council continue their work. Raising awareness among Dutch society and lobbying for the cause of these children can make a difference. Their work is particularly crucial considering that public opinion is polarized. A large sector of Dutch society just “wants easy one-liners from Minister Verdonk and quick solutions to complex problems,” says Lozowski.  It is our belief that there will not be a solution until the government and society think about the people involved rather than about the system.  Finally, we, as citizens and individuals, have to make sure that we do not become bystanders. Informing ourselves and our communities about these issues, writing letters to Minister Verdonk and other politicians and joining demonstration are easy things that can have a great impact.  We all have a part to play so that the detention of children will end.




Letter of UNHCR to Minster J.P.H Donner November 29th 2005

Letter of Refugee Council to the Dutch parliament December 2nd 2005

Kinderen horen niet in vreemdelingenbewaring: manifest tegen het detineren van minderjarige vreemdelingen March 22th  2006.

1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Stan Meuwese, Jacqueline Smith en Majorie Kaandorp, Defence for Children: informatie over het verdrag inzake de rechten van het kind September 2002

Lecture by Stefan Kok from the Dutch Council for Refugees, June 16th 2006. 

Speech given by Lydia Elia a 13 year old girl from Syria, describing her experience in a detention center for failed asylum seekers at a public demonstration in the Hague, June 21th 2006. 







Wilma Lozowski, Policy Officer at the Dutch Council for Refugees, June 21st, 2006.

Boris Diettrich, Member of Parliament for D66, June 21st, 2006.

Tinneke Huizinga, Member of Parliament for Christen Union,June 21st, 2006.

Jan de Wit, Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party, June 21st, 2006.

Carla van Os, Senior Staff Member, Defence for Children, June 22nd, 2006.

Cory Dreessen, Lawyer, June 23rd, 2006.

Anton van Kalmthout, Professor of Criminal and Immigration Law at Tilburg University, June 23rd, 2006.


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Netherlands Netherlands 2006


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