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Residence in the Netherlands: Onboard Bibby Stockholm, Rotterdam Harbor


"The Executive Committee deplores that many countries continue routinely to detain asylum-seekers (including minors) on an arbitrary basis, for unduly prolonged periods, and without giving them adequate access to UNHCR and to fair procedures for timely review of their detention status; notes that such detention practices are inconsistent with established human rights standards and urges States to explore more actively all feasible alternatives to detention."

UNHCR Executive Committee N° 85(dd) (1998) (Jastram and Achiron, 2001)

Assebe’s Story: Road to Detention

You know it is ironic what the Dutch authorities did to me. They asked me to leave the country, and when I tried to do exactly what they asked for, they caught me and put me in a detention boat in Rotterdam. When I first saw how secure the boat was, I asked myself whether it was really necessary for them to put me there. I pose no potential harm to the country. In fact, I have never done anything dangerous in my entire life. I spent the first 11 days of detention in isolation. I was only allowed to see the sun for 30 minutes in the morning and for another 30 minutes in the evening. I spent the remaining 23 hours locked in a dark room.

This is the story of Assebe, a 23-year old Ethiopian who fled his homeland at the age of 16 to seek refuge in the Netherlands. 

Assebe’s mother died of breast cancer when he was 16 years old and shortly after, his father, a member of a rebel political group, was arrested. Besides the hardship he had to face to survive alone at such a young age, Assebe was exposed to harassment from the authorities and from sympathizers of the ruling party. “I was not even able to keep my normal school friends. I was seen as a collaborator of groups who tried to “disintegrate” the country while I had nothing to do with any political group. For Christ sake, I did not even know the name of the president or whoever was ruling the country at the time” said Assebe in despair. When the isolation and intimidation reached a point that he could no longer handle, and when the hope he had that his father would return slowly faded, he decided to flee his home country and try his fate elsewhere. With the help of some of his father’s friends, he managed to flee to Kenya, Belgium and finally to the Netherlands.

Unfortunately the story does not end there. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, Assebe was sent to an Asylum Seeker Center (AZC). This began a long process wherein Assbe was shuffled between different camps while waiting for a final decision. “After six years of waiting, virtually doing nothing and locked up in a camp, they told me that my asylum procedure was closed and that I had to leave the country within 48 hours” explained Assebe. Knowing that he could not return to Ethiopia, due to the very problems he forced to flee, Assebe attempted to stay in Amsterdam participating in irregular labor and lodging with friends he had met at the AZCs. After struggling to make ends meet, Assebe decided to leave the country, thus following the authorities’ order to leave the Netherlands. On his way to England, the authorities caught him, sent him to a prison and, after 11 days, imprisoned him in a detention center boat in Rotterdam where he was not given access to a lawyer. This is  a clear violation of such legal norms at both national and international level as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Assebe’s story is one of many in the Netherlands. Asylum seekers are sent to detention centers for numerous reasons including: failed asylum procedures, failure to produce documentation upon arrival in the Netherlands, and for criminal behavior. 

Life in the Detention Centers

The Ministry of Justice has introduced 'Aanmeldcentra' or application centers in which asylum seekers have to present themselves directly after entrance in Holland. According to Jona Halfdanardotti, an employee of the Dutch Refugee Council (VVN) whose office is in an Amsterdam detention center:

There a selection takes place within 24 to 48 hours for 'chanceless' and 'chanceful' asylum requests. Those centers must have a deterrent effect on newcomers. In only a few opportunities does one have the right to appeal against the negative decision. Mostly in such situations one has the right to wait the outcome of the objections in Holland. Chanceless refugees that have to leave Holland immediately are dumped on central train stations and ordered to leave the country immediately.

Refugees who are denied asylum are potential candidates for gross violations of human rights, for they are the people who can be detained in the temporary detention centers in Rotterdam and Schiphol. The 48 hour limit is insufficient time to determine whether an asylum seeker falls under the category of refugee as defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which includes “[an individual with] a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion...”. The trauma faced by asylum seekers fleeing their home countries often impedes their ability to prove in 48 hours that they fulfill the criteria of refugees as stated in such international norms.

As of January 2005, there were 472 detention places in the Netherlands with the most commonly referred ones at Schiphol Airport and the Rotterdam Port (Ministry of Justice, 2005). When asked about the difference between the Amsterdam detention center and the detention centers in Rotterdam and Schiphol, Jona claims that:

The Amsterdam detention center is for people who just came in to Holland and are not yet allowed to enter the country legally. They are still in the asylum seeking process. On the other hand, the detainees in Rotterdam and Schiphol are people whose asylum process is closed and are picked mainly from the streets, most of them caught while working without permits. 

According to Jona, the Refugee Council has asked to have similar offices in the Schiphol and Rotterdam detention centers. However, the Dutch authorities are not willing to cooperate and the Refugee Council has, as of yet, no offices in those detention centers.

The subject of detention centers in the Netherlands has recently become a hotly debated issue, both in public and parliamentary circles, since the fire at the Schiphol detention center on October 27, 2005. The fire claimed the lives of 11 people and injured 15 others. Since the fire, various criticisms against the Dutch authorities have been voiced, including the lack of adequate health care for survivors of the incident, the transferring detainees to other centers without disclosing the information to lawyers, and Minister Verdonk’s attempt to deport survivors before the investigation on the fire incident  was finished (Lawson, 2005). In response, the Dutch authorities claim to have assessed the safety requirements of detention centers (Lawson, 2005). However, this is not the case according to Journalist Robert van de Griend of Vrij Nederland, who worked undercover as a prison guard in a detention boat in Rotterdam.

After a brief one week ‘training’, Mr. van de Griend began working on the Bibby Stockholm Detention Boat. He stated that neither he nor the other prison guards were trained on fire evacuation procedures in the detention center and this was some time after the tragedy at Schiphol. As far as the detention boat is concerned, he described it as “...resembling a container floating on water. Prisoners were kept in small, dark cells with six people per cell.” Six people per cell is too crowded if one takes into account that in most Dutch penitentiary  facilities convicted criminals are kept one prisoner per cell. According to Mr. van de Griend, the prisoners were allowed out of their cells for about eight hours a day but were restricted to designated rooms on the boat; “In general, the prisoners were treated badly, at times beaten. The center provided poor medical and psychological care to prisoners in need” even though this is contrary to such human rights norms as the first ever human rights convention under the auspice of the United Nations, the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

Although Mr. van de Griend’s assessment of a Rotterdam detention boat is from the perspective of a prison guard, Assebe’s experience as a detainee is ironically similar. Assebe explained, “The boat is located in the middle of the sea, once you get in, it is virtually impossible to get out. They put me in a 4 by 3-meter room with five Chinese detainees. The room was too small for one person let alone six, and we were packed like luggage bags. The worst thing was that my roommates did not speak Dutch or English so I was not talking during my entire stay there, apart from some short obvious phrases.”

According to Assebe, no detainee is allowed to keep his personal belongings, including money. Detainees are given 7.50 euros a week. That money is not even enough to cover the price of a single telephone card. A detainee has to save for 2 weeks, if he or she wants to buy one, which most of them normally do. To make the situation worse, the authorities have provided a market within the boat. Even though detainees are allowed to ‘shop’ there, the prices of the commodities are all above market price. For Assebe, this is clear mental torture. “How are you supposed to buy a cola for 1.20 euros when you are given 7.50 euros and you want to spend it on a phone card which is your only access to the outside world” asked Assebe.

Apart from the psychological torture he was suffering from being detained, he also developed a severe appendix problem.

After a couple of weeks my disease got worse. One night I had stomach swelling and a lot of pain. I tried to inform the guards about it so that they could give me some kind of medicine or take me to a doctor. But, even though I kept shouting the whole night, the guards refused to open the door. It was only the next morning that they opened the door and saw me lying helplessly on the floor. Some of them were shocked to see me like that. I wasn’t able to breath properly due to the severe pain” said Assebe. 

This is especially shocking considering that it happened after the fire at Schiphol, which was mainly caused by the lack of communication between security guards and detainees. Due to the detention personnel’s’ lack of judgement and sympathy, Assebe’s life was endangered. 

Before taking Assebe to the hospital, the detention guards cuffed his hands and legs with chains and wooden locks. He could barely move. When they reached the hospital, a doctor told the authorities that Assebe was in critical condition and that he had to go into surgery immediately. It was only after he went to the operation room that the chains were removed from his hands and legs.

Should this be happening in the Netherlands. Ironically, the Hague is known by many as the capital of international justice. In fact, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Bernard Bot has recently described the Hague as the ‘Legal capital of the world’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2006). We have to ask ourselves, is the manner in which Assebe and many other irregular migrants are treated contrary to international norms?

Arbitrary Detention?

Various legal principles, both at the European and international level prohibit the arbitrary deprivation of liberty including the aforementioned International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the  European Convention of Human Rights. 

The Dutch Aliens Act 2000 is the current legal ground used by the authorities to detain irregular migrants. The Act allows for the possibility of detaining irregular migrants “If necessary in the interests of public policy (public order) or national security.” Do irregular migrants like Assebe pose a threat to the national security of the Netherlands?

When asked about the detention of irregular migrants, MP Arno Visser of the Liberal (VVD) Party stated that “All those held in detention centers are illegal...If refugees bypass the asylum seeking procedure or are officially rejected from the country, they are then asked to leave voluntarily and if they do not comply, they are thus remaining in the country against the law.”

Despite the hard line towards irregular migrants, the complexity of the situation makes it difficult for the government to come up with a clear solution. Many irregular migrants are found without papers, sent to a detention center for a few months, and then returned to the street. If the reality is that these irregular migrants pose a threat to national security and public order, then how is it possible that they are released onto the streets. Is this not arbitrary detention? Since irregular migrants are returned to the streets precisely because they do not pose a threat to national security, perhaps the solution is to create a separate category for innocent irregular migrants and irregular migrants who are in fact criminals.

According to Ed van Thijn, a former mayor of Amsterdam and a member of the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament, “There have been debates between the political left and right about whether to treat irregular migrants as criminals, but as of yet no conclusion has been reached.” There is therefore no reason to keep failed asylum seekers in the same detention centers as foreign criminals. Furthermore, should these failed asylum seekers be detained at all in detention centers? MP Jan de Wit of the Socialist Party (SP) commented “the only reason for detention centers is if you know that people will be sent to their home country within a short period of time. In practice, this is not the case and in some cases people are locked up for more than six months and then returned to the streets.” According to MP Jan de Wit, failed asylum seekers and criminals should be kept in separate detention facilities, which is in line with the international norms. Unfortunately, this is not the case as the detention centers are used for a variety of people including foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers.

Urge for Alternatives

Regardless of one’s opinion on the use of detention, it is clear that detention poses a real dilemma for all. Issues surrounding it include the legality of the centers in respect to the rights of the refugee, the detention of children, women and other vulnerable people, the separation of criminals and failed asylum seekers, to mention a few.  In exceptional cases, the UNHCR has set certain standards to monitor the condition of detention which include, “screening to identify trauma victims, separation of men from women and children if they are not relatives, separate facilities for asylum seekers and criminals, contact with those outside the centers, medical treatment, recreation, education, basic necessities...” (Jastram and Achiron, 2001). As we saw in the experiences of Journalist Robert van de Griend and Assebe, these standards are not met. 

The next step it to look into alternatives for detention. Alternatives often cited by the UNHCR include, “monitoring requirements, provision of a guarantor, or surety [someone who is responsible for ensuring that the asylum seeker complies with the law], release on bail and open centers” (Jastram and Achiron, 2001). 

The detention of asylum seekers is a situation that should be avoided at all costs. The current system of detaining individuals and throwing them back into the street is only creating a vicious cycle of fear and punishment. 

After three months of detention, Assebe was released from the detention center. The immigration police took him to Rotterdam Central Station and told him to leave the country within 24 hours. “You know, I was only receiving 7.50 euros a week while I was at the detention center. And I just spent it on calling my friends. The police knew that I didn’t have a single cent in my pocket. How on earth did they think I could leave the Netherlands in 24 hours if I had no money at all?” said Assebe. Now a ‘free’ man, Assebe fears being caught again. “If I return to that detention center, I will end up either going crazy or committing suicide” he affirms in despair.

At the end of the interview with Assebe, he got up and disappeared into the crowd. He is now one of the 300,000 estimated irregular migrants living in the Netherlands under constant fear and intimidation with no prospects of returning home, no opportunity for success. Dumped in the street once again, the only fate that seems to await Assebe is a return to the Bibby Stockholm Detention Boat in the busy harbor of Rotterdam.




Aliens Act 2000. Ministry of Justice, Government of the Netherlands. 

< http://www.legislationline.org/legislation.php?tid=129&lid=933>

“Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” 

Council of Europe, 1950. <http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/005.htm >

“International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.” United Nations,1966. 


Jastram, Kate and Marilyn Achiron. Refugee Protection: A Guide to International Refugee Law. UNHCR and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2001.

Lawson, Rick. Report on the Situation of Fundamental Rights in the Netherlands in 2005.  The EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights, 2005.

“Second detention boat in Rotterdam harbour” Ministry of Justice, Government of the Netherlands. 2005. <http://www.justitie.nl/english/press/press_releases/archive/archive_2005/170 105boat.asp>

“The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.” United Nations, 1951.          

<http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/refugees.htm >

Van de Griend, Robert. “Undercover op de illegalenboot.” Vrij Nederland 

25/03/2006. < http://www.vrijnederland.nl/vn/show/id=57476 >

“War crimes suspect Charles Taylor arrives in the Netherlands.” Minsitry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the Netherlands. 2006. <http://www.minbuza.nl/default.asp?CMS_ITEM=28E9A3D417B64B908C2 CBE446DBCBE6BX3X55737X06>


Arno Visser. MP Liberal (VVD) Party. 23/06/2006.

Assebe. Former detainee. 25/06/2006.

Ed van Thijn. Former Mayor of Amsterdam and Rapporteur on the Commitee on Migration, Refugees and Population in the Parliamentary Assembly on the Council of Europe. 21/06/2006.

Jan de Wit. MP Socialist Party (SP). 23/06/2006.

Jona Halfdanardotti,. Employee of the Dutch Refugee Council (VVN), Grenshospitium Unit Tafelbergweg. 23/06/2006.

Kiek van den Biesen. Employee for COA. 20/06/2006.

Robert van de Griend. Journalist for Vrij Nederland. 23/06/2006.


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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2006


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