From: PRIME (Participating Refugees in Multicultural Europe, The Hague)
Title: Hunger Strikers attacked inside Schiphol’s Detention Centre
If a women is raped and goes to the local police to report the crime, what happens? If she’s illegal, the chances are the police will try to arrest her, instead of arresting the person she’s accused of rape. When you are illegal, how do you report violations of your rights? What you fear most is the authorities. Who do you go to if you are attacked in a detention centre? The police? The media? What if the police are the ones to attack you? The media may not want to report it. Perhaps it’s no wonder, with a political and media climate of indifference, that when serious assaults took place recently in Schiphol immigration detention centre, near Amsterdam, that the news was initially reported only to a handful of tiny organizations run by volunteers. PRIME (Participating Refugees in Multicultural Europe) is one, based in The Hague, and along with other organizations that support immigration detainees and refugees, we wish to draw urgent attention to the growing evidence of serious brutality inside Dutch detention centres today.
An Exemplary Human Rights Record?
To expose abuse is not always easy, since The Netherlands government has what is widely viewed as an excellent human rights record. According to the 2008 US Department of State country report, despite concerns over prison conditions in the Dutch Antilles, on the European mainland, protection for those detained in Dutch prisons is judged to “meet international standards”. PRIME has evidence that this is not so, and that in at least one government-run detention centre, Schiphol Oost, there has been serious abuse of detainees. Our reports is based on first hand telephone interview, from those inside the centre. These accounts of serious assaults by armed riot police against peaceful protesters suggest that international and European human rights standards are not being met in the Dutch detention system. Further reports and testimonies of events inside Schiphol can also be found on M2M (Migrant to Migrant) radio.
A Pattern of Abuse
At the cramped PRIME office, the phone has hardly stopped ringing all week. Detailed evidence has emerged of shocking brutality, and on the face of it, what amounts to ‘degrading treatment or punishment’, under the Convention against Torture. The background to this is a pattern of reported beatings and attacks in Dutch detention centres and prisons since around 2000, when the immigration regime was toughened up considerably. In the past two weeks, things have taken a dramatic turn. It started on 18 February, when PRIME received 15 separate phone calls from detainees inside Schiphol, announcing the start of a major hunger strike, in protest at conditions inside the centre. They were not the only ones dissatisfied. On the very same day, Job Joris Arnold stated, in a debate in the Dutch Parliament: “We are shocked at the conditions under which innocent people, who have committed no crime, are held. We are alarmed at the stories we hear every day about lack of adequate medical care and harsh punishments for even the most minor infringement of the rules”. His organisation BONJO, is one of many that tries to support asylum detainees and those due for deportation. The evidence collected by PRIME since 18 February adds to these concerns.
The announcement on 18 February that a hunger strike was starting was met with an alarmingly brutal show of force. Schiphol has become a symbol of the Dutch government’s harsh detention regime since a fire ripped through the hastily assembled structure of the building in 2005, killing eleven people. A legal case brought against the government, is due to start on 6 March, and means that whatever happens in Schiphol detention centre will touch a raw nerve. PRIME learned that on 18 February, as 36 hunger strikers were demanding to speak the to Head of the centre, to discuss conditions, ‘up to 50’ heavily armed security forces were shipped in. These masked men did not want to talk. They were a special ‘crack’ forces called in to restore order. Yet all that had happened was the announcement of the start of a peaceful protest. In telephone interviews the detainees reported that initially they all refused to go back into their cells.
This was when the violence started. One account reports how: “…military police…about forty people came….They were with shields, with everything. They took us one by one and put us in our rooms…They did it with force”. In one case, and man from Georgia was badly beaten: “They beat him. He is a sick man. He has hepatitis.” The detainees did not resist or fight back. Yet the brutality continued. From 36 hunger strikers, intimidation reduced their numbers to around 20 by the end of the day. Most Dutch newspapers reported that there were 6 hunger strikers, using the official number given in a government statement. Some journalists publish official sources as if it they were factual, and don’t bother to check for themselves. But what surprised even PRIME was the openly aggressive reaction that had come in response to peaceful demands from the hunger strikers.
In a particularly shocking case, Asad (not his real name) described to PRIME how he was beaten up by eight masked ‘police’: “They put me in my room with handcuffs on. After 20 minutes they came and took me to another place…I didn’t do anything and they started forcing me and hitting me in the back. And they kick me in the penis…” The attack continued until Asad fell unconscious. “They bring the doctor and they wake me up again. When they were hitting me, they hit my neck so I had collapsed”. Asked what they had beaten him with, Asad replied: “They beat my neck with a plastic bat”. He continues: “And they bring me to the special room”. An official source inside the centre confidentially phoned and confirmed to PRIME Ahmed’s account of these particular events. Stories of brutality towards the hunger strikers have also been corroborated by a Groningen-based lawyer, able to get into Schiphol shortly after the protest and heavy-handed responses took place.
The official line
The Dutch government’s position is ‘no concessions’ to hunger strikers. Mr Tamer, a Hague-based human rights lawyer remarks: “Hunger strikes are virtually criminalized in The Netherlands”. Those who wanted to continue with the hunger strike after the initial brutality said they were placed on ‘OBS’, in cold isolation cells. Others were shipped out to ‘Kamp Zeist’, a grim place surrounded by barbed wire, where women and children are also held. As the outside world becomes more aware of this kind of brutality being conducted in the name of border controls, it becomes harder for the government to deny the evidence. There is an Iranian saying that if you paint a sparrow yellow, there will be someone who can sell it as a canary. The Dutch government has always done a good job on PR, but it cannot ignore the mounting evidence that things are not that pretty in the immigration detention system. Communication leaks out all over the place, and it is no wonder that it remains common practice across EU detention centres to deprive detainees of mobile phones and internet connections.
The Dutch are not alone
The Netherlands is not alone in this official pattern of abuse against those detained, and those deported. Xenophobia and racism throughout Europe produce a hopelessness which has pushed those in immigration detention centres to revolt, in France, Italy and in the UK, for example. Physical abuse, lack of medical care and being denied access to legal support makes detainees understandably angry, and outrages some sectors of public opinion.. In the UK, a well-documented report released in mid-2008, Outsourcing Abuse, documented dozens of cases of beatings and brutality by mainly private guards in UK detention centres and during the deportation process. Since then, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, has appointed Nuala O’Loan, former Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, to undertake an official investigation into these allegations. Until Nuala started to investigate, the government viewed almost all complaints of assault as unfounded. The sheer scale of assault in the asylum system of detention and deportation has become so visible it can no longer be denied. Something similar is starting to happen in The Netherlands too.
A ray of hope?
PRIME hopes – along with many other organizations – that the evidence now being gathered by support groups, lawyers, doctors, BONJO and others will provoke a positive official response eventually. Official and media denial persists, but things are starting to move. On 6 March hearings start in a case brought by Dutch refugee lawyers against the government over the immigration detention system. This case is based on several critical reports published in 2008, including a report by CAT (European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment), one by Amnesty released in July, and another by the Dutch equivalent of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, the RSJ. Let’s hope people like Asad, attacked whilst in detention, cannot be abused with impunity in future. “I’m waiting for the results of the lab tests. They took my pee today to test it. You know ‘pampers…’”. His voice trails off; Asad now has to wear nappies. He’s been incontinent since the attack. This sounds to us like medically verifiable evidence of inhuman and degrading treatment.
Date: 05 March 2009
PRIME contact: Ahmed Pouri email@example.com
Contact details: Repelaerstraat 84, 2515 NA Den Haag, The Netherlands
Tel: 00-31-70-3050415 / 70-3803058
Mobile: 00- 31-655 36 23 13
. US Department of State 2008 country reports on human rights practices, released 25 February 2009 available at: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/eur/119096.htm
. Reference to BONJO Job Joris Arnold (in Dutch) at: http://www.bonjo.nl/faq/36-nieuws/155-persbericht-vreemdelingenbewaring-ter-discussie-in-de-tk.html
. For a testimonial and memorial site for the victims, which also includes links to m2Mradio, PRIME and Stichting LOS (Landelijke Ongedocumenteerde Stichting – National Undocumented Association) the umbrella organization in the Netherlands for those working with the undocumented, including those detained http://www.vertrokkengezichten.net/
. Telephone interview with Ahmed Pouri of PRIME, 23 February 2009.
. Telephone interview with Ahmed Pouri of PRIME, 23 February 2009.
. The Independent, 30 September 2008 and also report of the launch of the report, with photos of those giving evidence, at: http://www.medicaljustice.org.uk/content/view/413/68/
. Among the shocking cases she may be asked to report on is that of Suren Khachatryan, a leading Armenian opposition politician, well-known in his country, who suffered a punctured lung after allegedly being stamped on by his immigration escorts in the back of a security van. The full report can be downloaded at The Medical Justice home page: http://www.medicaljustice.org.uk/
. RSJ stands for: Raad voor Strafrechtstoepassing en Jeugdbescherming – the Council for the Regulation of Punishment and Youth Protection, details (in Dutch) at http://www.rsj.nl/onderwerpen/Vreemdelingenbewaring/
. Protests were planned to start outside the Schiphol detention centre on Friday 6 March, with people meeting at 12 in the airport Plaza (Ten Pol, 1438 AJ Oude Meer Meeting Point: Schiphol Plaza, 12 till 4 p.m). Actions were to continue at the same time over the weekend of 7-8 March. For further information and updates, refer to http://www.vertrokkengezichten.net/