With crime declining in the Netherlands, the country is looking at new ways to fill its prisons. The government has let Belgium and Norway put prisoners in empty cells and now, amid the huge flow of migrants into Europe, several Dutch prisons have been temporarily pressed into service as asylum-seeker centers.
Most of the 12 former prisons and jails housing asylum seekers have been so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention, though in some cases the thick cell doors and bars on windows are stark reminders of the past.
“We had to think twice about using prisons with (cell) doors,” said Janet Helder, a board member with the Dutch government agency responsible for housing asylum seekers. “Some people in the neighborhood asked, ‘how can you put people from Syria who may have been imprisoned there in a cell here?’ So we decided that if people really have a problem with it we will find somewhere else for them.”
“The rooms are intended for one or two people, there are often gyms, a good kitchen,” she said. “So in that sense they tick many of the boxes we are looking at.”
For 18-year-old Gerbia Hajji, a Yazidi from Sinjar, Iraq, that has meant practicing riding one of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous bicycles in a courtyard at the Haarlem prison. Her husband, Yassir, was a barber back home and wants to learn Dutch so that he can pick up his trade again. He was keeping his skills up to date recently by shaping his wife’s eyebrows in the cell they share on the third floor of the Haarlem prison.
In a nearby cell, a single flower taped to its door, Hamed Karmi was also practicing playing a keyboard while his wife, Farishta Morahami, sat on the bunk bed in their cell listening to the music, a calming way to spend a few minutes for the young couple who fled a village near the Afghan capital, Kabul, amid rising Taliban attacks. They paid smugglers $8,000 to get to Europe.