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Empty Dutch prisons used to house asylum seekers

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The Netherlands has converted about a dozen former prisons into centres for refugees.

De Koepel in Haarlem

The nation has been able to do so due to its lack of crime and shortage of prison inmates.

According to the nation’s Ministry of Justice, around a third of Dutch prison cells remain empty. An approach to law enforcement that favours rehabilitation over incarceration is largely to thank.

The New York Times reported that recorded crime has shrunk by roughly a quarter over the past decade, according to data received from the country’s national statistics office. This is expected to translate into a surplus of 3,000 prison cells by 2021, and offers a welcome solution to help deal with the refugee crisis that is engulfing Europe.

Jailing institutions, such as De Koepel in Haarlem, which houses more than 300 asylum seekers, and a former prison in Hoogeveen, have thus been transformed into comfortable apartments for families fleeing social and religious persecution. These converted prisons contain a multitude of amenities, including gymnasiums, kitchen facilities, and outdoor gardens. Authorities have also removed high prison walls and barbed wire from the prisons’ peripheries in order to make the refugees feel more at home.

The scale of the crisis, however, has overburdened what was supposed to be a temporary and emergency solution to the sudden influx of migrants from countries such as Syria, Iran, and Eritrea.

The asylum application process can sometimes take months to complete, which means that those awaiting a response must remain in the prison cells. For many of them, this begins to feel like genuine incarceration.

The Dutch government’s Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, or C.O.A., operated 40 reception centers in January 2015 before the crisis began. Now they operate 121 facilities.

Approximately 16,000 people housed in the agency’s facilities have their permanent residency permits, but they cannot leave until they have secured reliable accommodation elsewhere, and there is a backlog.

The wait time before asylum seekers can expect a decision on their applications has tripled, and can now take around a year and a half.

Many asylum seekers still remain optimistic. Omar Nabhan, a former engineer at a security company, who fled Syria when he was asked to become a soldier, put it as such: “At the start, it felt like a prison, even though we are free to come and go. But when we look at people who are staying in tents, we know we have good luck.”

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