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09 October 2020 – Netherlands

Syrian refugee sings while playing Oud at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands, on 21 April 2016 (Muhammed Muheisen, AP Photo,
Syrian refugee sings while playing Oud at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands, on 21 April 2016 (Muhammed Muheisen, AP Photo, "For asylum seekers, Dutch prisons feel like home," AP Images Blog, 17 May 2016,

Unlike many of its EU neighbours, the Netherlands largely avoided implementing strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the past month, the country has seen a surge in new cases, leaving the Netherlands with one of the highest infection rates in the world (160 per 100,000 weekly). While this is spurring the adoption of some new safeguards, including urging–but not making mandatory–masks in public facilities, the government recently announced a prohibition on the use of masks by detainees, according to information provided to the Global Detention Project by Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie (“Immigration Detention Hotline”). A 6 October press release from the Ministry of Justice and Security states that detainees are not to wear masks “for security reasons.”

This policy appears to place the Netherlands in a category all by itself. To date, the Global Detention Project (GDP)–which has reviewed Covid-related policies in nearly 150 countries–has not reported a similar mask prohibition in prisons or detention centres in any other country.

Dutch authorities claim that the policy is necessary so that detainees can be quickly and easily identified, and because “new detainees are quarantined for 8 days upon their arrival, and are continuously monitored for symptoms.” However, the policy should also be situated within a broader (and controversial) national debate surrounding the “effectiveness” of face masks.

The policy is causing mounting concern among detainees and rights advocates. Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie reported that it has been receiving daily calls from immigration detainees concerned about the spread of COVID-19. On 2 October 2020, a person called the hotline from the Rotterdam Immigration Detention Centre claiming that undocumented migrants are being punished with solitary confinement for wearing a mouth mask to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

There have also been reports of guards refusing to hand out hygiene gel or hand soap to detainees. As previously reported on this platform (see 25 May 2020 Netherlands update), Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie reported to the GDP that as of 15 May, 260 people remained in immigration detention in the Netherlands and that those that remained complained about several issues, including the lack of soap and hot water, the fact that guards do not wear masks, the suspension of visits, and the fact that cell doors remain closed for up to 21 hours each day. Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie says that it is impossible to keep 1.5m distance in the Rotterdam centre and that staff do not wear masks when they are in contact with detainees. A number of staff members and undocumented migrants have already tested positive for COVID-19 and in consequence, the detention centre opened a quarantine ward dedicated for undocumented migrants who have tested positive for the virus.

In the Netherlands, undocumented migrants can be held in immigration detention for up to 18 months, the maximum limit provided under the EU Returns Directive. Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie reported that they were in contact with a man who came to the Netherlands as a minor, and who has now been locked up for almost 14 months in the Rotterdam immigration detention centre. Detainees are quarantined in the purposely built isolation ward for eight days upon arrival. They are then moved to a shared cell. Although some of these people may have tested negative for the virus, they still may suffer from symptoms such as a headache and a strong cough. Other detainees have become alarmed, noticing symptoms from fellow detainees, which has led to spouts of violence and conflict (see 25 May Netherlands update).

Controversial Covid-related immigration enforcement policies have not been limited to practices in detention centres. Unlike some of its EU partners, the Netherlands did not fully suspend deportations and removals. Responding to the GDP’s COVID-19 survey, a government official who asked to remain anonymous (see 16 June Netherlands update on this platform) reported that removals were still possible to several countries during the pandemic, including Indonesia, Brazil, and Poland. Meldpunt Vreemdelingendetentie commented that while they had not heard of any deportations from the country’s immigration detention centres during the pandemic, “a removal to Poland on the 12th of May took place by land. It is also said that they have still deported about 90 persons from the 9th March until the 10th of May – but it is unclear if these persons were refused at the border in the first place and sent back directly” (see 25 May Netherlands update on this platform).

In the meantime, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported on the depredations faced by detained migrants and asylum seekers during the pandemic in Aruba, the Dutch overseas territory in the Caribbean. Since May, Venezuelans detained at the Guarda Nos Costa immigration detention center (GNC) have repeatedly demanded that they be returned to Venezuela because of the terrible conditions in which they are detained. Humanitarian groups have been denied access to the facility and there is little information on the facility. Media outlets as well as human rights organisations have reported poor conditions, including overcrowding, violence from guards, and a lack of basic hygiene products. Detainees say that they do not receive visits nor adequate nutrition, and that they are only allowed to speak over the phone for a few minutes with their families. Authorities have not permitted flights or boat traffic between Aruba and Venezuela since February 2019, thus halting deportation procedures. Yet, authorities continue to keep Venezuelan migrants in detention, with some being kept for more than six months.