The Netherlands Are Turning Empty Prisons Into Homes for Refugees

A cement cell might seem like the last place a Syrian refugee would want to sleep, but that’s exactly what hundreds of refugees are doing in the Netherlands right now.

The incarcerated population in the country has seen a dramatic decline in the past decade, dropping from 20,463 prisoners in 2006 to 10,102 in 2016. The smaller number of inmates means a lot of prisons closed in the country. But rather than allow the prisons to merely sit unused and become decrypted with the passage of time, government officials decided to use them as temporary shelters for refugees.

Janet Helder, a board member with the Dutch government agency responsible for housing asylum seekers, admits it’s an unorthodox solution, but explains that the former prisons are actually well-equipped for housing the flow of migrants.

“The rooms are intended for one or two people, there are often gyms, a good kitchen,” she told NBC News. “So in that sense, they tick many of the boxes we are looking at.”

Around 41,000 migrants are housed at 120 different locations (12 of those locations being former prisons) throughout the Netherlands. “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,” added Helder.

The six towers of the former Bijlmerbajes prison.

A Place of Safety and Community

The refugees staying in the prisons are of course permitted to leave the grounds, receive visitors and spend the night away if they wish. Besides beds, the prisons are equipped with laundry facilities and recreational spaces, for activities like basketball. Bijlmerbajes prison in Amsterdam was shut down in 2016 and is scheduled to be demolished at some point. In the meantime, it functions as a place for refugees to interact with each other and learn new skills. It even has a language school and a coffee shop. For refugees staying in former prisons like Bijlmerbajes, what matters the most is to have a safe space to sleep at night.

“I don’t feel that it is a prison,” Abdul Moeen Alhaji, a 16-year-old Syrian boy told the Associated Press. “What matters is that we are safe here.” Alhaji was formerly living in a tent camp, but now calls an old prison in the Dutch city of Arnhem his temporary home.

In Amsterdam, young refugees are bunking with Dutch students in a joint housing complex. The complex houses around 500 people under the age of 27, and works as a way of bonding the two groups and helping the refugees to get acquainted with Dutch culture. In exchange for the low-cost housing, the residents are expected to help maintain the building and its grounds.

Nahom Berhane, a 24-year-old Eritrean refugee who crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe said he felt welcomed at the complex and enjoyed learning from his Dutch neighbors. “The life here is more of observing from a lot of people around me,” Berhane said. “When I see them, I can learn a lot of things from them. Whenever I have problems with translation, homework or anything, everyone is open to help you anytime.”

Bringing the Concept to the U.S.

While the U.S. incarceration rate is much higher than that of the Netherlands, similar efforts to re-imagine spaces are happening.

The former Bayview Correctional Facility in New York City is being revamped as “a hub of activism and engagement” for empowering women and young girls. Set to open in 2020 as The Women’s Building, the former prison in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood will function as a “physical form of a social justice movement,” co-founder Gloria Steinem told Reuters.

The renovation of the building which is undergoing a complete overhaul serves as a positive metaphor of change, said Sharon Richardson, a former Bayview inmate who served 20 years for murder stemming from a domestic abuse case. “It’s going to undergo this whole transformation… from what it used to be, which is a dark place, to now what it’s going to be, which is a beautiful place,” she said.

Cover image: National Geographic.

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