The Dutch Turn Empty Prisons Into Homes for Asylum Seekers

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Like in NSW, crime rates in the Netherland have been declining for years.

But unlike us, the Dutch decline has corresponded with a fall in the prison population, rather than a steep rise resulting from increasingly punitive measures.

The Dutch criminal justice system focuses on prevention, diversion and rehabilitation rather than punishment. It has been such a resounding success that the government shut down 19 prisons in 2014, and last year announced the closure of five more.

This left authorities with the dilemma of what to do with the now defunct prisons, and after the number of migrants exceeded 50,000 in one year alone, the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) proposed a solution for the overflow – to transform empty prisons into temporary housing for families and individuals escaping war.

The government accepted the proposal. Prison facilities have been repurposed into housing for asylum seekers awaiting the determination of their applications — a process that normally takes at least six months.

Asylum seekers will be free to come and go from the grounds and will be supplied with educational materials. They will also be encouraged to learn Dutch, and authorities are confident that the humane and respectful treatment of newcomers will result in productive members of society.

For many, these prison cell homes will ironically become their first step to freedom outside a war zone.

Meanwhile in Australia

The Dutch approach is a far cry from the Australian model.

Our governments are building more prisons to house an ever-increasing number of inmates – many of whom are being held on remand awaiting their court dates, and will ultimately have their cases dropped or thrown out of court.

The rise in inmates has been largely attributable to harsh new bail laws – which can make it far more difficult to achieve bail than to have charges withdrawn or achieve a not guilty verdict.

Last year, the NSW government alone committed to spending more than $3.8billion to build more prisons and upgrade existing ones.

Our treatment of asylum seekers has also left a lot of be desired over the years, with horrendous verified accounts of violence and ill treatment of asylum seekers at our offshore detention centres.

Australia’s illegal treatment of asylum seekers has drawn international criticism and even resulted in our Immigration Minister dishing out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to settle claims by asylum seekers who suffered physical and psychological abuse on Manus Island.

All the while, taxpayers have been paying billions to hold these people offshore.

Rather than change the approach for the better, a defiant Mr Dutton recently imposed a near-impossible deadline on asylum seekers to lodge their applications by 1 October.

It is important to note that these people were not allowed to prepare and lodge these applications until recently. It is also important to bear in mind that Australian applications are notoriously complex and difficult to prepare for those whose first language is English, let alone those fleeing war torn countries, many of whom speak little English and are suffering from mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.

Despite the enormous bottleneck of protection claims, the minister sent letters to asylum seekers earlier this year requiring them to lodge their applications by the deadline or face deportation.

Asylum seekers left destitute

What’s more, Mr Dutton seems intent on adding to Australia’s homeless crisis, after cutting off welfare payments to asylum seekers and giving them three weeks to vacate their government-assisted accommodation, a completely unrealistic timeframe for people who have only just been given the right to work.

These people are expected to find employment, save for a bond and secure accommodation in Australia’s high-priced housing market – a completely unrealistic expectation which will leave many of them destitute.

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