Netherlands: Immigrants die in fire “Like rats in a trap”

Makeshift detention centre failed safety standards

A tired, older fireman, with many years of experience, had tears in his eyes. He shook his head: “Something went terribly wrong tonight.” Another relief worker said: “This was really terrible; we had to get all dead prisoners from their cells. They never had a chance.”

After terrible fire at a detention centre at Schiphol International Airport, near Amsterdam, 11 bodies lay waiting to be transported to a mortuary for identification. Many of them have been taken out of the building on make-shift stretchers improvised from building gates. The fire, which started soon after midnight on 27 October, killed 11 and wounded 15.

The detention centre was in fact a makeshift prison. It was built to house drug smugglers (mainly from Latin America) who ingest cocaine in plastic bags. Later it was also used to lock up illegal immigrants. The fire raged for three hours through about 12 two person cells. The prison consists of prefabricated units. About 300 people were detained in the centre. One entire wing was destroyed, clearly showing poor design and proving that fire-fighters were called in too late. The cells could only be opened by hand and the hallways were very narrow.

The European Organisation for the Protection of Detainees after talking to some survivors concluded: “They were like rats in a trap.”

There was a lack of staff in the building and those who worked were unaware of fire procedures. One of the interviewed prisoners indicated that the guards underestimated the fire. When prisoners smelt smoke the guards refused to believe them. The public sector union (ABVAKABO) made clear that prisoners in temporary cells are more at risk than in normal prisons. There are less guards and they get very little training. Union spokesman, Dieter, said three guards were responsible for 43 prisoners.

After earlier fires (there were two, one when the building was not yet in use) safety organisations pointed out that the building did not meet safety criteria. Whatever measures were taken afterwards, they were clearly insufficient.

The tragedy is a clear consequence of the way in which small time drug smugglers, often desperately poor, and ‘illegal’ immigrants, are treated by governments all over Europe. The “lock them up and send them back” political mafia is responsible for the conditions in the makeshift Schiphol prison. Many asylum seekers died when sent back to their countries of origin. They don’t count, as far as the governments are concerned.

This disaster has made the fate of immigrants visible to everyone. More Dutch people see through the racist and anti-immigrant propaganda of the main political parties, parts of the media and the government. As an indication of this, Dutch people courageously demonstrated against the treatment of illegal immigrants the night after the Schiphol prison disaster.

Socialists demand an independent inquiry by unions and immigrants rights organisations into the fire disaster, including the government’s policies. Unions and the left must campaign against racist immigration laws and the barbaric conditions in which immigrants and asylum seekers are kept. The fight-back against the Dutch government’s cut backs must continue and be stepped up, uniting workers from all backgrounds. Decent housing, jobs, living wages and a properly funded welfare system must be available for all.

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October 2005