People storage in the Netherlands


In a quiet corner of the often-deserted Merwehaven in Rotterdam, the Netherlands – a much quieter harbour than the high-tech Maashaven, two flat barges are moored. Not that this in itself is something to carry on about – for centuries flat barges have been a common sight in the harbours of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, two of the world’s biggest harbours.

It’s the superstructure of these barges that attracts attention. Painted white, and riddled with horizontal slots – air vents on closer inspection. The structures make you think of the ships we often see – and smell – in the Fremantle harbour in Western Australia. It’s the smell of the live sheep trade, a trade subject to protests and direct action by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have had a significant amount of success bringing the trade into the spotlight by getting purchasers and manufacturers to ban products made from Australian wool.

Barges containing refugees in Maashaven, Rotterdam

Barges containing refugees in Maashaven, Rotterdam

The air vents on the barges in Rotterdam, like those Fremantle live sheep export trade boats that sail from the West Australian harbour around the world, let in and let out the air for hundreds of live creatures. The barges are white, they are square, and they look like containers. There are thirty six slotted, framed panels on either side. And the barges are filled with men who have committed no crime, 760 of them.

This is the Netherlands, the country I come from, the country that was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations and its Refugee Convention. This is the country that had its 24-hour rule for primary assessment of asylum claimants: within 24 hours you would know whether your refugee claim had any viability at all.

Pretty soon after the initiative of the barges became known, the locals in Rotterdam had a name ready for them, and they’re now known as the bajesboten – formed from the Yiddish name for prison (bajes). It makes you think, when the nickname for the project immediately finds a link with the language of the Jewish refugees who were strewn all over the Netherlands since the Second World War.

At the start of the project, the Ministry of Justice, led by its Minister Piet Hein Donner assured the Dutch that the maximum duration of detention would just be 120 days. But the false notion of having ‘criminals’ in the neighbourhood could not be silenced and the media preferred the sensationalising of their stories, and aided by opportunistic politicians – this is Holland in the period after Pim Fortuyn, the right-wing anti-asylum political candidate who was shot during his election campaign in 2004 – the notion of criminality became inevitably linked with the men in the bajesboten. And when some of the men managed to escape, questions from local government to the Minister of Justice in the Dutch Parliament were predictably not about human rights breaches of the men who had committed no crime but who were imprisoned nonetheless, but about whether or not the Minister could guarantee safety in the community now that the town of Schiedam – immediately bordering on the Merwehaven – had ‘escapees’ running around in the neighbourhood. In a strange twist, concerned residents linked with the Socialist Party’s MP Jan de Wit also demanded the closure of the barges – but presumably for two very different reasons.

Bajesboten are cheap, the Minister argued when the second boat was opened in April 2005, about a third of the cost of conventional detention methods, but the The Hague party branch of the PvdA, the Dutch Labor party – much more to the left of the political spectrum than its British or Australian equivalent – hosts a discussion forum on its website. Comments include a call to Queen Beatrix to release all detained men on the occasion of her Silver Jubilee this year, quoting a line from a 16th century Dutch Freedom song where in the name of William of Orange the opening of the city’s gates is demanded. (-In naam van oranje, doe open de poort’ – from the Geuzenlied with the same name, see ).

Your -normal’ situation on the bajesboot is a share situation with four men, but – as if being locked up in a container is not bad enough – there’s also a chance you end up in an isolation cell if you cause trouble on board.

The situation of the folks on the barges shows a problem the Netherlands has not come to terms with, or for that matter the Western democratic world in its entirety. The 760 men on the boats are made up of two groups: those who were apprehended because they’re in the country without permission, and those ‘out-processed’ asylum seekers who cannot be removed to their home country or to ‘a third’ country.

The warehousing of refugees, asylum seekers and those without papers or visas is a sign of the increasingly troubled way western countries deal with a problem created by their desire for clear and regulated border control. The more ‘developed’ a country becomes, the stricter its policies of exclusion of ‘the other’ become. The western world has, up till now, shown a blunt unwillingness to start debating the issue on a global level, other than from the vantage point and from the intent to control its own borders.

The way we deal with the notion of borders and exclusion shows that we have no intention to start thinking globally when it comes to the movement of people, and that we’re happy to practice anti-globalisation policies when it suits us. Little do governments admit that the end-product of globalisation includes the notion of permeable borders, even in Europe, which has shown that it is possible to have permeable borders between most of its member countries. For the sake of the men on the bajesboten, the people in the Baxter detention centre, and for all those who get imprisoned without having committed a crime, we need to urgently evolve the debate into one that suggests that the notion of open borders is one that cannot be reserved just for those already inside Fortress Europe, or those who are white, those who can show a credit card at immigration check-ups, and those who have a job.

There’s only one planet, there’s just one world, and we all live on this planet, and there’s only -us’ – the -them’ we’re so afraid of, don’t actually exist. It’s time this is heard, loudly and clearly, in the Halls of Parliament, whether that’s the European Parliament, the Tweede Kamer in the Netherlands, or the Westminster Parliaments in the UK and Australia.

Report of a protest action with photos:


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.