Abandoned Dutch prisons are being used to house refugees — here’s what they’re like inside

Tens of thousands of refugees from all over the Middle East – including countries like Syria, Iraq, Morocco, and Libya – have found an unlikely haven in the Netherlands.

Crime there has been declining for the last decade, and 19 of nearly 60 prisons have closed in the last three years. Others have taken in inmates from Belgium or Norway.

Now the Dutch government agency responsible for securing housing for asylum seekers has opened prisons in 12 locations around the country to refugees. As the AP reports, the spaces are currently serving hundreds of people in need.

At one such facility, De Koepel, the open space and array of amenities make the prison uniquely suited to serve as a temporary home. Here’s what life is like on the inside.


In 2015, the Netherlands saw approximately 60,000 migrants enter the country. While most were given traditional shelter, the Dutch government called on its prison system to offer its vacant facilities.

Source: The New York Times


In Haarlem, De Koepel features layers of cells on the perimeters of a main courtyard. The cells are tight, but can accommodate families of three or four with bunk beds.


Female refugees are given the option to stay in the all-women section of the prison.


“Their safety is our main priority along with their health and daily needs,” De Koepel’s director, Menno Schot, said of the migrants. “The country is new for them so we are their guide in Holland.”


Many of those surveyed in De Koepel said they were satisfied with the conditions, though the food could be better, according to the AP.


Many reported seeing the heavy prison doors as safety features, not reminders of being oppressed.


“I don’t feel that it is a prison,” one 16-year-old Syrian migrant told the AP. “What matters is that we are safe here.”


Many of the refugees living in the prison are young — some came with their families, while others left them behind. Afghan refugee Shazia Lutfi, for example, came when she was 19.


Day to day, a sense of normalcy has developed in the prison. Refugees can ride bikes, watch TV, play sports, or listen to music.


Yassir Hajji, 25, tells the AP that he used to be a barber in his home country of Iraq. While waiting to see if his asylum request gets approved, he likes to practice his Dutch and thread his wife’s eyebrows.


He has some competition — 31-year-old Syrian refugee Imad Abdulrahman is another barber staying at De Koepel.


Other couples entertain themselves with music. Afghan refugee Hamed Karmi likes to play keyboard for his wife, Farishta Morahami.


People also gain a sense of routine by doing chores. De Koepel is one of many Dutch prisons that has opened its laundry service up to residents.


The refugees aren’t confined in the prisons, of course. De Koepel allows residents to leave the grounds.


But some might still have trouble shaking off the reality that they’re living inside a prison, away from home.


For others, life inside a prison could end up serving as a first step toward a life of freedom.