Tech & Rights

Solitary Confinement in Dutch Alien Detention Centers Is Harmful and Unnecessary

The solitary confinement of aliens held in detention is harmful and introduces serious health risks. Despite pledges from the Dutch government to curtail the practice, a new report shows that it continues as often as before.

by Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten

The placement in solitary confinement of aliens held in detention is harmful, brings serious health risks and, despite assurances from the Dutch government, still occurs as often as before. This emerges from a report in Dutch called "When someone’s suffering, does he have to be put in solitary confinement?" that was published on March 3 by Amnesty International, Dokters van de Wereld (Doctors of the World) and Stichting LOS (National Support Point for Undocumented Migrants) and contains this statement by a formerly detained alien:

After a week in detention, very bad news reached me about my son, his life was in danger. I was at wit’s end. I cried and hit myself. One of the staff members, who spoke my language, heard me say to myself that I would take my own life. After a while four people came to see me and said: ‘‘We’ve heard you want to commit suicide. We are taking you to another cell.’’ But they didn’t tell me it would be an isolation cell. There was a toilet in the cell and a mattress with just one blanket. It was very hard for me. I spent one night in solitary confinement. They take away your clothes, you sleep on a mattress and a camera is pointed at you. They told me it was for my own safety. I answered: ‘‘I’m so cold, is this for my own safety? I will only become more sick.’’ I cried that entire night, while I was being watched. Was this my punishment? If someone’s suffering, does he have to be put in solitary confinement?

Aliens without right of residence can be put in detention in the Netherlands. Every year thousands of aliens are locked up as they either have to leave the country, or are not allowed to enter it and are therefore detained at the border. In such cases, aliens do not only lose their freedom, but can be subjected to other, very drastic measures. One of those is the use of seclusion, or isolation.

Urgent amendments required

Solitary confinement is problematic both from a medical as well as human rights point of view – especially in alien detention centers. Human rights treaties impose high demands on the use of solitary confinement. It is only permitted under exceptional circumstances, when it’s absolutely necessary, proportional and non-discriminatory. Moreover, this measure should be accounted for at all times. Medical research points out that isolation – even for a short while – can be injurious to (mental) health. That’s why in recent years the Dutch mental health care system has strived to push back and eventually ban the use of solitary confinement.

The Dutch government has declared to be willing to limit the use of solitary confinement in alien detention centers too. Nevertheless, a joint investigation by Amnesty International, Dokters van de Wereld and Stichting LOS points out that the use of isolation cells has continued undiminished in recent years. From January until the end of October 2014, 379 administratively detained aliens were held in solitary confinement. The percentage has been the same for years: every day, on average 1.2 or 1.3 percent of the detained aliens spend their time in isolation. This seems a negligible percentage, and yet every year hundreds of aliens are put in solitary confinement, with possible adverse health effects.

The investigation shows that contrary to the intentions to truly prevent solitary confinement, in recent years legislation, policies and practices have barely changed. Urgent amendments are therefore required.

This spring, the Dutch cabinet will look into a legislative proposal that seeks to introduce a number of changes with regard to the detention of aliens. This is by all means the occasion to finally limit the use of solitary confinement. And this is possible by taking Sweden, where people will never be put in an isolation cell as punishment, as an example. Out of a population of 508 aliens in the detention center in the village of Flen in 2014, aliens were put in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure 15 times for an average duration of 12 hours. In the first months of 2014, aliens in the Netherlands who were put in solitary confinement for "internal disturbances" stayed there for five and a half days on average. One of them even stayed there for 29 consecutive days.

"A lot of the time it concerns people who have serious psychological problems," says Annemarie Busser of Amnesty International, one of the authors of the report. "They belong in a psychiatric hospital with expert care, not in a detention center."


The current policy on alien detention can lead to human rights violations and (sometimes serious) health damage. By implementing changes, the safety of both the detained aliens as well as the staff of the centers can be better guaranteed. Solitary confinement for detained aliens is no longer appropriate to the present time. Therefore, the efforts should be directed at banning this measure altogether.

The policy within the Dutch mental health care system can be taken as an example, as can experiences from the Dutch forensic psychiatry and successful examples from abroad. They show that a drastic reduction in the use of isolation cells, and perhaps even a total ban, is possible. Amnesty International, Dokters van de Wereld and Stichting LOS invite politicians, implementers and supervisors to have a serious go at it. Paying heed to the following recommendation could mean a significant step in the right direction:

To the government:

  • Remove from the law the power to impose solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in alien detention centers.
  • Take concrete steps, described in an action plan, to reduce and eventually ban the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure; in so doing apply the frameworks established by the mental health care system.

Contribution by the Dutch chapter of Amnesty International

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