2020/002 Limits to Migration Detention



The purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that people with no right to remain in the Netherlands are available for deportation. How this should be done has been a matter of debate for some years; people are kept in detention but are not criminals. In 2015 the Minister of Justice and Security put forward draft legislation proposing a new differentiated regime. Some units would allow greater freedom and others less. In May 2017, the Rotterdam detention centre introduced this new regime in anticipation of the legislation. This prompted the National Ombudsman to investigate the way the new regime works in practice. Does it do justice to the principle that foreign nationals in immigration detention should enjoy the maximum possible freedom? After all, immigration detention is a measure under administrative law and not a punishment for crime. The Ombudsman’s aim is to work with those concerned to examine the system constructively and to suggest improvements where necessary.

To do this, visits were made to the Rotterdam detention centre and interviews conducted with  its services, staff and inmates, as well as with relevant interest groups.


The way immigration detention is currently being operated at the Rotterdam detention centre makes it hard to minimize the restrictions on detainees’ freedom. One reason is the prison-like nature of the accommodation. For instance, inmates occupy shared cells, there is little scope for relaxation, work is not allowed and there are no opportunities for education or training. In addition, the detention centre applies disciplinary measures like solitary confinement.

Given that new legislation is still under discussion, there is at present little probability of structural changes in immigration detention. But the Ombudsman feels it is necessary to address the following matters without delay:

  • The absence of meaningful daytime activities;
  • The lack of privacy;
  • The use of solitary confinement as a punishment.

National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen says, “These changes are urgently required to radically improve conditions of detention for the inmates and to increase safety and security both for them and for the staff. In addition, such changes would help to give immigration detention the non-penal nature it ought to have. Modification of the regime in this direction should be undertaken immediately and it is surely possible to accomplish it within the foreseeable future.”


The National Ombudsman recommends the Minister of Justice and Security to proceed as quickly as possible to make a number of changes at the Rotterdam detention centre. These changes will help to give immigration detention the administrative nature it ought to have:

  • Provide meaningful daytime activities for detainees;
  • Tailor accommodation to the administrative nature of immigration detention and give detainees the option of an individual cell;
  • Exercise the greatest restrain concerning the use of solitary confinement;
  • Stop using solitary confinement as a way of punishing detainees who refuse to share a cell;
  • Ensure standard medical supervision whenever detainees are held in solitary confinement.