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Half of detention places for failed asylum seekers to be scrapped

Asylum seekers will no longer be routinely locked up while they wait to be deported from the Netherlands after the Dutch government pledged to take a more humane stance on immigration.

Asylum seekers without papers will no longer face being automatically placed in detention.Junior justice minister Fred Teeven plans to replace the current detention system with a “light” and “heavy” regime for asylum seekers. The latter is intended for convicted criminals and those who behave aggressively towards the authorities.

The current system of detention has been criticised by human rights organisations and refugee support groups, who say asylum seekers should not be put in prison when they have committed no crime.

Criticism intensified in the wake of the suicide of Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov in January. An inquiry found that the 36-year-old had been wrongly detained at Rotterdam airport after the central computer system listed him as due to be deported, even though an appeal had been lodged in his asylum case.

Last month several detainees in The Hague and at Schiphol airport went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions they were being held in.

Teeven faced calls to step down from his job, which includes responsibility for asylum policy, in the wake of the Dolmatov case. The Liberal (VVD) minister was supported by his coalition partners in the Labour Party (PvdA) on the condition that he sought to create a more humane and flexible asylum system.

At the moment refugees are liable to be taken into custody when they have exhausted the asylum appeals system and are due to be deported. Refugees who enter the country through Schiphol airport are also routinely detained.

The new system would see most asylum seekers accommodated in open detention facilities or allowed to live in the community so long as they reported regularly to the authorities.

Teeven also said the number of beds in refugee detention centres would be more than halved from its current level of 2081 to 933.

“The heavy regime is reserved for those convicted in court and people with behavioural problems. That means people who hit and spit on the guards.

“Other asylum seekers will get a light regime: a duty to report or a place in a restricted facility. Asylum seekers will have plenty of freedom there and be able to go outside.”

Refugee group Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland said the proposed reforms were a “leap forwards”. “These people have done nothing wrong, merely asked for protection,” said a spokesman. “They shouldn’t be put in prison.”

Teeven and justice minister Ivo Opstelten had previously taken an uncompromising line on illegal immigration, which they wanted to make as “unattractive as possible”.

Further questions are now likely to be raised about the coalition government’s plan to make it a criminal offence for people who have been refused asylum or refugee status to stay in the country.

Labour leader Diederik Samsom called a special party conference in April to address criticism from party activists about the “inhumane and unjust” proposal. But the party’s parliamentary group said the plan was part of the coalition deal agreed by both parties when Mark Rutte’s cabinet took office.