Eleven detained refugees were killed in a fire at the Schiphol airport prison last week. The deaths were a direct result of racist anti-immigrant policies and negligence of safety regulations. The Dutch government is to blame.
The political context of the disaster is the ever tightening regime with which asylum seekers in the Netherlands are confronted. Successive attempts by right wing politicians to outbid each other on the issue of closing down the borders for refugees, have led to a dramatic worsening of conditions under which refugees are being held. Those killed in the fire last week were refugees who were refused a residence permit and were due to be deported. They were treated as criminals, and many of them spent months in prison.
Racism combined with the failure of neo-liberal prison policies to produce a disaster on this scale. The prison at Schiphol was built at breakneck speed by a private contractor that had never before built a prison. The first fire erupted even before the building was opened, and a number of fires followed. The Dutch Institute for Firefighting and Prevention of Calamities warned in 2002 that the prison was unsafe, but their recommendations were ignored.
Furthermore, the civil servie workers' union Abvakabo complained that the prison was working with undertrained staff and temporary workers. When those workers complained to management about the unsafe conditions in the prison, they were again ignored.
On Thursday and Sunday night, family members and anti-racist campaigners demonstrated outside the prison. Their anger was directed squarely at the government. Just after the disaster, the minister of immigration went on television to claim that the fire had been dealt with adequately. This shows the contempt she has for the victims and their relatives. On the other hand, this could hardly come as a surprise. This government never showed anything but contempt for those who had to flee poverty and repression.