The Spatial Dimensions of Crimmigration in the Netherlands

The Spatial Dimensions of Crimmigration in the Netherlands

Ter Apel houses both the Netherlands’ main asylum reception centre and its only prison specifically for foreign national criminals facing expulsion. We highlight how and why this small village constitutes a spatial expression of crimmigration.

The ongoing merger of crime control and immigration control, or ‘crimmigration’, has gained increasing attention in scholarly writing over the past decade – in fact, various aspects of the phenomenon have been discussed previously on the Leiden Law Blog (see amongst others here, here, here, here and here). In this blog, we briefly sketch the spatial dimensions of crimmigration by examining the rural village of Ter Apel in the Netherlands as a case study. As we will show, this village is a physical and symbolic marker of crimmigration in the Netherlands as it fosters the amalgamation of crime control and migration control in two ways. First, both alien criminals and non-member aliens are confined at the same geographical location on the outskirts of Ter Apel, marking the increasing ‘sameness’ of criminals and immigrants. Second, this confinement site is particularly remote, marking the increasing ‘otherness’ of criminals and immigrants vis-à-vis the ‘belonging’ citizenry.

Ter Apel: a physical site of crimmigration

With a total population of nearly 8,900 people, Ter Apel is a rural village in the municipality of Vlagtwedde in the far north-east of the Netherlands, bordering Germany. Both the central asylum reception centre of the Netherlands and the only prison specifically for foreign national criminals facing expulsion are located at the same physical site along the main road a few kilometres outside the actual village. When approaching this rather large site, one first arrives at the asylum reception centre facilities. Every person seeking asylum in the Netherlands has to report and register here in order to submit their request (although the rising number of asylum seekers last year has resulted in an overload and, subsequently, in the opening of a second reception centre at Schiphol national airport). After spending the first days in temporary onsite housing, asylum seekers either move to one of the three process locations elsewhere in the Netherlands or stay in Ter Apel awaiting the response to their application.

Whereas Ter Apel thus marks the symbolic point of entry for asylum seekers in the Netherlands, just behind the asylum reception centre stands the symbolic point of exit for former asylum seekers and other foreign nationals who have been convicted of a criminal offence and no longer have a right to stay in the Netherlands. This is the only prison for foreign nationals in the Netherlands, specifically aimed at the expulsion of criminals after serving their sentence. Indeed, the Repatriation and Departure Service has offices inside the prison to make sure that as many prisoners as possible will actually leave the Netherlands after their prison sentence. There is a certain irony in the way these facilities – although in all forms formally separated – are located at the same remote location with not much else around: Ter Apel is, in essence, both the gateway to and the departure zone of the Netherlands.

Ter Apel: a remote site of crimmigration

Being situated on the outskirts of Ter Apel, the facilities are particularly difficult to reach. Whilst both facilities have a public transport stop located about one kilometre away, the location is so remote that an average trip to the facilities by public transport takes several hours from all major cities in the Netherlands (see table 1). Whilst it is usually faster to travel to either facility by car, travel distance and time remain significant. Moreover, the majority of asylum seekers or visitors wanting to reach Ter Apel do not own a car and therefore have to rely on public transport.


Minimum travel time by public transport on a weekday (one-way)

Price per one-way trip (without discounts)

Amsterdam Central Station



Rotterdam Central Station



The Hague Central Station



Utrecht Central Station



Eindhoven Central Station



Tilburg Central Station



Enschede Central Station (near the German border)



Maastricht Central Station (near the Belgian/German borders)



* Table 1: Minimum travel time and approximate travel costs from selected locations to the asylum reception centre and prison in Ter Apel

Of course, the ‘remoteness’ of Ter Apel is relative when compared to the ‘remoteness’ of detention facilities in other countries. Nevertheless, apart from the Dutch special municipalities of Bonaire, Saint Eustatius and Saba in the Caribbean, one can hardly get further away from the densely-populated areas of the Netherlands without crossing territorial borders.

The remoteness of Ter Apel’s facilities is problematic for three reasons. First, the distance poses a real challenge for both asylum seekers who wish to apply for asylum in the Netherlands and family members or other acquaintances who wish to visit those imprisoned in Ter Apel. Indeed as Table 1 shows, a day trip to the facilities requires not only a significant effort but is also rather expensive for most people. Amongst others, this undermines to a certain extent the effective enjoyment of a right to family life.

Second, the remote location of the facilities makes it harder for researchers, NGOs and others to scrutinise the facilities as they are situated relatively far away from the gaze of the public, academic and political eye. This does not mean that no scrutiny is possible – indeed, on the contrary, one of us is currently engaged in a research project involving qualitative interviews with detainees at the penitentiary facility in Ter Apel. At the same time, such scrutiny is largely conditioned by the authorities which can, at any time, deny access wholly or partially. Whilst this is no different for research in other facilities across the country, it is important to remember that many of those imprisoned in Ter Apel will soon after their detention period ends - either under an SOB-measure or otherwise – be deported from the Netherlands. It is thus very difficult, if not impossible, to interview them after their detention ends, which makes on-site research crucial. This, in combination with the significant effort of travelling back-and-forth to the remote location, can be problematic for many researchers, NGOs and other scrutinisers alike.

Third, the remoteness of asylum processing and immigrant detention fosters the exclusion and separation of (certain) migrants as ‘outsiders’. As Bell (2013, at 51) aptly puts it in the US context,

“The decision to site new prisons outside city centres serves to reinforce this sense of separation. Whilst prisons may once have been built in town centres as symbolic representations of state power (Ignatieff, 1978), their contemporary location outside town centres heightens the notion of the prison as a site of othering, situated outside the boundaries of mainstream society. This may not be an express intention, financial and logistical concerns most probably being paramount […], but the symbolism is undeniable: the four walls of the prison are a site of exclusion par excellence.”

The remote location of the asylum reception centre and prison in Ter Apel may thus foster the process of crimmigration by physically containing the sum of those not (yet) admitted to our society (i.e. asylum seekers) and those excluded from our society (i.e. convicted migrants) at the same distant and geographically delineated site. Whilst this may not be the rationale behind Ter Apel’s facilities – which, indeed, may have more to do with creating jobs in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands – it may nevertheless be a real consequence.

Ter Apel: neither exceptional nor exemplary?

The crimmigration elements of Ter Apel are, by no means, unique. On the one hand, the increasing physical and operational overlap of prisons and immigration detention facilities is also observed in other countries and jurisdictions, with special prisons for foreign nationals existing inter alia in Norway and the United Kingdom and with foreign nationals being detained for administrative purposes in prisons in the United Kingdom for instance. On the other hand, the remoteness of detention is also not unique: across the world, detention facilities have been established in remote (rural) areas, with the United States being a clear example.

Nor is Ter Apel exemplary per se. Indeed, the crimmigration elements of remote and geographically contained criminal alien detention may be felt harsher in contexts where, for example, the physical distance is much greater.

But this is not to say that this case study is, or should be, of little interest: in fact, it neatly shows that crimmigration is not – or at least, no longer – the mere merger of laws, policies and mechanisms. Indeed, its exclusionary rationale is also expressed in a geographical sense, with those populations that do not (or not yet, or no longer) belong to ‘us insiders’ being warehoused at contained locations far away from relatives, public scrutiny and everyday life. The fact that Ter Apel is not a one-off physical expression of crimmigration, nor a particularly exemplary one, further highlights the importance of examining these situations, in particular because they have a lasting impact on contemporary ideas about, and practices on, citizenship and belonging. We should thus keep wondering why it is that asylum processing and alien detention is dealt with at the same remote geographical location, the impact of such practices on the rights and entitlements of those detained, and what it ultimately implies for the question of who belongs to our community and who does not.


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