Refugees are doomed to keep on moving (SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)

April 24, 2023   5 mins

As I arrive at the Silja Europa cruise ship, men are queueing outside a coach with suitcases, bin liners, and bags. Some are taking selfies, saying goodbye. I ask where they are going: one man knows the name of the destination, but none of us has any idea where it is.

Around 650 refugees are being taken off the ship; only 220 will remain. It has already outstayed its agreed welcome — until March 1 — in the North Holland village of Velsen-Noord. The local council has agreed that children currently attending a local school and people with an economic “bond” can stay until the end of May, but after that? Nobody knows.

This is the reality of temporarily housing asylum seekers and migrants on disused cruise ships or barges — a policy the UK is also pursuing. The Government plans to house hundreds of asylum seekers in Dorset, on the ship that was criticised for poor conditions when it was used as a detention centre in the Netherlands in 2006.

Cruise ships and other vessels have been employed at scale in the Netherlands since a refugee shelter crisis hit a year ago, as asylum seeker numbers headed to a five-year peak. There were devastating scenes at the Dutch registration centre of Ter Apel, where people were sleeping outside for days. One baby died in a “cold, draughty and dirty sports hall” overspill centre. The Netherlands’s Doctors Without Borders was deployed for the first time within the country itself.

Since then, national and local Dutch politicians have been tied up in a debate about who should house asylum seekers and where. The COA refugee settlement agency reports that the total number of asylum seekers being sheltered has more than doubled since 2017, to almost 52,500 this month. A new wave of refugees is expected this year.

Two cruise ships are currently being used to shelter refugees: the Silja Europa, and the MS Galaxy, housing 1,500 people at an industrial harbour in Amsterdam. In Nijmegen, there are two other ships with 250 Ukrainian refugees; in Arnhem, Ukrainian refugees have been sheltered on two small cruise ships — although they are permitted to work straight away. There are five boats housing refugees and asylum seekers in Rotterdam.

On board the Silja Europa, Abdul Aziz, a 40-year-old lawyer from Syria, is sitting in the middle of a deserted lounge area. He has been here for seven months and hopes to find work, a house, and then to bring over his wife and two sons. “The ship is good,” he says. “It is a good life, but there are problems because of many languages, many countries. I transfer to Nijmegen on April 24 — it’s difficult to leave the ship to a new place with four, maybe five people in the same room.”

With an eye to avoiding an appearance of luxury, the ship’s swimming pool, gym, casino and shops are closed, although one facility provides second-hand clothing and sanitary products three times a week. The disco, looking out onto the North Sea channel, is now a “silent space” for private prayer and weekly female-only fitness classes. There’s a children’s play area run by refugee volunteers and a restaurant offering three meals a day, beginning at 3.15am during Ramadan, when I visited. A medical area has a dedicated doctor and nurse, so as not to detract from local facilities, and there are offices for the IND immigration service and a refugee charity aid VluchtelingenWerk help area.

“We really don’t want to give the impression that we are living a sort of a luxurious life here,” says location manager Hanneke Niele, describing how the 32 nationalities and eight languages rub along. “People get three meals a day and a cabin. And if you compare it with some shelters, then it is luxurious. But we use it as an emergency shelter. Boredom is one of the biggest challenges. No matter how beautiful it is, no matter how much privacy people have, if they are not allowed to work and do not go to school, that is just a disaster.”

In other ways, too, the ship falls short. Taqwa, 24 and from Jordan, is grateful for the help but says it is tough not to be able to cook herself. “I think in the average prison you have more space,” says councillor and head of the liberal democratic D66 party Bas van Ruig about the cabins. “It is ultimately an emergency solution.” The other problem with temporary shelters is that they make an unsettled situation even more febrile, constantly breaking people’s connections and shifting them between schools and potential work.

“Look, we were faced with a difficult choice,” says Rutger Groot Wassink, who is deputy mayor of Amsterdam and in charge of asylum policy. “Do you think people should lie on the grass of Ter Apel or do you give them shelter on a boat? I’d rather they have shelter on a boat. But you can’t do this for long.”

For Wassink, the situation is highly political. “During the war in Syria, we sheltered about 60,000 people. But we have since cut back and also sent a message to the rest of the world: ‘Don’t come to the Netherlands.’ As a result, many reception locations have disappeared.”

Meanwhile, refugee organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) advocate a return to well spread, small and permanent reception locations, which are far cheaper for the public purse. “Even in the mess last year in the Netherlands when people were sleeping outside the now infamous Ter Apel, it didn’t deter people,” says Andrea Vonkeman, office head. “People were still coming. I don’t think a causal relationship has ever been established with a good system as a pull factor and bad conditions as a deterrent.”

As the debacle at Ter Apel brewed last summer, the policy to house refugees on ships was announced and sparked huge opposition — particularly to the initial idea (quickly scrapped) that the vessels might be moored at sea. However, despite these concerns, there have been no notable incidents so far on board. Children go to school, the ships have been opened to journalists and locals, and there are bus services so refugees aren’t stuck at remote locations.

Standing at the harbourside in Velsen-Noord, even local politicians who vociferously opposed the ship thought twice about the hard departure date. “If we knew then that we would have so little nuisance, it would not have been a problem,” said Joost Bleekman, head of Velsen Lokaal. Still, agreements were made, and he doesn’t want the boat to stay.

Where will the refugees go next? While some municipalities have stepped up, perhaps motivated by compensation — Velsen-Noord was given more than €3 million — other regions have done nothing to help. A controversial bill to forcibly “spread” asylum seekers evenly throughout the country has been repeatedly postponed, and the protest party BoerBurgerBeweging — which is critical of the plan — has just won regional elections, potentially throwing a spanner in the works.

Without an adequate, permanent system in place, refugees are doomed to keep on moving. As Niele walks around the Silja Europa in her smart pink jacket, one man after another approaches her politely, anxious about where he is going to be shipped next, asking for her help. One thing’s for sure: this is no pleasure cruise.

Senay Boztas is a journalist living in Amsterdam.