Belgium reopens notorious Dutch ‘prison ship’ as places for asylum seekers start to run out

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Facing a shortage of accommodation for immigrants seeking asylum there, Belgium is recommissioning The Reno, the notorious Dutch ‘prison ship’ that had previously been leased as a stopgap measure during the 2015 migrant crisis.

The boat, or rather the ‘pontoon housing unit,’ was one of several ‘prison ships’ used by the Netherlands to address a rapid rise in demand for jail space in the 2000s, partially caused by an increasing number of undocumented immigrants arriving in Belgium. A 2006 exposé by an undercover journalist, which made public the vessel’s inhumane living conditions and the widespread abuse of inmates on it, sparked a scandal and forced the closure of the facility.

‘The Reno’ was leased by Belgium in 2016 to house 250 asylum seekers as Europe was dealing with the aftermath of the immigration crisis a year earlier. The boat was placed in the port city of Ghent and operated by the British private prison behemoth G4S until April 2017, when a sharp decrease in the number of asylum-seekers rendered it surplus to requirements.

But, soon, the boat will be back in Ghent housing asylum seekers again. According to the Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper, the Belgian immigration agency Fedasil will soon reopen the facility as part of a larger effort to tackle an influx of refugees. This time the government will be directly responsible for its operation.

The city itself has allocated some €727,000 (about $805,000) for ‘The Reno.’ A public hearing to inform local residents about the plan will be held in early November, the report said.

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The number of people applying for asylum in Belgium has been gradually rising in Belgium since 2016, while the number of people agreeing to voluntary repatriation has been decreasing, government data shows.

In September there were 2,607 new requests, compared to 2,185 in August and 2,262 in July. As of last month there were 9,172 pending cases involving 11,710 people – about twice as many as the government considers a normal workload.

Belgium currently has 24,027 accommodation places for asylum-seekers, which are currently 96 percent occupied. Fedasil has recently reopened asylum centers in Lommel and Deurne and is considering asking the national parks service to provide some of their rooms as temporary shelters.

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