How Rotterdam Housed 1,300 Refugees on a Cruise Ship

Refugees in a cabin aboard the Holland America Line cruise ship docked at Merwehaven, Rotterdam.
Photo: Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock

During New York’s summer scramble to find beds for a surge of migrants, Mayor Eric Adams initially offered to house people on cruise ships – an idea local immigration advocates have called insulting. The city ended up creating three “disaster relief” centers, building a tent city on Randall’s Island and repurposing two downtown hotels. But the number of migrants has “dropped significantly” in recent weeks after Adams lobbied Biden for tougher border policies, said Fabien Levy, the mayor’s press secretary. New York therefore decided to shut down the tent city last week and shelved the idea of ​​a cruise ship for the time being.

But that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. On the contrary, temporary accommodation on cruise ships has become a real trend, especially in Europe. The Dutch city of Rotterdam was the first to welcome Ukrainian refugees on a cruise ship this year during a six-month charter that ended in mid-September. Edinburgh began welcoming Ukrainian refugees on a cruise ship in July and Glasgow announced a similar plan in September. Last month, the city of Amsterdam chartered a cruise ship to house at least 1,000 migrants. British officials are also weigh the possibility of using cruise ships to accommodate an influx of asylum seekers.

The idea of ​​a wealthy city putting displaced people on boats seems off-putting – like a tacit admission that it doesn’t want to make room for them on earth. But the officials who handled the Rotterdam charter, and even the refugee rights advocates who witnessed it, told me the cruise ship was a surprisingly effective short-term solution — with some caveats.

Normally, asylum seekers arriving in the Netherlands are sent to countries notoriously dangerous and overcrowded migrant processing center located in the northern rural village of Ter Apel. Syrian, Afghan, Somali and Nigerian refugees languish there waiting for their cases to be processed. During the summer, the center ran out of beds, forcing many people to sleep on the ground outside. But despite the rise in refugee numbers, the country’s xenophobic right has fought back against efforts to expand housing for migrants – including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has demanded that the country’s migrants “act normal or leave”.

Holland America’s Nine Bridge Volendam cruise ship.
Photo: Holland America Line

So when the port city of Rotterdam received word at the end of March that thousands of Ukrainian refugees were imminently arriving, authorities had to find plenty of new beds, and fast. The assistants to the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim immigrant and social democrat, saw an opportunity in the Volendam, Holland America’s nine-deck cruise ship, 781 feet in length, was conveniently empty and flown to Rotterdam with room for 1,500 passengers (not including crew). The Seattle-based cruise line quickly agreed to a six-month charter, and days later the buses arrived: mostly women and children with suitcases in tow.

Elma Jonas, Aboutaleb’s chief of staff, was put in charge of the frenetic operation. “In one minute, I went from the director of the town hall to the director of the Volendam,” she said. Jonas decided to bring 1,300 refugees on the ship, fearing overcrowding if they filled it to capacity. This decision allowed them to assign each family their own room and avoid having to place anyone with foreigners Rutte’s government – which said it would be “generous” to Ukrainians – accelerated funding (€100 per refugee per night) which covered accommodation, food and a personal allowance of €55 per month Holland America kept the Volendam fully equipped with almost all of its running amenities. Only its casino, swimming pool and an upscale steak restaurant were closed. Other Rotterdam public employees participated. A team of nurses was on board 24 hours a day, and there were even librarians to read to the children when they weren’t using the game rooms, basketball courts or tennis courts.

The Dutch Salvation Army provided 50 social workers to act as the first point of contact for Ukrainians with any problems on board. Gert-Jan Freeke, Salvation Army staff member responsible for Volendam project, assigned each social worker to a small group of refugees, helping them with things like setting up bank accounts and making doctor’s appointments. To bridge the language gap, they sometimes used Google Translate.

The ocean view cabin of the Volendam cruise ship.
Photo: Holland America Line

The ship looked like a village, Jonas said, “It all happened.” The women learned that their homes had been destroyed or that their husbands had been killed. Someone was diagnosed with breast cancer and a couple got divorced. There were also joyful moments, such as the birth of two children aboard the ship. One evening, the refugees put on a show in the ship’s 650-seat theater with children singing Ukrainian songs.

But above all there was one factor that made life on board bearable: refugees could legally stay and work in the Netherlands for up to three years under rules enacted in the EU this spring that only applied to Ukrainian refugees. Employment agencies have helped many of the ship’s residents find jobs in local factories, restaurants and bars. Others found work as street vendors. The Volendam was moored near the city center and the refugees bought bicycles to get into town. Their children were enrolled in Dutch schools. Originally, the city organized Ukrainian lessons for them (“We thought, Maybe the war will end soon so they can go homesaid Jonas), but as the conflict dragged on, they started teaching the children Dutch.

However, the same privileges were not granted to other groups of refugees who arrived earlier, including those from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria. Some of these refugees are in Rotterdam but live on smaller “river cruise” boats that can accommodate around 150 people each, according to Jonas. The double standard troubles her – these migrants, who have fled war and persecution, “have no right to do anything. It’s really depressing for everyone,” she said. But only the national government (or the EU) has the power to give these refugees work authorisation, and under the current administration that seems unlikely.

For Jonas, the short-term silver lining Volendam is that it has bought time for another promising housing initiative. In March, suspecting the war would outlast the ship’s charter, city officials began looking for unused structures like office buildings, nursing homes and churches to convert into dormitories for refugees – Jonas was “surprised by the number of empty buildings”. She says it was “really easy” to add shared kitchens and bathrooms to the spaces and “within months we had thousands of beds in different buildings”, which the refugees moved into in September. There are about 20 refugees in a kitchen, but they have “no problem” taking turns, she says. The goal is to eventually transition Ukrainian residents to more permanent housing, then reallocate dormitories to students, other asylum seekers or low-income residents.

So should more governments embrace the use of cruise ships as emergency shelters? Valerie Kierkels, spokeswoman for the non-profit Dutch Refugee Council, which has sued the government over its migration policy, said using ships like the Volendam is better to put people in tents. But she cautioned against placing ships in remote areas (“It makes it difficult for refugees to connect with society”) and said the nonprofit’s preference is that governments “ house people earlier in more permanent shelters.”

Josh Goldfein, an attorney at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society of New York, agrees. The only way to solve the problem of overcrowded shelters is to move more shelter residents into permanent affordable housing, he says. Just this week, Mayor Adams announced a series of reforms that expand eligibility for CityFHEPS, the city’s low-income housing vouchers. But he left in place a rule that New Yorkers must stay in a city shelter for 90 days to qualify for the program, which Goldfein and other advocates have long opposed. And the administration excluded undocumented immigrants from the voucher expansion (which typically are not eligible according to the rules in force).

Without more robust housing reform, cruise ships will likely remain an option for cities struggling with sudden waves of migrants. Amsterdam officials recently called Jonas for advice before launching their own cruise ship accommodation initiative for migrants. “I said, ‘This solves your problem quickly, but it’s a short-term solution,'” she says. “I really think it’s not healthy to keep people in the cabin of a boat for a year with everything taken care of for you. It’s a strange way to live.

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