Eleven illegal immigrants were killed by a fire while awaiting deportation at a prison complex outside Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Thursday, raising questions about whether the Dutch government neglected safety standards in a rush to crack down on immigration.
The prison was built during a rapid expansion of detention facilities in 2002, and was being used to detain drug smugglers and illegal immigrants caught at entry, as well as asylum seekers who have exhausted all appeals to stay.
Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, who bears ultimate responsibility for the prison, ordered an independent investigation by the country's Safety Investigation Council.
The Justice Ministry would examine "whether steps should be taken at other facilities, so that people there don't have to sit there wondering, 'could this happen to us too?"' Donner said.
Donner was to face questions from Dutch parliament in an emergency debate called for Thursday night.
Haarlem police, which has jurisdiction over the area, were investigating the cause of the blaze, which broke out in a prisoner's cell shortly after midnight and quickly spread. It took three hours to extinguish.
Fifteen people were injured, including firefighters and airport police. Four people remained hospitalized for treatment, including one badly injured prisoner. Hundreds of other prisoners were taken in buses to other facilities in nearby cities.
Authorities did not release personal details of those killed in the fire.
Hundreds of cocaine smugglers, mostly from the Caribbean and Curacao, are detained at the airport every year, as are immigrants caught trying to enter the country illegally.
About 350 prisoners were being held in the complex when the fire broke out, and 43 were in the wing that caught fire.
The prison was made of prefabricated containers, and had had two previous fires, said Jolan van der Broek, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Council for Refugees.
She said a safety review found the prison needed fireproof doors and a system for unlocking cells simultaneously in case of an emergency _ but those steps were never taken.
"They knew it was dangerous, but nobody did anything," she said. "We're very concerned about what happened, and worried that it will happen again."
Haarlem fire department official could not be reached for comment on the earlier fires in November 2002 and November 2003, in which no one was injured. But Donner said the prison had recently passed a fire check.
A prisoner told the Dutch television station NOS that guards initially did not take prisoners' warnings of a fire seriously.
"First they said there was no problem, and they just kept us locked up," said the detainee, who was not identified. "Our throats started hurting. We kicked, we screamed, we rang the (alarm) bell of course. And then panic broke out."
But Donner said guards "did what they could do during and after the fire in combating the fire in the cell complex."
The large prison block is located on the east side of Europe's fourth largest airport and is surrounded by a 3-meter-high (10-foot-high) fence and barbed wire.
Eleven detainees escaped during the blaze, and six were later re-arrested. Police were hunting for the five others with helicopters, airport police said.
The Netherlands's center-right government was elected on a crime-busting, anti-immigration platform and is in the process of deporting some 26,000 failed asylum seekers.
Human rights groups have criticized the policy, saying some people have been deported to countries where they could face persecution or abuse.
Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis said Thursday's blaze and recent accidents in which immigrants died in France and Spanish enclaves in Morocco "should serve as a warning of the hazardous situation affecting migrants."
"We must never forget that the bottom line of our migration policies and procedures must be respect for human rights," he said, AP reported. V.A.