Sustainable and individualised support from the start
Rather than being on the lookout for “new” innovative approaches, as stipulated by funding organisations, Amsterdam’s municipal actors focus on fine-tuning tried and tested methods.
Municipal actors in Amsterdam are proud that most staff working on refugee policies have first-hand experience with refugees, from e.g. screening interviews.
Amsterdam’s influence goes beyond the city level, thanks to its combination of public statements supporting migrant rights, and quiet diplomacy with the national government.
What is unique about the city?
Sustainable and individualised support: Amsterdam has longstanding experience of welcoming migrants and refugees. Since 2016, the municipality’s inclusion measures for refugees – most notably the “Amsterdam Approach” – have attracted the attention of policymakers and experts across the Netherlands and beyond. What sets Amsterdam apart from other progressive Dutch municipalities, is its focus on the intensive, sustainable and customised support of recognised refugees, starting from the first moment of their arrival in the city.
“Amsterdam wouldn’t be the city it is today without the contribution of migrants throughout its history. A proactive role in the welcoming and reception of refugees is an integral part of the identity of the city and its citizens.”Deputy-mayor Rutger Groot Wassink
What is the focus of local migration policies?
Inclusion for documented and undocumented migrants alike: The "Amsterdam Approach" focuses on inclusion measures and tailored support for recognised refugees. The other pillar of Amsterdam’s migration policy is its "Non-Documented Migrant Programme". The city is particularly active on refugee and undocumented migrant social rights, access to social infrastructure and on enabling refugee involvement in policy implementation.
What are the key factors?
Proactive city officials: Pragmatic, legal and humanitarian considerations underpin Amsterdam’s approach. Amsterdam’s proactive administration and political officials cooperate with the city’s civil society groups. These groups also put pressure on the municipality and propose new and sustainable solutions for a more inclusive city for all Amsterdammers.
What are the greatest achievements so far?
Increased labour market participation and a programme for undocumented migrants: Labour market participation among Amsterdam’s refugees increased from 31% in 2017 to 37% in 2020 – about 10% above the national average. Moreover, as of 2020, the labour market participation of refugee women in Amsterdam (19%) is higher than in any other major Dutch city (5-11%). In 2018, the newly appointed municipal executive board announced plans to secure the city’s exemplary projects for arrivals granted refugee status through structural funding. They also announced an ambitious “Undocumented Migrant Programme”, which involves undocumented migrants as well as 25 civil society organisations. The story of Amsterdam’s “Undocumented Migrant Programme” is evidence of the municipality’s new political commitment to strengthening cooperation with civil society groups to, for example, jointly coordinate shelters.
Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level
In the Netherlands, Amsterdam is at the forefront of municipal advocacy. For instance, it has focused on housing those granted official refugee status and relocating refugees from Europe’s border camps. Beyond Dutch borders, Amsterdam collaborates with Athens, Barcelona and Berlin through city partnerships. The city’s journey to becoming a city of solidarity cannot be pinned down to just one historical milestone. Rather it is the result of a general commitment articulated by its (deputy) mayors and consolidated through international partnerships, network, and (quiet) diplomacy within the Netherlands and beyond.
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The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches.
Political context of Netherlands
Migration policy in the Netherlands
Dutch asylum and integration policies on refugees are part of a complex multi-level governance setup on migration. Immigration policies on asylum seekers and refugees are centralised. Integration policies were first decentralised (Integration Act 2007), then centralised (Integration Act 2013), only to be decentralised again starting in 2022.
The restrictive turn in Dutch asylum and migration governance
In 2019, asylum seekers represented almost 6% of total immigration towards the Netherlands. Despite this relatively small number, the plight and rights of refugees and irregular migrants have been increasingly contested by both the national and local authorities in the Netherlands, establishing a “fault line” between political parties nationally. Immigration, asylum and integration are at the heart of a shift from multiculturalist policies to a more restrictive national immigration and integration policy, as a result of the rise of far-right populism. This shift is accompanied by an increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric from far and centre-right politicians.
Beyond Dutch borders, this rhetoric is often associated with the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. However, the centrist People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has also increasingly adopted anti-immigration rhetoric. The party’s election campaigns refer, for instance, to its ambitions to suspend the right to asylum and to reject obligations foreseen by the “outdated” Refugee Convention. Opposition parties, refugees and human rights organisations stress that this shift to the right predates the turn of the century and is not just a recent development. Apart from stricter legislation, changes include the limitation of free legal assistance to asylum seekers, the linking of social benefit claims and services to a valid residency status, and the increasing use of immigration detention.
Asylum policies in the Netherlands: multi-level governance in trouble
Although asylum applications have decreased, refugees in Dutch reception centres face protracted periods of uncertainty because of a shortage of reception spots for asylum seekers. This is a governance crisis – of the Netherlands' own making – that has emerged due to staff shortages in the immigration services as well as an increasingly overstretched housing market. These long waiting periods hamper refugees’ integration, forcing them to stay longer under restrictive regimes in large-scale reception facilities.
“Civic integration” and inclusionary measures for recognised refugees
The Netherlands was one of the first countries to introduce civic integration policies in 1996. They have been fiercely debated since then. These policies have been overhauled several times, leading to new or amended Integration Acts in 2007, 2013 and 2020. Scholars describe Dutch civic integration policies as particularly restrictive because refugees are themselves responsible for their “civic integration” (language and orientation courses), which are compulsory and must be completed within three years.
Municipal involvement in integration – an uphill battle?
The Integration Bill of 2013, which centralised civic integration, left municipalities with limited options to support recognised refugees early on. Refugees are eligible for an interest-bearing loan from the state to cover the expenses of civic integration courses, which is remitted if they obtain their civic integration diploma in time. They must find language instructors on the market of certified providers, and many of them have been victims of fraudulent schools. The transition between life in reception centres, where access to work is restricted, and everything is decided for you, to a life, after status recognition, where you are on your own and left to the mercy of the market, is extreme. Municipal actors have voiced their concerns about the shortcomings and contradictions of Dutch civic integration policies and the lack of a municipal mandate. After years of municipal lobbying and various critical reports by experts, the Dutch government has announced it will review national asylum policy. Through a consultative process, the Ministry has developed and drafted a new Dutch Integration Act that will decentralise civic integration and hand over the reins to municipalities. The implementation of the new Integration Act has been postponed several times, but it is now scheduled for 1st January 2022.
Support for irregular migrants – Bed, Bath, Bread and beyond?
Research in the Netherlands shows that some local authorities “soften” the blow of or defy national policies that affect irregular migrantsvand failed asylum seekers. In 2018, after years of standoffs between Dutch cities and the central government, the Ministry of Justice and Security reached an agreement with the Dutch Association of Municipalities on the development of national immigration facilities (LVVs). The Ministry, the authorities responsible for immigration and repatriations, the VNG and the municipalities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven and Groningen are working together on developing LVVs. The agreement signalled a turning point in relations between cities and the central government on the topic of support for irregular migrants. That said, reports show that pilot municipalities and the central government continue to differ in their outlook and expectations regarding the results of the pilot scheme. New tensions and conflicts are thus likely to occur in the future.
The “Amsterdam Approach” – inclusion measures for newcomers with refugee status
Welcoming and social inclusion
The City of Amsterdam Administration’s Culture of Welcome – refugee perspectives on policy implementation and design
Amsterdam’s support for non-documented migrants – a fresh start in adversity
For undocumented migrants
“Free in, free out policy” – Safe reporting and other protection measures against the detention of non-documented migrants in Amsterdam
For undocumented migrants