Moving Cities
About the city


Combining local innovativeness with strategic lobbying

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    All of the city’s migration policies seek to facilitate an early and promising start for refugees. They are also tailored to the individual needs and ambitions of refugees.

  • 2

    With its “Plan Einstein” project, Utrecht has developed an entirely new approach to refugee reception, geared towards “context-sensitive asylum centres” that are more inclusive and benefit refugees and neighbouring residents through a shared social ecosystem, communal spaces and activities based on equality and shared interests.

  • 3

    Utrecht successfully combines local innovation on inclusion measures for undocumented migrants with strategic lobbying at the national level, thereby increasing its impact on migration policy beyond the city level.

What is unique about the city Utrecht?

Longstanding partnerships with civil society: Utrecht has been at the forefront of developing inclusion measures for refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants for decades. As the first Dutch city to offer legal support on top of emergency social assistance to undocumented migrants, the municipality has longstanding partnerships with civil society and refugee solidarity organisations. What sets Utrecht apart from other progressive Dutch municipalities is that it has also developed policies for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. City actors have also brought “human rights home”, linking them to local issues.

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Reinventing asylum centres as local community centres: In 2015, the municipality seized a unique opportunity in the Dutch national policy context to develop its own innovative, alternative approach to asylum and refugee reception. For this project, the municipality applied for EU-UIA funding, thereby earning recognition across Europe. An exemplary feature of this “Plan Einstein” project involves the context-sensitive approach to the creation of a new type of urban collective space – mutually beneficial to both refugees and neighbouring residents. This emphasis on a shared environment, for communal living or learning, has been an effective method for building and sustaining local support for asylum centres.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

A very high success rate in resolving the status of undocumented migrants: Scholars and experts have applauded Utrecht’s measures and its success rate of over 90% in resolving the irregular status of approximately 900 people in the last ten years. From 2002-2019, this resulted in legal residence for 59% of cases. This success rate is considerably higher than the national average, and Utrecht’s policy advisors often credit the expertise of local NGOs for this success.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

The strength of Utrecht’s advocacy approach lies in the strategic use of different forms of lobbying and ways of positioning itself vis-à-vis the central government. Underpinning the city’s different migration policies is a carefully developed approach that draws primarily on human rights and pragmatism and only to a lesser extent on humanitarian principles. Utrecht’s policymakers have emphasised that approaches to asylum and refugee integration are developed in line with differing political agendas. Utrecht also participates in various national and international municipal networks working on progressive migration policies.

Member of the following networks

Utrecht Fahrrad
©Utrecht municipality

Download the full city report

The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

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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.