Issue #012 Published: 20-04-2017 // Written by: Nicholas Burman

Refugee Integration in Amsterdam

Why Integrate?
In 2015 there were 45,000 refugees admitted into the Netherlands. According to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) this was twice the previous year’s figure. This increase signals the necessity for ongoing, long-term projects that aim towards integration between new arrivals and longer-term local inhabitants. A 2013 report on integration by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stressed the importance of good integration, initiated both by locals and new arrivals, in order “to avoid long-term dependency, marginalization and isolation.” And while many refugees would like to return to their homeland as soon as possible, many will end up staying within the country they claim asylum in. Keeping this in mind it’s important to not treat refugees as part-time citizens. Through the development of affordable housing, supplying communication and cultural tools, access to work programmes, and the emergence of platforms that give minority voices a platform, cities such as Amsterdam not only extend a welcoming hand but will receive multiple ones in return. 

The development of housing is something the Netherlands sets a good example for. There is currently a push towards creating mixed refugee-status holder and student accommodation, largely developed by either converting out-of-use office buildings or utilising land outside of the city centre, in Nieuw-West or Zuidoost for example, for the construction of container villages. Once an application for long term stay is approved by the government, the VluchtelingenWerk (the body representing the interests of refugees and asylum seekers in the Netherlands) assists refugees with finding and applying for this housing. With people currently finding places to settle, there is a general feeling that this accommodation programme is effective. 

NT2 courses focus on teaching Dutch as a second language, and usually also encompass information on the Netherlands’ culture and traditions, with an eye for participants to take the Staatsexamen. The NT2 course at the VU Amsterdam was founded over fifty years ago specifically for students, both refugee and those with student visas, and in the 90s it branched out to encompass applicants from the rest of the population as well. Ran by the VU’s Humanities department, with full and freelance staff combined the course has over fifty professors on its books and four hundred and fifty students participating per period split across the daytime and weekend/evening groups. The UvA, HvA, and ROCvA offer equivalent tracks, additionally there are also private institutions offering NT2 courses. Refugee status holders who attend these courses as part of mandated integration into the local culture pay for the course via loans, although in the case of the Staatsexamen the tuition fees for those classes are annulled if the exam is passed. There is, of course, some controversy around placing refugees into the same loan-based system as ‘regular’ students, and the financial pressures this system can apply upon the individual. 

A good example of an independent organisation building upon communication tools is Migrationlab. Their ‘Welcome to the Living Room’ initiative, a collaborative project conceptualised between migrants, refugees, and locals through discursive workshops, is one that offers “a safe environment” where people can “build a new language and concepts of how we could look at the world and each other.” Attendees are invited to share stories and discuss a range of topics with each other in safe spaces. Founded in 2014 by Laura M. Pana, Romanian-born and now based in The Hague, Migrationlab operates in five cities, including Amsterdam, and is ran on the co-creation basis with which it was initiated, with the choice of topics covered, locations, etc., decided on by the individual community groups. Their 2016 impact report on highlights and insights obtained during the project in that year stressed the importance of building accessible communal spaces and also noted “that people are willing, eager and have the need to tell their stories and be heard in a safe environment.”

Bringing talent found within the refugee community to the Netherlands’ job market decreases dependency and also acts as another way to lessen the potential for marginalization. Refugee Talent Hub is one programme that utilises and expands on such talents, providing mentoring, job matching and networking opportunities to those enrolled in order for them to find work and put their skills to use. They are part of ‘Amsterdam Works for Everyone’, an initiative orchestrated by the local municipality which also includes involvement from Albert Heijn, Randstad, and C&A, among others. Meanwhile, Hack Your Future is a venture that teaches computer programming in order “to empower people through code and get them to work as a software developers.” Each six month programme is taught by volunteers, and has resulted in some students going on to gain employment within the tech sector.          

Through the development of platforms for marginalised voices, new arrivals not only further integrate into their new home but longer term residents of that new home also find out something about them, encouraging empathy and understanding in the process. Developed under the supervision of the International Foundation Manifesta, Sonono Radio is a station founded by five Amsterdam-based Syrian entrepreneurs that launched at last year’s Amsterdam Art Weekend with a series of interviews with local academics. Following on from this, they recently hosted talks at Art Rotterdam Week 2017. Largely focused on developing shows in Arabic in order for refugees to navigate Dutch culture and society, they are also planning on integrating music and arts into the programming of a 24-hour stream, alongside debates with an academic leaning in English. 
Integration programmes not only help to combat the pressures faced by refugees as outlined by the UNHCR, but also help highlight the active strength, diversity, and community-oriented spirit of the locations in which they operate. The above examples, especially those volunteer-ran, show that there is an appetite in Amsterdam and further afield for ensuring that new arrivals are not sidelined, and that empathy is built between different communities. The refugee crisis continues to unravel seemingly unabated; as the displacement of people becomes a more common theme the implementation of integration programmes in cities such as Amsterdam will continue to play a vital role in ensuring social cohesion.

Links for featured initiatives: 

Photo credit: 
Welcome to the Living Room, The Hague © Migrationlab