Executive summary

This case study takes stock of the systems and policies in place to facilitate migrants and refugees integration in the city of Amsterdam. By situating local authorities in the existing multi-level governance framework this report sheds light on the resources and services made available to newcomers and longstanding migrants living in the city, emphasising which practices could inspire other cities elsewhere and which gaps still remain to be addressed. In particular, this report analyses Amsterdam response to the peak in refugees and asylum seekers arrivals since 2015 as an example for other cities due to its holistic approach and its time sensitiveness: starting providing very early measures after newcomers’ arrival and sustaining them for the first three years.

A little more than half (51.66%) of Amsterdam’s total population of 834 713 people, have a migration background, meaning are migrants themselves or native born with at least one migrant parent. Amsterdam affirms its cultural and ethnical diversity and pursues active policies to increase it by attracting international students and high-skilled migrants. The public opinion in Amsterdam has a positive perception of the measures undertaken since 2015 to welcome and integrate newcomers, as it emerges from the quarterly opinion polls that the municipality conducts since 2015. In the context of such high percentage of migrant population, the city doesn’t implement group-targeted policies but aims at enabling all inhabitants to participate in the society and to have equal opportunities. In the absence of targeted measures, the city monitors the participation, opportunities and living conditions of different groups of citizens comparing their results by age, gender, level of education, immigrant background and residential neighborhood.1

As a thriving city, population is anticipated to increase by 23% up to just over a million in 2040, mostly due to internal and international migration, not last due to the recent influx of refugees.

Although Amsterdam is characterized by a high quality of life, and almost 90% of the population is satisfied with the city, delays and discrimination still penalises some migrants, in some cases also longstanding ones, questioning city’s social cohesion. In view of future demographic growth these issues have to be analysed and addressed to avoid exacerbation. Unemployment and over-qualification gaps between “non-western migrants” (persons originating from a country in Africa, South America, Asia or Turkey) and their native-born and “western” counterparts are quite significant: the unemployment rate for the non-western migrant population (10.2%) is more than twice as high as that of the native-born population (4.7%). In terms of educational attainment, in 2016 50% of native-born and western migrants were highly educated, while only 26% of first generation non-western migrants and only 29% of the native born with at least one migrant parent reached higher education. In addition only about half of the population (49%) agrees that foreigners who live in their city are well integrated.

Historically, the integration model switched from group-specific policies (applied until 1990s) to universal measures, approximately in line with the national agenda for integration, focusing on problems that individuals face, rather than on their origin. However some measures remained specific to migrant groups such as the national policy on civic integration test (introduced in 2002) and language courses offer related to it as well as local initiatives to increase migrants participation and inter-ethnic contact among different groups. In 2016, the ‘Amsterdam Approach’ marks the city’s further switch to a comprehensive group-specific policy package, to facilitate refugee integration, trying to avoid sequential provision of services and accelerating integration into the labour market.

Even though refugee arrivals over the last two years represent only 0.8% of the total migrant population, they acted as a catalyst: on the one hand revealing structural problems that persist in the city and are related to migration (i.e. availability of social housing, avoiding further social spatial segregation, school segregation, etc.). On the other these events pushed the city to experiment alternatives paths to avoid sometimes disappointing results of past integration trajectories, formulating a more connected, immediate and holistic approach. The Amsterdam approach, applied immediately after recognition combines language learning, health needs and path towards employment. The individual is valued for its competence and aspirations

The challenge ahead is to measure the effectiveness of this approach and, if proven successful, potentially extend it to different vulnerable groups. The holistic nature and systematic evaluation of the approach are unique characteristics that deserve being replicated elsewhere. This approach was made possible by the financial resources available (additional 2 million per year were allocated from the national level to refugee integration) and by the expertise that municipal staff had gain over years in questions related to migration and the strong relations with a network of non-state actors who could directly contribute to the response. This evolution makes Amsterdam an example of a local authority that is able to adapt and learn from the past 40 years of experience in integrating migrants.

Summary of key findings

  1. Vertical co-ordination: Integration policies take place in a decentralised context, where local authorities often initiated integration policies as they had large competences in key sectors such as education and social policies. Even in those areas where the city is not directly in charge (i.e. language courses provision, etc.) it operates complementing national policies when needed. This is possible thanks to a general decentralisation tendency (i.e. Participatiewet 2015 and the housing legislation in 2014) and to the financial and implementation capacity of the city. There are risks and opportunities associated with the reallocation of competences. On the one hand, increased responsibilities imply challenges in terms of budget and information sharing across levels of government (i.e. data on registered asylum seekers/refugees). On the other it enables the city to directly design integration policies in closer consultation with the targeted groups (migrants and refugees) as well as to better evaluate the policies that have been locally formulated and implemented, thus integrating the results in the next decision-making cycle.

    The specificity of this model is not related to a specific degree of decentralisation but rather to its maturity and relationships among levels of government based on dialogue. The country has a strong tradition in national-local coordination, leaving the space to cities for engaging and putting forward local concerns. In this sense national and local policies on integration matters influence one-another without being necessarily aligned. The Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) plays a unique role in channelling local level interest to the national level and brokers agreements on behalf of local governments on a variety of topics. Different levels of government as well as social partner dialogue through mechanisms such as the Refugee Work and Integration Task Force (RWITF).

    With respect to the specific responses designed to asylum seekers and refugees arrivals since 2015, the central government on the one hand centralised the decision about dispersal policy on the other delegated some competences to the local level, such as housing responsibility through the “Asylum Influx Agreement” (2015). Most of the time the distribution of asylum seekers and refugees occurred in consultation with municipalities and the refugee centre in Amsterdam is a good example of how a municipality and the COA collectively co-ordinated and managed an effective and innovative shelter solution.

  2. Cross-sectoral integration policy and co-ordination at city level: Informal and flexible mechanisms also characterise coordination around integration-relevant policies at the city level. Voluntary cooperation across departments largely depends on individuals and the political will shared by high-level decision makers. The city of Amsterdam has no overall integration strategy and there is no department specifically competent for migrant groups. In each policy sector, integration aspects have to be taken into account by the competent departmental service. With respect to the ‘Amsterdam Approach’ for refugee integration, horizontal cooperation across municipal departments is more regular and takes the form of a ‘chain approach’ involving all relevant staff in the implementation of the activities (i.e. Housing, Income, Work, Participation and Economics services etc.). From this informal approach the municipality is currently setting up a new Refugee department within the Work, participation and income department.

    The informal approach to coordination with regard integration, except for refugee integration, has to be effectively monitored to ensure that all services directly operating with migrants simultaneously address different dimensions and obstacles to the process of settling in. The city could design a “road-map” approach that follows migrants from arrivals through the different turning points (i.e. integrating or re-integrating the job market, regularisation, housing, family reunification) they will face in their lives, identifying which entry points into the universal services could support migrants during these passages avoiding loopholes when moving from one legal status to another. In this sense the city could benefit from the examples of the Start Wien office or the Berlin Pass as cross-sectoral solutions that offer the most vulnerable categories integrated solutions to access services along their lives. With respect to departments’ coordination around integration issues, the Integration and Diversity unit of the city of Vienna establishes contracts with all relevant departments to measure their achievements in terms of ensuring that migrants have equitable access to their services.

  3. Proximity among city inhabitants of different origins: The city of Amsterdam adopted a definition of integration as a two-way process between host and newcomers. The key word is “connecting”, Verbinding, emphasising how the municipality values activities and spaces for encouraging interaction among different groups: native-born, long-standing migrant groups and newcomers. Best practices can be found in the (legal) space that the city provides for bottom-up initiatives, including the crowd-funded neighbourhood shelter Boost (see “Create spaces where the interaction brings migrant and native-born communities closer (Objectives 5)” in Chapter 4) that was set up by local volunteers for a small group of refugees and supported with a free venue donated by the municipality. The refugee centre established in the former prison is another example of connecting people. It provides space for over 70 local businesses and is an example of refugees interacting with the local business community and a way of working with the host community, since their arrival. In this respect, the city appears to recognise the added value of NGOs, associations and local initiatives in providing services for receiving and integrating migrants and refugees and is ready to exchange with national authorities to create the legal conditions for their action. Through these actors the city is best placed to create responses that fit the needs of newcomers and long-standing migrants alike, including those that are outside of its responsibility, such as language training. Similar approaches to host initiatives could be adopted by other Dutch municipalities and the national level could establish a way to incentivise cities to experiment with similar models. However, besides financial mechanisms, it is difficult to identify a stable entry point for NGOs and civil society to influence and be regularly involved in the city’s migrant integration policy making and implementation. Contacts with foundations and key private sector players are punctual beyond the agreement with the 70 professional partners involved in the Refugee Talent Hub. As suggested by the Local Welcoming Policies for EU Mobile Citizens programme, the municipality should take the responsibility to create a platform that makes organisations and their activities visible, with the aim to stimulate co-operation and sharing of resources/experiences. In this sense the initiative of Paris to offer civil society organisation the opportunity to contribute to the formulation of the refugee integration strategy is remarkable.

  4. Time and the need to accompany migrants throughout their lifetime: Learning from past experience, authorities are strongly focused on integrating newcomers right from the start. The city has implemented the Amsterdam Approach for refugees and asylum seekers, aiming at accelerating refugees’ integration by focusing on the individual, through complementary measures towards employment, education and civic integration. Time is also crucial for migrants who are not refugees, as determined in the national policy obliging newcomers to take a civic integration exam within three years from obtaining their resident permit. Beyond the early days, the city must make services available and adaptable to the evolution of migrant situation over time. For instance, a specific need that will accompany a migrant during his/her entire life is access to health. The city should facilitate medical care for those who, after an initial phase, cannot obtain healthcare through regular and accessible routes due to persisting cultural and language barriers. For this reason the municipality can implement a set of measures that multiplies entry points over time for migrants to access services and connect with the local community, such as: accessible physical information points available in multiple languages, a user-friendly website, benefit from the experience of existing local communities, NGOs (i.e. GGZ Keizersgracht), small foundations in providing information and continuous support to migrants throughout their life, creating informal and formal information spaces where contacts can be fostered. Meevaart, the communal centre subsidised by the municipality that is managed by residents of the neighbourhood – both national and migrants, including refugees – is a best practice. Such spaces that become an important part of the life of the community living in the area could be reproduced in other neighbourhoods or cities to improve cohesion and social linkages.

  5. Capacity of the local authority to implement integration policies: There is no strong evidence that a policy strengthening skills and awareness is applied across the public function to ensure that migrants can easily access public services and can communicate in a language they understand. For instance, training for healthcare practitioners or teachers to recognise when something is wrong with new groups (human trafficking, abuse, etc.) could be strengthened. The city should systematically provide all civil servants with the correct information concerning regulations and laws (when are people eligible for healthcare/welfare benefits? When can they help a person who is not registered?). In the experience of the city of Vienna, which offers training since many years to municipal officers around integration issues, these efforts proved effective not only in increasing the capacities but also in helping the different departments why their contribution was important.

  6. Evaluation: the Information, Research and Statistics Department of the municipality produces a number of reports (i.e. regular perception surveys, Jaarrapport integratie-Annual report on integration, evaluation of the Amsterdam Approach and the diversity monitoring) monitoring the results of different groups in Amsterdam. These monitoring contribute to ensuring that all citizens of Amsterdam are able to fully participate in society and could inform practices for data collection in other cities. However, strong mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that this information contributes to evidence-based policy making. Although most of the research is commissioned to the OIS by a policy department, it seems that mechanisms to ensure that policy makers use the results of the research to inform policies could be strengthened. In addition in such a complex political sector many dimensions should be considered when assessing the impact of a integration policy (i.e. assessing the impact of suppressing allocation to national migrant associations in terms of introduction of newcomers to their new destination culture, avoiding isolation and exclusion experiences; etc.). To better assess the measures undertaken the perception of all communities need to be taken into account, as well as indicators of migrants’ contribution to social, cultural and economic city’s development beyond traditional outcomes indicators (educational attainment, inclusion in the labour market, etc.). The Score card and current surveys are good examples that need to be sustained and could be completed by participatory assessments. The specific data collection and cost-effectiveness (MKBA) evaluation of the Amsterdam Approach Status holders is a very innovative monitoring system to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of this policy and the results will be essential for shaping future integration policies.

  7. Integration in the labour market: Amsterdam has a strong vocation for attracting skilled migrants and has set up centres – such as the IN Amsterdam-International Newcomers Amsterdam – to facilitate their arrival and settling in the city. A formal agreement with companies exists within the Refugee Talent Hub and the municipality also sets an example by hiring refugees. However, access to the job market seems to be often penalised by the absence of social capital and discrimination as demonstrated by persistent gaps across generations of migrants although educational qualifications for children with migrant parents from non-western backgrounds tend to increase. The city might consider increasing sensitization mechanisms to change employers mentalities and make it attractive for business to hire migrant and refugees, as the city of Berlin has done through public communication campaigns. The city could communicate to migrants and refugees more targeted information on their labour rights and mechanisms to detect abuse. In addition it could be considered if some of the measures currently experimented for refugees (i.e. early capacity screening, matching mechanisms, coaching initiatives, etc.) could be valuable for migrants in general. For example, it is not clear what follow up has been given to the Letter and Action Plan signed in 2015 between the municipality and relevant labour market players (confederation of industries, employment agency, etc.) advocating for strong collaboration and matching mechanisms to strengthen the employability of refugees. A more permanent task force or roundtable including municipality, entrepreneurs, employment agency and migrant associations could give continuity to these engagements, filling gaps in understanding what role the private sector could have in fostering migrant and refugee integration and what contribution these groups could make to their businesses.

  8. Long and short term measures to increase housing availability and reduce city segregation

    Increasing housing prices as well as a growing population are likely to aggravate currently moderate spatial segregation and make it difficult for many residents to afford living in the city centre. Ethnic concentration in deprived neighbourhoods might become more accentuated outside of the administrative perimeter of the city and the relation between migrant localisation and well-being inside the entire metropolitan area should be better understood. Currently, registration time for social housing stands at 8.7 years (2015). To meet housing needs of refugees the municipality is providing them priority access to social housing through an exemplary mechanism of collaboration has been put in place between the housing associations, the municipality and the province. To avoid further spatial segregation, housing corporations allocate refugees, entitled to a unit, in all parts of the city. More on the long term, city efforts to increase affordable housing for all groups, include introducing income based social housing rent increases to incentivise higher middle income individual to free-up space for lower income residents. Further to avoid segregation, creative urban policies aim making housing available in the short term by transforming underused or unused spaces into mixed and heterogeneous neighbourhoods, while 30% of all new housing stock is designated to vulnerable groups (including refugees). Interesting peer learning could be done with the city of Gothenburg, which is implementing a housing development plan with similar ambitions.

  9. Equalising access to quality education across the schools

    In some of Amsterdam’s schools the student population does not represent the diversity of the neighbourhood and in schools with higher concentration of migrant pupils, students tend to have lower performance, with potential consequences on their access to the job market. Since the 1990s the city aims at balancing migrant pupils’ distribution across schools. It does so by trying to influence the parental choice and concentrating investments in schools with weak performance indicators. Currently, schools in Amsterdam receive funding for every refugee student enrolled. Students have been distributed across 114 schools to avoid a concentration of newcomers in specific neighbourhoods and increase the budget of as many schools as possible. It would be interesting to closely monitor the results of this dispersion in terms of educational attainment, after-school social inclusion and professional inclusion.