Five lessons from an urban experiment in asylum reception

Published 3 February 2020 / By Sarah Spencer

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A remarkable experiment has been taking place in Utrecht. The goal: to achieve a step-change in the experiences of asylum seekers, and in neighbourhood attitudes towards them. A Dutch city, but an experiment with broader impact – if other cities and national governments take heed.

The final report on Utrecht’s Refugee Launchpad by research team Caroline Oliver, Rianne Dekker and Karin Geuijen, has been published. I chaired the Academic Advisory Board and reflect on what we have learnt.

When cities adopt inclusive measures, they often work closely with civil society, and try new approaches to achieve their goals. Utrecht’s Refugee Launchpad, known colloquially as 'Plan Einstein', is in this tradition. An innovative, ambitious, collaborative, experiment to establish whether a city initiative can bring about a step-change in the well-being of asylum seekers and in the cohesion of their local neighbourhood, through a 'co-living, co-learning' facility that differs markedly from a traditional asylum reception centre.

Ultimate value will be what we have learnt

There have been some remarkable outcomes for the individuals involved: futures restored, attitudes changed, anxieties assuaged. It is not in the lives transformed, however, where the true value of this initiative lies. The ultimate value is surely in what we have learnt: the lessons that can be taken forward; the ideas that will inform and inspire policies and practices not only at a local but national level, in the Netherlands and further afield.

For that we need to know where this experiment worked well and where adjustments were needed – and will be needed if the model is adopted elsewhere and on a larger scale. Of the many lessons, I would highlight five:

Cities can make a difference

First, cities can make a difference. Not only, as we knew, to the lives of regular migrants and their neighbours but to asylum seekers: people who are accommodated by a national asylum agency and who are waiting to hear if they will be entitled to join the community in which they temporarily reside.

For the asylum seekers in Plan Einstein, this initiative accorded recognition that they too are residents of the city for whom the municipality has a responsibility. It recognised people as individuals with professional and personal identities that preceded and go way beyond that of 'refugee'. Plus, it provided a pathway to skills and relationships that could contribute to a better future, whether in the Netherlands or elsewhere.

Plan Einstein has shown that a shared, communal physical space, developed through co-ownership and design, can contribute to meaningful social encounters; that regular opportunities for casual encounters matter as well as structured activities; and that opportunities for reciprocity are essential for people to feel valued (Oliver, Geuijen and Dekker 2020 forthcoming [1]).

It has shown that the breadth of courses and activities and their relevance to the range of individuals involved, is crucial to outcomes; and that mentoring by volunteers and personalised support are among the opportunities most valued by those seeking to rebuild their lives.

So cities are right to experiment; to push the boundaries. Credit is due to the European Union’s Urban Innovative Actions fund for enabling this kind of path-breaking project to take place. We also need to learn, however, from the challenges faced in implementing a project of this kind, to help those that follow.

Clarity on aims and the levers for change

One challenge is the importance of clarity, from the outset, on exactly what it is hoped to achieve, and on the 'theory of change': the interventions that are expected to make it come about.

What are we assuming if we provide classes for learning English, rather than Dutch? What do we think will emerge when we bring neighbours and residents together for social activities; and are we able to create the right conditions for those encounters to achieve it? Is the absence of hostility and public disorder enough, or is the expectation that strong and enduring relationships will develop? Is this goal realistic in the timescale that we have?

And on what basis do we make these assumptions? Is it the common sense and long experience of those planning the work, or can city staff also have access to research that has tested these assumptions before? Do city staff indeed have the luxury of taking time to do that preparation before the work begins?

Clarity matters if time, resources and energy are to be well spent, and to enable the flexibility essential if the external environment changes, the time scale shifts, the goal posts move, and the model has to adapt to fit unanticipated circumstances – and still deliver.

Good Governance

Clarity also matters for good governance. A project delivered by a consortium of organisations has huge advantages – each bringing different expertise, and able to deliver outcomes beyond those of any single organisation. However, coordinating a dynamic team, each contributing a different part of the picture, is complex and a common commitment to the overall goals is not enough. Clarity is needed on the detail of each partner’s responsibilities and mutual expectations, and how any difference will be resolved. This takes time for reflection – not only at the outset but revisited in the course of the project. An eagerness to start, or funder pressure to report deliverables must not prevent sufficient time for this prerequisite of success.

Delivering positive outcomes

Fourth, there is learning on the conditions under which co-living can deliver positive outcomes. The ratio between neighbourhood residents and asylum seekers in the initiative makes a significant difference. Inequality in living conditions impacts on those relationships, and developing enduring friendships takes time.

There are important lessons too on the impact of space. Plan Einstein delivered ‘adjacent living’ not the ‘co-living’ aspired to. It was situated at one end of a building which housed an asylum reception centre, but with constraints on access between the two. That geography of the building had an impact on how relationships evolved (Oliver, Geuijen and Dekker, 2020).

We should not see such findings as negative. We can learn from this, and it is the learning, not the initiative itself, which could have the greatest impact on a wider, European, scale.

Scaling up

Which brings me to my final point. How realistic is it to imagine that change initiated at city level can be scaled-up to national policy?

The report on a sister initiative in Antwerp, CURANT, also funded by the UIA, concluded that the effectivity of support programmes for refugees remains ultimately dependent on the wider context in which they are embedded.

So we have to ask whether the context, in practice, for initiatives on asylum reception is too constraining for experiments at city level to reach their full potential. Could such initiatives indeed raise expectations that ultimately they cannot fulfil?

Or is there sufficient interest and flexibility on the part of national authorities to enable cities to be effective leaders of change – within and beyond the city – their innovations grounded in their own experience of the realities of migration and addressing its impacts at the local level?


[1] See: Oliver, C. Geuijen, K. and Dekker, R. (2020, forthcoming) Social contact and encounter in asylum seeker reception: the Utrecht Refugee Launchpad; Comparative Migration Studies.