Interview with the Deputy Mayor of Utrecht on the integration of refugees

14 October 2022

Since the Russian war against Ukraine broke out, over 7 months ago, European cities have done their best to welcome as many refugees as possible. We are talking about millions of people fleeing Ukraine and seeking refuge and shelter all over Europe and cities welcoming them, finding them housing, jobs and schools.

Utrecht is one of those cities and between 16-17 November, it’s host to the 10th Integrating Cities Conference, the world’s largest conference on migration and integration in Europe’s cities, gathering politicians and experts from cities, member states, and the European Parliament and European Commission, as well as NGOs, migrant groups, activists and academics. The conference is financed by the CONNECTION project co-funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

Integrating Cities Event
Integrating Cities Event

As a teaser to the conference, and also to give you even more reasons to register, we present you an interview with Rachel Streefland, Utrecht’s First Deputy Mayor, Asylum and Integration explaining the importance of the event as well as the challenges Utrecht has faced so far and the city’s initiatives to welcome and integrate refugees.

Q1: Why did you decide to apply to host the 10th Integrating Cities Conference and why is it important for Utrecht to exchange with other cities on migrant inclusion at the European level?

As a Welcoming and Human Rights City, we are constantly looking for overarching solutions for how to foster an inclusive society, such as Plan Einstein and Perspectief. We strongly believe that our societies should be open and accessible to everyone. As an active participant in the Migration and Integration Working Group at Eurocities, and in several European projects, we welcomed the opportunity to host the Integrating Cities Conference this year. We value our collaboration with Eurocities, the European Commission and many European and international stakeholders with whom we have been able to exchange our experiences and concerns with.

The topic of migration and integration constantly demands new solutions and recommitment to our human rights standards. Our European collaboration has proven to be essential to the new ideas and energy we develop within Utrecht.

Q2: This 10th edition of the Integrating Cities Conference focuses on vulnerable migrants, a topic that was inspired by the current situation with the refugees coming from Ukraine, who are mainly women with children. What are the challenges that Utrecht is facing in terms of providing services to refugees from Ukraine? Are they new challenges or somewhat similar to those of previous migration/refugee waves?

Hosting Ukrainian refugees differs from other refugees that we welcomed before in Utrecht. The number of Ukrainian refugees we now receive is much higher and they are mainly women and children.

Normally providing shelter for refugees is the competency of the national government, but it was decided quickly that municipalities and safety regions could organise shelter, food, clothes, and insurance by themselves. This worked very well and within a few months, there were 75,000 places for Ukrainian refugees compared to 40,000 for other refugees in the Netherlands.

In Utrecht, we have set up a national Ukrainian Hub where all people who arrive by train or bus are welcomed. From that hub, the people are taken to shelters throughout the Netherlands. We opened small and bigger shelters, including a boat with more than 300 spaces, together with local NGOs. A temporary shelter was also offered by Utrecht citizens, which was initiated by the churches. We currently host around 1,400 Ukrainian refugees.

Rachel Streefland, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht. Image by Bas van Setten

Since the Ukrainian refugees do not fall under our regular asylum and reception legislation they are allowed to work from the start, as opposed to other refugees. 40% of the Ukrainian refugees are already employed. For a group of mainly mothers and children, this is a phenomenal result. This is good for their well-being and integration in Utrecht. As a human rights city, we would really like to enable other refugees to work from the start and it is a pity that is legally not allowed yet. We continue our dialogue with our national government and European institutions since we believe a solution should be found.

Q3: Alongside other Deputy Mayors and representatives of the European Commission and Parliament, you will discuss  “opportunities for multi-level cooperation and funding.” Which main messages would you like to convey to the European institutions in this area?

In Utrecht and the Working Group Migration and Integration, we have seen the positive benefits of European multi-level cooperation and funding in many sectors. We don’t see funding only as a means to finance a new initiative, but we also experience it as an endorsement for the way we want to develop an inclusive society, as a human rights city. We experienced a true partnership and endorsement of the European Commission through the way they managed the Urban Innovative Actions projects. Our participants really experienced the commitment of the European institutions and their city to their well-being.

As many of the social funds fall under a shared management scheme we need to make sure that the funding mechanisms do not create negative or even harmful practices because of the definitions we use. In the Netherlands, we are dealing with such a strict division between target groups; asylum seekers, people with a residence permit, Dutch people or undocumented. This makes it harder for us to develop inclusive programmes, such as Plan Einstein, in which we can facilitate meaningful encounters which unlock valuable networks, peer-to-peer support and, most of all, aligns with our inclusive approach. Migration flows are constantly moving, and so are people and their identities. It is important for our policies, funds and actions to be able to reflect this reality and be able to work with a healthy overlay between target groups instead of dividing them so strictly which results in activities in which participants constantly have to prove their status.

Q4: Utrecht is known for its innovative approach to solving issues around migrant inclusion. Plan Einstein is a well-known example of that approach, but Utrecht is also very active when it comes to undocumented migrants, a topic that will also be explored during the Conference. Can you tell us a bit more about your approach with these vulnerable migrants as well as about the Plan Einstein?

For the past 20 years, Utrecht has supported undocumented migrants in a precarious state with a policy: bed, bath and bread. We offer shelter, legal advice and all kinds of help to work on their future. The aim is a durable solution which is either a residence permit, return to their country of origin or shelter in the national asylum centre. We don’t see illegal stay as a solution but as part of the problem. 59% of the undocumented migrants who have received this support received a residence permit, 19% returned back to their homeland and 14% received access to shelter in an asylum centre. Only 8% of the undocumented migrants are lost to illegal stay. This means Utrecht has a 90% success rate.

Since 2018 we have agreed to collaborate with the national government to work towards a durable solution in a pilot with five cities (Utrecht, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen). This is a multi-level cooperation between cities, NGOs, immigration office and repatriation office work. The national government pays more than 70% of this programme. Municipalities coordinate meetings to talk about individual cases and how to solve them on the local level.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer