Gender is one of the most topical issues worldwide today and the Dutch city of Utrecht decided not to be left behind: it has set up ambitious plans to welcome and include refugees with a focus on women. The city works together with NGOs and citizens to promote activities targeted mainly at refugee and migrant women inside asylum centres. English and Dutch courses, internet and tech literacy and entrepreneurship are some of the options available for those living in the centres or for those who also got their residency permit.
The unique point in Utrecht is the integration between city services and the wider society. Jan Braat, Senior Policy Advisor on Migration, Diversity and Integration at the Municipality of Utrecht explains that “we do all activities in inclusive ways – people from the neighbourhood can join the courses and activities to meet asylum seekers and refugees on an equal basis. This is a big part of our inclusion and integration strategy.”
“Within our integration strategy, we always look for safe spaces, spaces where people can go to meet each other to do activities, take lessons – on the asylum centre area and also on neighbourhoods close by,” notes Braat.
We always look for safe spaces
Focus on gender equality and women’s inclusion
He explains that the city promotes the inclusion of migrants and refugees with the local population, with events tailored for people to meet and talk and also encourage people to invite refugees for dinner or to go out and socialise together. Once they got their residence permit, they can also attend further Dutch classes or other courses and can enjoy assistance to find jobs and internships.
The fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, Utrecht has beautiful canals and medieval architecture that attract tourists from all over the world. The job opportunities and quality of life are also an invitation to immigrants seeking new opportunities and the city has made considerable efforts towards welcoming and including those arriving.
The focus on women, says Braat is important because it’s much more difficult for them to reach out, for them “to go to ‘normal’ services where people go when they need help because they have to express their grievances and the Dutch people is very direct: ‘what’s your problem?’ they ask bluntly. And that doesn’t work for refugees and especially women.”
That’s why Utrecht has set up the “Neighbourhood Academy” in one of the city’s areas where migrant women already residing in the city can meet those who have just arrived to listen to their grievances and, in the end, to support each other. “Because they talk to each other in a safe space is easier for them to talk and talk to their family, friends, neighbours and the idea spreads around, forming a network,” says Braat.
The idea spreads around, forming a network.
However Braat notes that there’s still a lot to be done as gender issues are not treated the same way throughout the city programmes, that is, “we don’t have specific classes for women, but for everybody. We expect that inclusion just happens and gender won’t be an issue, but it is.” Women are the focus of some of the city’s projects, but they lack more targeted support when it comes to larger city initiatives.
Also, says Braat, “there are a lot of projects not specifically targeted for women, but we try to find a way to include women, such as in our Sports Buddies project, in which students take refugees to sports clubs. We ask them to look specifically for young women to be part of the project. We want not only men playing football, but also women playing football, dancing, etc. as well.”
Another project worth mentioning is the “Welkom in Utrecht” where volunteers take care of the children while their mothers are attending Dutch classes and, finally, the “1000 Flowers Blossom,” focusing on assisting children to include them in the school system, giving them basic Dutch knowledge and also focusing on “reaching out to the mothers to also take courses and empower them. That’s one of the ways we try to reach them,” explains Braat.
With a note of pride, Braat says that “because of the success of our projects, particularly with the contact with neighbours, the idea spread all over The Netherlands. There’s a case of a refugee who was good as an accountant and a Dutch painter and they joined in a business. We see all kinds of cooperation going on, coalitions being formed.”
Learning through cooperation
Within the European funded CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities, Utrecht was able to learn more about the experience of the Swedish city of Gothenburg and bring what was learned back to the Netherlands – and also serve as a model for other Dutch cities.
The idea spread all over The Netherlands.
“Utrecht learned from Gothenburg that women cannot stay behind,” said Braat. The Swedish model pays special attention to gender imbalances and seeks to include women that often fall behind. Utrecht is doing its best to go even further, working together with NGOs to have a better reach and to be able to speak to every migrant woman.
The city has been quite successful when it comes to asylum seekers, as it can reach them directly at centres, but is still struggling to reach out to those women who came to The Netherlands through family reintegration. That’s why they are reaching out to NGOs, to have a better reach to migrant women, “filling a gap we saw in Gothenburg,” says Braat.
The city is promoting cooperation among residents and refugees, helping them forge alliances, open businesses together and achieve success. Every new refugee arriving in Utrecht is assigned a contact person that will help them for three years. They can also take courses, improve their English and learn Dutch while integrating with the surrounding community and feeling welcome.