CITY OF UTRECHT, REFUGEE TEAM – SOFT NEIGHBOURHOOD LANDING OF AN EMERGENCY CENTRE FOR ASYLUMSEEKERS

Context

The City of Utrecht is with 350.000 inhabitants the fourth biggest city in the country and a typically old university town. It has known some racial problems in the last decade; however, they have been addressed. The city houses for almost 20 years an asylum centre for approximately 450 people, seated in an upper-class region near the centre of the city. The city has had a social-liberal council for years on end. For the past 15 years the city has built up a national reputation for giving shelter to approximately 200 rejected asylum seekers on a yearly basis, even though the national government stipulated leaving them alone and without any support at all. The city has been appointed officially as a city of Human Rights.

The national government reduced, from 2010 onwards, the buffer capacity for reception of asylum seekers to zero, based on policies of austerity. Therefore the present inflow of asylum seekers met with a sharp shortage of places to house them. In September 2015 the mayor was called upon, as all mayors were, to accommodate 500 asylum seekers at the shortest possible notice, e.g. within the same day. The Musical Hall next to the new city hall, offered their 7th Floor, which stood empty. Agreeing with this offer, the city explicitly refuted the notorious NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect. The housing in the Music hall went fine, even when a famous Dutch Film Festival had their formal awards evening ceremony there. The Music Hall has been in use for two months, meanwhile an intense search was started to find a more permanent location.

The national policy is now:

  • Crisis Centre (72 hours) and the responsibility of the municipality
  • Emergency Centre (up to 6 months) and the responsibility of the Central Organisation for Asylum seekers (COA) under national state supervision, facilitated by the municipality
  • Temporary Asylum centre (for one to two years): responsibility of COA
  • Structural Asylum Centre: responsibility of COA

In all cases it is the City which will address communication and security in the neighbourhood and that will decide on a definite location.

Following the Emergency Centre in the Music Hall, a large former school building was found that happened to be vacant till May 2016.COA considered it suitable. In a quick process the city agreed.

We informed the Utrecht neighbourhood about the 2 locations of the Utrecht emergency shelter. We had in total 5 neighbourhood information evenings and all went very well. Of course there were also critical questions about IS, safety in the refugee shelter environment, etc. Their objections were met with arguments. The information evenings were presided by an independent person and the vice mayor, chief of police, COA and the doctor working in the asylum centre were present. The volunteers of the activities website and Facebook page were also present and in the second part of the information evening most people went to them asking what they could do.

Description of the initiative

The main objective is a humane Emergency Centre with neighbourhood support and an active interaction with local inhabitants, within the national context of growing xenophobic attitude towards refugees and aggression. The main purpose of the strategy is the upholding of a climate of tolerance towards asylum seekers built over 15 years and building on the power and initiatives of civil society. Second, the purpose is to pave the way towards two temporary asylum centres for the period of 2 years each, leading to a second permanent asylum centre in the city.

The main elements are taking people and their fears seriously, a good communication scheme where everyone can speak up in a safe context. Good arrangements with police and COA, within and in the nearby surroundings of the Emergency Shelter. The recent Paris attacks make the subject even more sensitive and important. Terrorist fear was already a topic in all conversations with the neighbourhood.

All this must be realized at short notice and will be imposed on the neighbourhood by the City Council (Vice mayor).

Implementation of the initiative

Partners involved are COA and the Police for creating an environment of safety. The role of COA is renting the building and making it a suitable place for people to stay. It is also their role to maintain a healthy environment in the building, they provide meals and they are responsible for regular medical care. Within the centre COA is responsible for security personnel.

The Police will actively patrol the area and will look for officers familiar with the neighbourhood.

There is massive support from the local NOG’s and many initiatives are starting. Most of them are volunteers from various organisations such as Red Cross, several mosques and churches, sports clubs, theatres, film and music festivals, museums offering free tickets and volunteers to accompany the asylum seekers. All those volunteers from and within NGO’s have contact with the asylum seekers, offer day activities and build a bridge towards society. Some examples of these activities are:

  • “Eat and Meet” : refugees share dinner with Utrecht families. This was such a huge success that at one point there were no more refugees to come to dinner.
  • The Refugee Cup: a football tournament with a mix of local football clubs and asylum seekers.
  • Learning Dutch Language with the assistance of volunteers
  • Young Syrians handed out 1000 roses with messages of gratitude to the Dutch people at the Central Station during rush hour
  • Musical afternoons and evenings
  • A Tour by boat through the famous Utrecht Canals
  • Museum tours

All the activities are closely watched and coordinated by a website and Facebook page: http://www.welkominutrecht.nl (welcome in Utrecht). Everyone can upload their activities on the Facebook page and civil servants of the refugee team in the City coordinate between the voluntary activities/ COA/refugees about the planning of the activities. The website was an initiative of some people in Utrecht themselves. A civil servant is present in the Emergency Centre a couple of hours every day and all activities are open on the website for all to see.

The coordination within the municipality is situated in a special refugee team, staffed with personnel from different departments, safety & public order, social housing, communication, youth, etc. The team have a morning start-up every (other) day to inform the vice mayor and to hear if there have been any problems during the night. The actual information is mostly provided by the police and COA security.

Every week a summary is made for the Mayor and Aldermen and, when necessary, the City Council will be informed. In total a team of 10 civil servants is active in the Refugee Team. Sometimes quick decisions are necessary. The Mayor and Aldermen take their decisions within a WhatsApp Group, which is quite a novel way of decision-making and sharing in the quickest way possible.

If there are big problems as in health or safety issues, the mayor will call the Secretary of State on Migration. The mayors of the four big cities meet on a regular basis with the prime minister on this topic of asylum.

Resources dedicated to the initiative

Financial sources

Main financial sources: The budget consists of the staff payroll

Human resources dedicated to the initiative

10 civil servants within the municipality and about 50 paid and 200 volunteers with the Utrecht NGO’s

Achievements

Number of refugees reached by the initiative: 800 of the 800 present in Utrecht

  • Two Emergency Centres softly landed in the neighbourhood, with one having been in use for two months without any incidents and a lot of support from civil society. Many people in the neighbourhood, visitors of the Musical Hall, personnel in the City Hall or travellers at the Central Station realized that such a large Emergency Centre was in full use so nearby.
  • Many initial opponents noticed that there were no negative influences and started to change their views.
  • When the neighbourhood information evenings were taking place, social media were followed by the Communication Team of the City so that we knew what the fears were and what was communicated within the neighbourhood and city as a whole. These signs were taken seriously and addressed whenever possible. This also meant staffing a helpdesk for questions. There was a Q & A form that was regularly updated when needed.
  • Neighbourhood support and city –wide support is seen to grow, looking at social media, initiatives and information evenings. For instance, the first information evening had a large group of people eager to talk with security and health personnel, the second saw an empty ‘Security Table’, but the one for volunteering was crowding with candidates.
  • Hundreds of volunteers were active the last two months and numbers are still growing.
  • Four thousand welcoming packages for a refugee population of only 500 in the end found their way to refugees because in the first weeks there stayed 1800 refugees in total in the Musical Hall and were provided with a welcoming package.

Critical success factors

  • Taking the fears and initiatives of the people and civil society seriously
  • A cross departmental team in the municipality who can make quick but informed decisions and have easy access to the vice mayor. Quick political decision making is also essential as well as good knowledge of political arena and networking.
  • Knowing your neighbourhood and its key players
  • Objective information and statistics also presented on the project website http://www.welkominutrecht.nu and on the municipality website http://www.utrecht.nl/asielzoekers
  • Be clear about the goal being temporary shelter to war refugees and that everyone´s fears may be talked about and if possible be met and what the influence of the civil society is. If things don´t land well, clear about it and address it with authentic concern
  • Make the positive forces (e.g. initiatives of hundreds of volunteers) stronger.

Biggest obstacles

  • Bureaucratic barriers can hinder the implementation of the initiative where the situation requires more flexibility.
  • The growing xenophobic atmosphere in the country and in the media make force to always have a well thought integrated comprehensive strategy and to be clear in your communication about it
  • Support of the mayor and city council is essential and create support for personnel within the municipality through meetings by the refugee team in order to explain about the objective figures of the asylum crisis and the way the municipality is handling it.

Website

www.utrecht.nl /asielzoekers.nl www.welkominutrecht.nu

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