The city of Amsterdam has come up with a new way to help its refugee population

A busker performs by an Amsterdam canal. Image: Getty.

In December 2013 Amsterdam’s city council devised a novel social experiment to deal with its homeless refugees: it put them all in prison.

Okay, this isn’t as bad as it sounds. No one was arrested; everyone was free to leave. The really novel part was what the council did to the refugees inside this repurposed prison: it helped them, offering medical care, food, and legal advice. All this it did with a view to either assisting the refugees to submit successful asylum applications, or to return to their countries of origin.

The undocumented immigrants of Amsterdam are also pretty unusual: they are organised. Known as Wij Zijn Hier (WZH; it translates to “We Are Here”), they worked with the Municipality of Amsterdam and actively campaigned for a longer stay in not-really-prison.

The project only ran for 6 months, the WZH refugees have now left the prison and are living elsewhere. So: did it work?

Some background is in order here. In the Netherlands, undocumented immigrants haven’t been entitled to access social services since 1998; in 2010, the Dutch government ruled that it was actually illegal to provide them with emergency shelter. This fell foul of the European Committee of Social Rights, the international body charged with monitoring human rights compliance, which declared that the ruling flew in the face of the immigrants’ right to “bed, bath and bread”.

This was when the Amsterdam Municipality hit on their social experiment. They converted a former prison into a shelter for all refugees who registered with the Dutch Refugee Council (DRC). For six months undocumented immigrants lived in the Vluchthaven (Refugee Haven), while working on their asylum applications.

There were no specific targets set by either the Amsterdam municipalities or the DRC before moving the refugees into the Vluchthaven. If the project’s only goal had been to encourage the refugees to leave The Netherlands, then it appears to have been a failure: of the 165 refugees housed in Vluchthaven, only three returned to their country of origin and another three are preparing to return. Look at the number of refugees who gained legal residence in that time and the figures improve, but remain fairly damning: just 12 (7 per cent) of the refugees were successfully awarded residency.

Taking into account those refugees who are deceased, have been rehoused or imprisoned, 76 per cent of the refugees are presumably once again living on the streets of Amsterdam. (I say “presumably” as Amsterdam has a limited number of shelters available to undocumented immigrants: although the Dutch are as caring as any other nation it’s highly unlikely they’ve opened their homes to a group of homeless strangers.)

These figures are fairly bleak. But, once we take into account the geographical origin of the refugees, a different story starts to emerge. Some 91 per cent of the refugees housed in Vluchthaven originated from countries where reports from the Dutch government describe human rights issues as “critical”. If return was never really an option the logical way to measure the success of this project is by examining the refugees’ ability to build asylum cases.

Attempting to build a case for asylum while living on the streets sounds like a a particular unpleasant twist in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce – but this is the reality faced by undocumented immigrants in The Netherlands. By providing respite from the endless need to find shelter, the Municipality of Amsterdam made it possible for the refugees to focus on collecting evidence. Out of the 165 immigrants housed in Vluchthaven 45 per cent are engaged with the legal process to gain residence in The Netherlands, while another 12 per cent are currently deadlocked in collecting evidence.

Ali Juma, a WZH co-ordinator and refugee from Burundi, sayss that the end of the Vluchthaven was the end of the group’s ability to effectively gather evidence for their asylum applications. The benefits to having a regular address while attempting to put together a legal case in a foreign country are clear. For the six months that they were housed by Amsterdam Municipality, the refugees of WZH were able to make progress in cases which, since their eviction from Vluchthaven, have ground to a halt.

Negotiations are now underway to continue housing the undocumented asylum seekers of Amsterdam; predictably the entire thing comes down to who will foot the bill. Will the cost of housing WZH be placed entirely on the city of Amsterdam? Or will the Dutch government offer financial assistance?

It’s probably too early to just the success of this scheme: that would require clear, pre-agreed targets, and a timeframe longer than six months. (For various reasons many of the refugees were unable to access the full 6 months worth of legal advice.) But what is clear is that undocumented refugees have a better chance of becoming legal residents of The Netherlands if they aren’t forced to submit asylum applications from the streets.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.