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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.