“We Give People Guidance from Day One”

The Dutch city of Utrecht perfectly exemplifies a solidarity-based integration policy. Held up by the EU Commission for its innovative stance, the city has now also been listed on the new online platform “Moving Cities” as one of 28 solidarity-based municipalities across Europe. We asked the city’s integration expert Jan Braat: What makes Utrecht so special?

Alexandra Wolters | October 2021
Ein Fahrradfahrer fährt in die Altstadt von Utrecht
Stadt Utrecht

What is special about the integration policy in Utrecht?

A special feature is our “Plan Einstein” concept. Asylum seekers in the Netherlands normally stay in a center and wait for a decision as to whether they can stay or not. In the meantime they can’t do anything. The philosophy of our Plan Einstein is to give them from day one all kind of activities, education, for example lessons in English, in ICT (information and communication technologies), and in entrepreneurship. We try to offer practice in skills that are usable everywhere. Of course, we also offer Dutch conversation lessons from day one.

Many migrants or refugees have a professional background in their own country. They had work and education. With Plan Einstein we try to help them adapt their skills to the Dutch context. So they can use them maybe in the same profession or maybe in another profession.

Jan Braat

About the person

Jan Braat is Senior Policy Advisor for Migration and Inclusion at the City of Utrecht. He has been shaping the local inclusion policy since 2001. His vision is for people in Utrecht to really live together instead of next to each other.

How is the concept integrated into life in the city?

The concept is inclusive: The program is for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and also for Dutch people, for example for people who aren’t in a good economic situation and who also need support. The activities offered, like sports, cultural activities, meeting events, or eating together, are all open to everyone in Utrecht.

In 2016, Utrecht needed an extra asylum center which was to be located in an empty building in a poor part in the north of the city. The people were literally rioting on the streets against the center. They said: “We have enough problems, why don’t you help us? You give the migrants everything.” And we said: “Yes, you also need support. And this is part of our plan.” After some time and experiences and even new friends they made, most of the people in the neighborhood supported the center. The argument that all those refugees get everything and the Dutch get nothing is out of the window. That is important.

An important part of Plan Einstein is meeting other people and coming into contact with the Dutch people. We have, for example, buddy-to-buddy projects, in which one buddy introduces the migrant or refugee to their friends. And they, in turn, introduce their friends, and so on.

Who are the driving forces behind this special approach in Utrecht?

It's the mayor and the vice mayor. Together with the city council, they really support the inclusion policy. They all work together on an inclusive Utrecht city approach – no matter which political party they belong to. They all try to make Utrecht into a welcoming city.

Has the "Plan Einstein" program made a difference beyond municipal integration policy?

Our Plan Einstein concept we started in 2015 is a big success. Its philosophy is recommended on the national level in the Netherlands. In the national parliament, a majority agreed that there should be more Plan Einstein centers in the cities. And the national policy on how to shelter asylum seekers changed. For example, one element of Plan Einstein is living together side by side as good neighbors. A part of every center is not only for the asylum seekers but also other people with needs, like young people and students. That kind of policy is now officially a national policy.

'Plan Einstein' has changed the national policy on how to shelter asylum seekers.

The European Commission calls Plan Einstein one of the top ten innovative projects on the topic of migration. It was also included in a campaign by the Human Rights Office of the United Nations as a good example showing you can do more for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

We get a lot of attention also in the media and in several city networks around migration and integration. But it’s not like a master plan. You cannot copy Plan Einstein in every city. You always have to look at the local situation: what is necessary, what is possible, what do the local people say.

Are there major differences between the national integration policy and the approach of Utrecht?

The people who have been denied asylum are put on the streets under the national policy. We in Utrecht think it is important to look at their situation again to get them off the streets. Maybe just some things went wrong or the situation in their home countries changed. We call our policy “bed, bath, bread”: We give people shelter and guidance from day one and look at their situation again, also with legal support. If we think there is a new chance we start a new procedure. In the last twenty years about 60 percent got a new residence permit. About 20 percent went back to their countries voluntarily, also to the NGO asylum centers that work for us.

How can a city devise its individual integration policy within the framework of national policy?

In Europe there is always some tension between national and local policy. But you have to have smart ideas that are able to convince people, like Plan Einstein. Another example is the Dutch lessons every newcomer has to buy in with loan money from the government. We offered the government an alternative that the municipalities would arrange the lessons and combine their content with other matters like social or labor integration. And we were able to convince them. Now we’re getting the authority and also the money to the municipalities to organize the lessons. Of course we have to show that it’s working better – to really deserve the responsibility and the money.

Does national policy sometimes block or slow down local integration policy approaches – what is your experience?

It’s mostly about money and skills. For example, the national policy says that migrants have to go to work on every level. Even if you are highly educated you can be a cleaner. We say no, it’s better to have sustainable work. Therefore you have to pay attention to the education and the language lessons. We always try to make the policy practical and solve problems. The national level often makes it too much of a political discussion. But I think they are willing to learn from municipalities.