Amidst the so-called refugee crisis, our cities have become home to a new form of city-dweller: the urban refugee. According to UNHCR, 60% of refugees worldwide reside in urban environments. In many ways, cities have now become containers for individuals whose lives are placed on hold. Whilst already experiencing significant housing crises, cities now presented with an urgent need to provide spatial solutions in response the large influx of refugees, who need a place to live, work, and express themselves.
Urban refugees in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is home to large number of refugees. Even though the Dutch have one of the toughest refugee-policies within Europe, in 2016 alone 20,700 applications were made for asylum in the Netherlands. Many of these refugees now reside in Amsterdam.
In line with Amsterdam’s general reputation for openness and tolerance, citizens have come up with productive and exciting ways to integrate the large number of urban refugees, many of whom live in fear and uncertainty. These range from large-scale organised initiatives and events to smaller informal gatherings and clubs. Startblok, one of these projects, is particularly unique, encouraging young Dutch and refugees not only to engage and understand each other, but to actually live with each other.
Integrated-social housing at Startblok
Startblok is an innovative project located at Riekerhaven, a former sports-field in Amsterdam’s New West district. It is essentially shared social-housing for young refugees (who have received their residence permit) and for young Dutch people. Most refugees at Startblok come from Syria and Eritrea.
Established in 2016, Startblok is a joint programme, initiated by the local government and two Dutch housing organisations. It provides 565 apartments at affordable prices ranging from €387 to €510 per month. According to councillor Alderman Ivens, interviewed in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, Startblok creates a safe environment for refugees, whilst simultaneously relieving the pressure on social housing.
How does integrated social-housing work?
At Startblok, tenants are mixed together to create a diverse atmosphere. Each flat, for example, has an even number of refugees and Dutch, with each corridor administered by two Gangmakers (translating as ‘motivators’), one who is Dutch and the other a refugee.
Tenants are encouraged to organize their own events and initiatives, emphasizing activities that bring the diverse group of young people together. Tenants are encouraged to volunteer in the local area, and there is a popular weekly drinks night called ‘Clubhouse Café’ at the on-site recreation room. Large grassy areas are used by tenants for barbecues and sports. Startblok’s organising team also promotes its ‘Buddy Project’, which involves allocating a young Dutch ‘buddy’ to a status-holder, in order to build a partnership for sharing common skills, interests, and goals.
Also, interestingly at Startblok the word ‘refugee’ is banned. Instead, the word ‘status-holder’ is used, in order to establish a more equalising environment. By concentrating on shared skills and goals, and avoiding stigmatising practices, life at Startblok for all tenants can be productive, dignified, and fun.
What problems can be encountered?
Whilst seen as a great success, Startblok is still very new, and the long term benefits of integrated social-housing are yet to be seen. Of course, there have been problems. Whilst organizers try and keep the community as diverse as possible, only 15% of status holders here are women – there are simply many more male refugees.
There has also been difficulty integrating Eritrean tenants into the community, who represent the most numerous group among status-holders at Startblok. Eritrea’s majority language, Tigrinya, is a relatively inaccessible language to outsiders, and English and Dutch are difficult to learn for Tigrinya speakers. To combat this, a series of Eritrean-themed events have taken place, organised and funded by Startblok’s Eritrean community. For instance, Startblok held a celebration for Hoye, the Eritrean new year. The local council even turned a blind-eye to a gigantic bonfire.
Around the world, cities and their inhabitants are responding to the so-called refugee crisis in a number of innovative ways. Startblok is a novel example of this positive response. Due to its immediate success, there are plans to build five more similar projects in the Netherlands. Representatives from other countries have also declared interest in understanding and emulating the project, perhaps because of exposure from a recent Al Jazeera mini-documentary.
In the age of the urban refugee, the link between social-housing and immigration is clear: cities simply need to provide both old and new residents with a decent, dignified place to live. There must also be increasing awareness that migrants need not be a burden, and can actively improve existing conditions, offering their own unique skills and expertise, to help build an enriched, diverse urban environment.