Open up your curtains?! – What we can learn from small-town integration dynamics for the future reorganization of the Dutch reception landscape

Elina Jonitz

PhD candidate at the Department of Public Administration and Sociology (DPAS) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam

In the Netherlands, the current approach to refugee integration involves a prolonged period of waiting for asylum seekers before they can settle. This could change with the introduction of a new draft law called the “spreidingswet.” This law aims at revising the current reception landscape by involving all municipalities at the local level and thus distributing asylum seekers more comprehensively across the country. But what needs to be considered for a successful implementation of this law? 

In the blogpost, PhD candidate Elina Jonitz reflects on the wider implications of her fieldwork experience and draws on interviews with refugees conducted for Whole-COMM’s WP5 Country Report. 

On a sunny afternoon in July last year, Mina puts a third cup of steaming coffee on the table in front of me. She sits down on the couch and, together with her husband Amir, we continue our conversation about their new home in a small, rural town in the North-East of the Netherlands. We talk about their freshly painted walls, the newly installed doors, their “sparsely vegetated front yard” and their two types of curtains, a black-out and a lighter see-through type with an elaborate flower print on it. Amir jokingly notes: “You know, when we visit our Syrian friends here, we can easily spot where they live. Because they also have an untidy front yard and closed curtains.” He laughs. In a more serious tone, Mina adds that “There is a misunderstanding. Dutch people from this town think we hide something, but this is not true. We keep the curtains closed because I do not wear my headscarf at home.”

As a reader you may be wondering what this small anecdote from a small place somewhere in the countryside can tell us about the big migration and integration debates that keep politicians and policymakers in the Netherlands on their toes. And what can we learn from this anecdote for future policymaking, given that migration and the reception of asylum seekers will remain one of the most salient political issues in 2023 (NOS, 2023)? 

Mina and Amir’s story 

Before answering this question, we will start from the beginning, to understand better why Mina and Amir – whose story resembles so many of the experiences of newly arrived refugees – end up living in a small Dutch plattelandsgemeente, in a former peat village, right next to the German border.  

Mina and Amir are both from Syria but have lived for many years in Saudi Arabia before fleeing to the Netherlands. Mina arrives in the Netherlands in 2018, together with her three children. Her husband joins her one year later in 2019. Upon their arrival, Mina and her children are sent to the town Ter Apel to apply for asylum. With their asylum application a lengthy journey through the Netherlands begins, from one asylum seeker center to the next, “from East to West and back”, over a time span of almost one year. Mina describes this time as very difficult, marked by a lack of security and certainty. Some sense of safety returns with the issuance of their official residence permit, the official recognition as “refugees” – a legal status that shapes their settlement and integration process from now on. Being a recognized refugee in the Netherlands implies for Mina that she and her family are “safe” from having to return to Syria; it also implies that a house is allocated to them. They are assigned a house in a small town in the province of Drenthe, far away from the large and thriving cities Rotterdam and Amsterdam, which – in the eyes of many – promise more (job) opportunities.

Amir elaborates how challenging it has been for them to settle down in the small, quiet town where “we have avondklok [curfew] every night”; he refers to the looks on the streets when he walks with his wife – who wears a headscarf – in the city center, and his children’s difficulties to find Dutch friends at school. Now, three years later, both Mina and Amir view their lives in this small town more positively. They have gotten used to the calmness of the place and were able to make some friends; Mina is currently volunteering at a local kinderopvang, and Amir has found a temporary, part-time job in the logistics sector. Back in Saudi Arabia he was a successful sales manager, but he estimates his chances of finding a similar position in the Netherlands, especially in the small town, as rather low.

Amir also reflects on refugees’ experiences after their arrival and emphasizes that the time in the reception centers could have been “used” much better to prepare them for life in a small Dutch municipality. Only little information and explanation was given to persons who were waiting for the outcome of their asylum procedure, and only little did they know about the town they would eventually settle in.

Disjuncture between arrival and settlement

This perceived disjuncture between arrival and settlement seems to be reflective of prevalent policy logics separating reception and integration. What do these at times contradictory policy logics then imply for both for people’s integration outlook and for the design of local integration policies?

For people themselves, the disjuncture between arrival and settlement becomes most apparent in the extended periods of time most refugees stay in not only one, but multiple reception facilities across the country; a time marked by waiting, for the outcome of the asylum procedure, and the allocation of housing in a municipality. Local authorities experience this disjuncture as a result of the national dispersion system in place which distributes asylum seekers unequally across the country. Consequently, asylum seekers who have been granted a residence permit, do not necessarily stay in the place in which the reception center is located. This makes it difficult for municipalities to establish ties with them early on. For example, in the small town in the province of Drenthe, many asylum seekers who reside in the local reception center during their asylum procedure do not stay in town but are sent to other municipalities in the South or the West of the Netherlands after receiving their residence permit. 

The current, nationally determined system in place thus seems to delay people’s settlement at the local level where their integration experiences are ultimately shaped. 

The new asylum law

Against the background of these challenges, a new draft law (spreidingswet) revising the current approach to asylum seeker reception by building on the involvement of all municipalities, can be seen as an important step towards a more holistic and long-term approach towards both refugee reception, but importantly also integration. In other words, the more comprehensive organization of asylum seeker reception at the local level seems to promise the opportunity to establish relations between local community and newcomers early on, and it would, ideally, also prevent refugees from having to change their location multiple times.

The new law implies the involvement of all municipalities in the reception landscape, including big cities, medium-size towns, and villages in the countryside. It will involve places with supportive communities and those holding more suspicious attitudes towards newcomers, localities with progressive local governments and those representing a more restrictive stance towards migration. Reception will happen in contexts in which ‘(super-)diversity’ has long since been part of the local identity and those where diversity is less ‘normalized’, where “what is not known, is not loved” (Dutch proverb, used by multiple respondents). 

But can this law be successful – given these diverging realities in different localities across the country?

Recommendation/reflections to bridge the gap

This brings us back to our small anecdote from the beginning. What can a small misunderstanding with regard to curtains and neat front yards tell us about the current debate regarding migration and the long-term integration of newcomers?

It may tell us that integration of newcomers has been considered a secondary, and sometimes neglected, concern by local governments – despite happening very locally between (untidy) gardens and (closed) curtains, between misunderstandings, ignorance, and expectations, between explanations, tolerance, and acceptance, between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It tells us that newcomers or, in this case, newly arrived refugees are (often) faced with the challenge of finding their place in communities with existing social networks, social rules and certain “ways of doing things”. 

In smaller localities with less experience with (the integration of) newcomers, it appears particularly important to provide clear information and explanation for both newcomers and for residents who are confronted with the arrival of newcomers. A member of the local municipal council in the small town in Drenthe explains the perceived uneasiness towards newcomers as follows: 

They often close themselves off […] they sit in their house with the curtains closed and this builds a wall between people – certainly here on the countryside. […] That’s the feeling of the people. They only see them [migrants] going to a store and coming back behind the curtains. 

In this context, explaining who the newcomers are, how long they are staying, and what they will be doing could prevent unrest and increase the acceptance of the new residents among the established population. For local governments and administrations, it appears crucial to focus on community-building and to help shape a more positive narrative on migration in general and asylum seekers in particular. This can help creating a climate in which new and old residents can come together and learn from each other, without the ‘fearing’ the other. This speaks to our research findings from other municipalities where refugees felt most accepted in places where there was overall a more open attitude towards newcomers, both by residents and the municipal government, and where there were sufficient places for encounter. 

Without creating a sense of acceptance, both asylum seeker reception as well as the long-term settlement and integration of refugees may face (quite some) resistance by the local community. This, in turn, can then affect the lived experiences of those trying to settle in the new country detrimentally.

Without creating a sense of acceptance, both asylum seeker reception as well as the long-term settlement and integration of refugees may face (quite some) resistance by the local community. This, in turn, can then affect the lived experiences of those trying to settle in the new country detrimentally. It is important to conceive integration as a two-way process, as Julian (from Syria) articulated, since “a bridge cannot be built from one side only.” May this be a reminder for newcomers and municipalities involved in providing a safe space in our societies.

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