In summary, we can say that interculturalism is based on the commitment to equal rights and opportunities, the recognition of diversity and the importance of creating social links that transcend differences and favour social cohesion and a shared sense of belonging, and that takes advantage of diversity for the development of more inclusive, dynamic and sustainable societies.
The intercultural approach proposes a conceptual framework from which to design public policies, especially at the local level, but also to inspire attitudes and actions from the whole of civil society (schools, entities, cultural and sports centres, companies, etc.) in a dynamic long-term process adapted to each context.
Plan Einstein is an innovative project that has proposed a new approach to policies for the reception of asylum seekers and refugees. Precisely, one of the most innovative components of the project has been, in my opinion, the commitment to work on inclusion from day one. This is a point that I consider fundamental to assess the approach and methodology of the Plan Einstein. It is an attempt to change the paradigm of what we understand by the reception of asylum seekers, which has generally been characterised by a passive and segregated approach, very marked by uncertainty and the final outcome of the files. In fact, many of the policies that are considered to be intercultural, focus on the moments after the reception. Moreover, the competences of the management of the asylum processes are at state level. At the same time, the reception policies, in order to really work, must be carried out from the proximity of the local level, or at least from the full cooperation between the different levels of the administration. Although their different approaches (one more focused on security and control aspects and the other emphasising inclusion) make this cooperation difficult.
We then explore how the project has contributed to or taken into account the three principles of interculturalism in its approach. It should be clear that many activities reinforce all three principles at the same time. In other words, cooperation between people with different profiles and backgrounds to jointly design a meeting space can be promoting equality, recognition of diversity and positive interaction between participants at the same time.
3.1 Plan Einstein and equality
It is obvious that asylum seekers do not have the same rights (residence, work, economic, etc.) as the rest of the population, and these are fixed by a specific legal framework. However, there is a crucial space in which the local level can work on different strategies to advance and try to compensate for the more structural inequalities. In this sense, I believe that the project has made a significant effort concerning the principle of equality, taking into account the very complex and sensitive situation of a group that also presents a situation often marked by very traumatic experiences.
But when we look at how Plan Einstein has contributed to equality and equity, it is essential that we do not just look at it from the perspective of asylum seekers and refugees. We must not forget that interculturalism is an approach for all citizens. In this case, we cannot focus only on the group of refugees, but on the group of residents in the neighbourhood where the centre was opened, marked by certain needs and complexities.
In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the principle of equality in relation to the asylum seekers resident in the centre?
The project has opted for an approach that has placed emphasis on equal status and treatment of all people in the set of activities that have been promoted, strengthening the common and shared elements. The approach has been based on the idea that although refugees and asylum seekers have special circumstances, this does not mean that they are not neighbours of the city, who share many interests and needs with the rest of the population.
Throughout the project, certain circumstances have occurred, such as the delay in the arrival of many asylum seekers to the centre, the change in their expected profile, the need to make certain decisions on the building and space management for security reasons, or the hasty transfer of residents to other centres earlier than planned, which have undoubtedly influenced the development of many activities and their impact.
This serves to show how important it is for reception policies to have the capacity to adapt and be flexible and creative to adapt methodologies and approaches to a complex and changing reality.
I would now like to highlight some of the actions in the project's approach which I believe have been able to contribute most to promoting greater equality directly or indirectly, especially when compared to the reality of other reception centres.
- The fact that the reception centre was located in a neighbourhood of the city and not in the periphery was already a first decision of "inclusion" that can reduce some of the barriers to greater equality, both objective and subjective, derived from the physical and "mental" segregation in which many of these centres are located.
- Sharing the same building and some common spaces with some youngsters of the city also helped to reduce the perception of inequality, by merely sharing the same context. It is true that the housing conditions between young people and asylum seekers were different, and this distorted this perception of real equality. Their rights and daily activities were also different (many youngsters were studying or working and were very busy during the day). But despite this, I believe that the benefits of sharing space have been much greater than the costs of showing that their conditions were different.
- Another vital aspect of moving towards greater equality is access to information. This translates into support in bureaucratic processes, but also into advice in defining personal itineraries according to the profile and circumstances of each person.
- When no efforts are made to support and follow up during this first stage of the process, the negative consequences are reinforced with regard to the psychological dimension of the people, who feel more discouraged, confused, and in many cases depressed, in relation to the uncertain future that awaits them.
- The possibility of participating in English and entrepreneurship training courses, shared with local neighbours, I believe also helped to reinforce the perception of equal treatment and circumstances. Furthermore, learning English and not Dutch (a complex but, in my view, wise decision) allowed for this equal status in a shared language learning. Sharing these learning spaces on an equal base between people who shared a common goal helps to strengthen a bond that temporarily transcends the conditions set by the status of being an asylum seeker.
- Apart from the training, the resources linked to the project incubator and the support and coaching for the development of these projects, allowed some asylum seekers to reinforce or acquire new skills that are useful for the transition to the labour market, but also for the knowledge of the Dutch society and to reinforce self-esteem and confidence.
- The workspaces for the development of projects, whether in the field of entrepreneurship or in processes of designing shared spaces or different activities, also allows the contribution made by asylum seekers based on their experience, knowledge and talents to be valued. The exercise involves significant learning by doing but also recognition and visibility of their skills, knowledge and ideas.
- Another critical aspect of reducing inequalities at the outset is the creation of social, personal and professional networks. The links generated with some of the young residents, with neighbours, with professionals at the centre or with local entrepreneurs, have made it easier for some asylum seekers to create some networks beyond those formed with other asylum seekers. Although these networks could not be consolidated much because of the time spent in the centre and also because many refugees had to move to other locations, this initial opportunity for openness and social connection is a critical capital that has both practical and psychological consequences.
- On the other hand, the possibility of participating in activities of a cultural and artistic, social, recreational or sporting nature, with other residents of the neighbourhood, has reinforced an essential aspect of equality, which is to be able to participate and contribute actively to the social and cultural life of the city. This is not at all common in this first phase of reception, and yet it is an investment that positively affects future inclusion processes.
- Finally, the opportunities for meeting, getting to know each other, cooperating and creating links with other residents and neighbours allows for the challenging of stereotypes and prejudices, which are at the root of hostility and discrimination. Anything that reduces the base of possible discrimination is a medium to long-term investment in equality.
These are very complex aspects to evaluate, and it is clear that not all residents of the centre have participated in these activities and the work of the evaluation team has identified some complexities but also facilitating elements that will undoubtedly inspire future actions.
However, regardless of the number of people who have participated in these spaces, I believe that their existence already contributes to generating a perception of greater equality. For many people, the knowledge that they can participate or use certain resources, is already a subjective perception of greater equality.
In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the principle of equality in relation to the neighbourhood's residents?
The opening of a refugee reception centre is not usually received as great positive news by the residents of a neighbourhood. But beyond the hostile attitudes that are often expressed by some residents, there are some underlying causes that help to explain specific reactions. One of the reasons that generated distrust in the neighbourhood was based on the precarious situation in which some residents find themselves, especially young people who have difficulties in becoming independent, but also adults who have training needs to improve their position in the labour market. Therefore, the project took the following decisions:
- To allocate part of the centre's building to rent cheaper apartments for young people, mostly from the neighbourhood, who could also be involved in some way in the welcoming process of refugees.
- To offer free training in English and entrepreneurship to both asylum seekers and neighbours. This was a new training offer in a neighbourhood that is not distinguished by having many resources of this type.
- To promote a set of actions and activities around the centre that contributed to enriching the social dynamism of the neighbourhood, as it lacked many services and facilities that would allow the creation of dynamic environments with spaces and opportunities for participation and meeting in activities of a cultural, social and sporting nature.
These decisions helped to send out an important message that has been central to the focus of the Plan Einstein: the reception centre could also become an opportunity for the neighbourhood and bring new opportunities to its neighbours, both on an economic level (access to affordable housing), on a training level (free courses), and a social and cultural level. And, this generated an atmosphere which helped to mitigate the initial hostile reactions to the opening of the centre, and to ensure that the majority of neighbours maintained a rather neutral and non-negative attitude towards the presence of the centre.
Although many residents did not participate in the centre's activities, the number of participants in the training courses and programme activities have been very relevant. One of the complexities of the project has to do with the expectations that it has generated in some residents, who after evaluating the existence of the centre positively, have experienced the closure of the centre, which reduced some of the positive dynamics that it had generated.
3.2 Plan Einstein and the recognition of diversity
We have already commented that there are different options regarding how society interprets socio-cultural diversity. In some cases, there is a tendency to deny it, even to criminalise it, in others to ignore it and in others to over-emphasise it. The intercultural approach considers that recognising diversity in a broad sense is a fundamental requirement for moving towards a more inclusive society. At the same time, recognising diversity should not mean that we look too much at differences, but that we should also emphasise the common and shared elements that facilitate social cohesion.
In the case of policies for the reception of refugees and asylum seekers, it is as important to recognise the socio-cultural diversity of these people as it is for them to perceive that the host society is already diverse and to recognise and value this diversity.
In the case of Plan Einstein, the commitment to inclusion from day one has translated into a greater recognition of diversity, as asylum seekers have had more contact with their surroundings than in other centres. Usually, in the time that passes until their cases are solved, they have few opportunities to experience how diversity is interpreted and recognised by the host society.
In what way can we say that Plan Einstein has contributed to the recognition of diversity?
Firstly, it is essential to highlight the political commitment at the local level to the project approach, which has resulted in the dissemination of a positive narrative of the reception of refugees and asylum seekers. The narrative, as we analysed in the previous zoom-in, has been coherent with the conceptual framework consolidated in the city of Utrecht in favour of Human Rights, diversity and inclusion. The main focus has been on highlighting a message of unity and generating a broader and more inclusive "us". The repeated slogan of "living together, learning together and working together" is an example of this inclusive discourse that values the idea of an inclusive community, just like "we are all neighbours" or "building a future together".
Secondly, I believe that the project activities that have had the most significant impact on the recognition of diversity have been those of a cultural and social nature at the community level. These activities have also involved a broad and diverse set of local actors, allowing this narrative of recognition of diversity to reach a wider audience. Here are some examples:
- One of the strategies to promote a greater knowledge of reality and diversity consisted of the dissemination of personal testimonies. These testimonies humanise a reality that is often communicated from the coldness of data and the risk of stereotypes. These have been disseminated through social networks and the media, using videos, interviews, personal experiences etc.
- Every six months, the Central museum asked a group of residents of the city to give a reflection on the collection. This time, in collaboration with Welcome to Utrecht and Plan Einstein, the museum asked residents of the Overvecht district and six residents of AZC Einstein. In pairs of two, they sought out a work of art for each other in the Central Museum. The conversations that led to this choice have been recorded and contain remarkable stories. The interviews were presented for the first time in the presence of local politicians, and the results could be seen and heard at the reception centre and the Centraal Museum.
- Another example from a different museum, the Old Catholic museum of the city that has organised group visits mixing local visitors with Eritrean refugees. The Orthodox Coptic Church of Eritrea has many paintings similar to those in the museum, and they promoted debates to reflect and learn together about art and these similarities.
- The project Radio Einstein, an initiative of Stut Theater and Theatergroep Vreemde Vis. Radio Einstein is a radio studio located in the reception centre (now moved to the Haydn Centre) with asylum seekers as reporters, experience experts and storytellers. "An asylum seekers' centre. Do you ever wonder what is going on there? Who lives there? What are their stories? What do their days look like? Listen to Radio Einstein for an answer to these questions and more! In 30 short episodes, you can listen to the residents of this place. Listen to their special stories about home, music from faraway places and everyday talk."
- Another example of how to reach different audiences in an authentic way, that also reinforces the importance of attracting very diverse actors, comes from the theatre field. The WijkSafari was a theatre project with the aim that the "public" knows better the reality of different neighbours of the city. In this case, the project consisted of some people living for two weeks in the asylum seekers' centre and then explaining their personal experiences to the theatre group. Based on these stories, the theatre company designed a route through the neighbourhood in which local youngsters accompany the public on scooters, attending different performances in various spaces and come into contact with asylum seekers and neighbours.
- Another interesting and creative example has been the project to decorate a big outdoor sofa with mosaic, involving refugees and local residents. They started participating in a mosaic workshop and then decorated the sofa, which became a public spot for everyone around to meet and enjoy. This is an example of how this idea of recognising diversity and in the same time cooperating to achieve common goals, is not only relevant for the participants involved, but also it has a much wider visibility and dissemination to all citizens.
These examples highlight the importance of communication and the creation of a narrative that transcends the project. In this sense, all the images, videos or messages that have been disseminated through the different communication channels have given visibility to the socio-cultural diversity of both the participants in the project and the city.
Finally, refugees and asylum seekers were also able to see that Utrecht is a city of great diversity. To begin with, the neighbourhood in which the centre was located has an important presence among its neighbours of people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, this diversity, although to a lesser extent, was also reflected among the professionals and actors from different organisations and local entities involved in the development of many project activities.
The fact that people who arrive in an unknown country and city perceive that it is diverse and that it does not hide it, but recognises and values it, facilitates the complex inclusion and adaptation processes.
Indeed more can be done to recognise diversity, but Plan Einstein has shown the capacity and possibilities that cities have to start from the beginning to make an effort in favour of a more positive narrative of diversity. A narrative that, with the support of the city council and many local agents, is built bottom-up, with the asylum seekers and neighbours themselves as the main protagonists.
3.3 Plan Einstein and the promotion of positive interaction
Indeed, of the three principles of the intercultural approach, that of positive interaction is usually the least taken into account, especially in reception policies and more so in contexts of great uncertainty, such as the case of asylum seekers, as more attention is usually paid to resources to support people in moving towards greater autonomy.
However, many studies show the positive impact of interactions and that instead of leaving them for later, they should be promoted from the beginning, as Plan Einstein has done.
We have already seen in the analysis of the other principles, and we have also highlighted it in the previous zoom-in, that the project has focused on creating spaces and opportunities for interaction, encounter and also cooperation between asylum seekers and neighbours. Regardless of the number and intensity of these encounters and relationships, it is evident that compared to other reception centres, Plan Einstein has generated a social environment, in which these encounters have been much richer:
- Youngsters from the neighbourhood lived in the same building as the asylum seekers made it easier from the outset to have encounters and relationships between them. Some dynamics, such as the organisation of a weekly meal together, also facilitated to create an atmosphere conducive to these encounters.
- Some asylum seekers went to English or entrepreneurship courses with other neighbours which has also facilitated the creation of these relationships and social networks.
- The activities that have energised the youngsters themselves and the number of activities that have promoted different local actors, such as ‘Welcome to Utrecht’ have created an atmosphere of social community and open space for meeting and mutual knowledge. From language cafés to sports activities, gardening, theatre, music or collaborating in the new design of the open space of the centre among many others.
- The "Coffee of the World" challenge was a great example of how to promote cooperation on equal terms to achieve a common goal that was shared by asylum seekers, youngsters and neighbours alike. It is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and effective experiences to promote interaction in compliance with the Allport criteria.
- The open, common and flexible space for different activities and types of meetings was a great energiser for the centre and a facilitator of meetings and relationships. Without doubt one of the great lessons of this initiative is that if the criteria of equality, cooperation, common objectives and institutional monitoring are taken into account, the results can be very positive.
This is not to say that all asylum seekers and neighbours were participating in the activities. However, even for those who did not experience such encounters, living in an open and facilitating environment changes perceptions and reduces mental distance and distrust.
If we analyse in greater detail and based on the evaluation work carried out by the team of researchers, we can see some of the complexities that have been identified in order to obtain a more significant impact from these meeting spaces and activities.
- During the first phase of the project when there were fewer asylum seekers due to delayed arrivals, relations with the young residents were closer and more intense than when the largest group of asylum seekers arrived. The balance between the number of youngsters and asylum seekers in a small group and the sharing of common and entrance spaces facilitated the perception of equality and the intensity of the interactions.
- The physical separation between the youngsters and the asylum seekers set by the requirements of the COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Newcomers) of the Ministry of Justice, made more spontaneous meetings in the space of the centre difficult. The changes in the profile of the asylum seekers, with greater age differences, with more families with children, with different educational profiles, etc. also meant greater complexities in facilitating relations with the young residents. These circumstances and decisions marked by the institutional context made the opportunities for interaction more complex, but those responsible and partners in the project reacted by promoting more activities to encourage opportunities for meeting and cooperation.
It has been mentioned before that the perception of diversity improves if we have high levels of interaction with our friends, but if we add to this that some of these interactions occur on equal terms with people from different profiles and backgrounds, then the impact is more significant. These results confirm that the commitment of Plan Einstein to promote a socially and culturally dynamic atmosphere that facilitates spaces for interaction and contact at all levels is undoubtedly a positive strategy to improve the acceptance and recognition of diversity. Certainly, methodologies and actions must be adjusted according to the context, profiles, and institutional and other barriers. Still, the commitment to facilitate interaction has been a positive effort and should inspire many other projects and cities.
 For a more detailed analysis of these constraints, see the article published by the project evaluation team Oliver, C; Geuijen, K; Dekker, R; (2020) Social contact and encounter in asylum seeker reception: the Utrecht Refugee Launchpad https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10108503/