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Urban approaches to human rights: tracking networks of engagement in Amsterdam’s debate on irregular migration



This paper discusses local engagements with human rights norms in Amsterdam, in the context of responses to irregular migration. Specifically, the article studies the local government’s development of a human rights agenda and reflects how this aligns with or contradicts (1) the local government’s program for irregular migrants and (2) NGO initiatives in the realm of human rights and irregular migrants. In 2016 the municipality of Amsterdam launched an “Amsterdam Human Rights Agenda” and (irregular) migration is not mentioned, while the local government does have a progressive program for irregular migrants. Simultaneously, several NGOs contest the municipality for their approach towards irregular migrants, at times using human rights language. Analysis of stakeholder interviews, city council meetings and policy documents reveal the conflicting approaches that urban actors have towards human rights. The language of rights gives weight to claims of NGOs, precisely because of its legal dimension. Contrastingly, in the human rights agenda the municipality mainly refers to rights in their moral sense and refrains from legal language. Concrete issues that are already on the political agenda become labelled as human rights problems. Therefore, this article deliberates whether this undermines the possible strength of human rights as an urban governance framework.


  • Human rights
  • Integration
  • Refuge