Reeling in Newcomers: Urban Competition around Migrant Reception in Brussels


The management of ethnic diversity and its various forms of institutional articulation and implementation are increasingly taking place at the urban level. At the same time, urban scholars consider cities to be battlegrounds where competing groups contest the meaning and articulation of citizenship. In this article, I build on these insights to argue that competition over newcomer reception between different, linguistically divided political coalitions in the city of Brussels are mainly battles over establishing their own definition of citizenship and asserting their political influence. Building on an eighteen‐month ethnographic study in three reception offices (two Dutch‐speaking and one francophone) in Brussels, I analyse the different strategies these offices mobilize to recruit and retain newcomers. I argue that recruitment is a deliberate tool used to influence the political‐cultural demographics of the city and destabilize the linguistic power balance in Brussels. In this way, recruitment becomes a means to attract newcomers to the reception offices in the hope that they will develop a deep connection and loyalty to, and eventually identify politically with, the agency’s respective political community. Theoretically, this article develops a perspective that regards the city as a field that becomes constituted in and through the contest between different urban institutions to ‘reel in’ newcomers. In this space, these institutions take up positions for and against each other and assemble strategies to influence the urban populations.