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European Councils Build Solidarity Cities at the Local Level

European city councils have launched an initiative to coordinate their responses to the migrant crisis.

Nationalism, if it ever left us, is definitively back in vogue. With nationalist parties resurgent throughout Europe, more and more European nationals are vesting their political hopes in national governments. But for those new migrants without increasingly-coveted EU citizenship, the institutions most likely to come to their aid are not nation states, but local and city governments.

For what now seems like a brief moment, the German state led the way in ‘progressive’ policies towards refugee reception, with its chancellor Angela Merkel the unlikely poster-child for resettlement rights. But she was one of the key architects of the highly criticised EU-Turkey deal which saw many migrants condemned to the purgatory of refugee camps. She recently called for migrants who make it to northern Europe to be “returned” to their landing-spots in Greece; a country whose limited resources are already struggling to meet people’s needs.

Nonetheless, where many national governments shy away from earnest efforts towards long-term refugee integration, for municipalities the urgency of the problem has proved unavoidable. While refugees usually arrive in countries in rural areas; coastlines and borderlands — they are mostly headed for cities. Thomas Jezequel is a policy advisor on migration for the pan-European organisation EUROCITIES, a network and policy forum for 170 cities across 35 countries. He notes that “the refugee dream is an urban dream, as reception networks (family, friends, or fellow nationals) economic and education opportunities are located primarily in cities…This is often why refugees embarked on potentially deadly trips across the Mediterranean, why they walked from Greece to Hungary, and why, once placed in a reception centre in rural Germany or northern Sweden, they try to move on.”

Thus, the influx of migrants poses a unique challenge for local governments, testing their resources and the robustness of strategies already put in place to tackle the issues faced by new migrants, such as language barriers, homelessness and social inclusion. “Cities are where integration will succeed or fail. They are facing this two-fold challenge of providing for the immediate needs of asylum seekers and refugees, whilst also having to organise the more long-term integration process of all newcomers, essential for ensuring social cohesion over the years to come.”

In an effort to try and coordinate these responses, EUROCITIES has launched the initiative ‘Solidarity Cities‘: a network of city governments and municipalities from across Europe aiming to pool resources, share skills, and advocate for a more inclusive approach to migrant reception at a national level. Proposed by Mayor of Athens George Kaminis, it aims to “act as a loudspeaker for the actions taken by European major cities since the beginning of the refugee crisis.” From Leipzig to Barcelona, to Stockholm, cities are signing up to, “collaborate with each other within EUROCITIES… about what works and what does not, and about how what works can be transferred and implemented.” Where often, social policies are normally subject to years of testing and scrutiny, the rapid influx of refugees means that there is little time for a trial-and-error approach; thus, skill-sharing becomes a matter of survival for the migrants that arrive in their jurisdictions. Jezequel is clear on the matter: “We cannot afford not to get it right.”

The usual work of EUROCITIES encompasses research, skill-sharing and advocacy in many areas, including healthcare, housing and environmental protection. And on all these fronts, local policy has been tested by the migrant crisis. “While cities have to manage the urgent challenges presented by the daily arrival of refugees and asylum seekers, they also urgently need to establish or upgrade the necessary infrastructure (Housing, Education, labour market inclusion, civic integration) to prepare for the considerable long term challenge of integrating newcomers into our societies and ensuring social cohesion over the years to come.”

Devolved powers mean that cities can try to push through more progressive solutions, “contrary to national governments,” amongst whom talk of border policing and deportation has become the bread-and butter of political discourse. Jezequel tells me that “Solidarity Cities is open to all European cities wishing to work closely with each other and committed to solidarity in the field of refugee reception and integration.” This commitment involves signing up to a 4-point charter:

  1. Information and knowledge exchange on the refugee situation in cities
  2. Advocating for better involvement and direct funding for cities on reception and integration of refugees
  3. City-to-city technical and financial assistance and capacity building
  4. Pledges by European cities to receive relocated asylum seekers

The work of Solidarity Cities attempts to bridge the gap between national rhetoric and local need, putting pressure on national governments. “Solidarity Cities will help us show a united front of cities on this topic, because cities have clear demands towards EU institutions and member states, in terms of integration funding, and involvement in decision making.” Nonetheless, in many states, migration policy still largely falls within the purview of national governments. Piotr Olech, from Gdansk city council, recounts that whilst he would love to join ‘Solidarity Cities’, national policy means that Gdansk might not be able to commit to the fourth — and perhaps most radical — commitment.

All these efforts, of course, will cost. And that has sometimes proved rather a sticking point; years of nationally-imposed austerity measures have spelt enormous cutbacks in public welfare and infrastructure, and local governments have fewer and fewer resources to pool. Jequezel said that “we want to secure diversified funding to support this work, and have already reached some agreements.” There is a dedicated pot of EU funding intended for precisely these kinds of efforts, but they are doled out to national governments, rather than directly to cities. At a recent EUROCITIES conference, ‘Welcoming Refugees, a City Challenge’, many delegates from different cities voiced frustration at their frequently-thwarted attempts to lobby their national governments to channel those resources to the local institutions on the front lines of the crisis.

Ramón Sanahuja, Barcelona’s director of welcome policies for migrants, contends that this AMIF funding doesn’t just fail to reach the places where it could be most effectively deployed; it’s sometimes used to bolster the efforts towards further border securitisation and deportation. Solidarity Cities hopes to make changes that would combat this kind of misuse of funding: “the reception and integration infrastructure in cities must be properly funded by the national and European levels.”

Beyond a commitment to “respect fundamental rights,” the city councils couldn’t all be said to share a political platform. But, perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to prove much of a stumbling block in the search for practical solutions. Exposed as they are to the realities of coordinating responses to the complex needs of new arrivals, ideology sometimes comes second to the practical exigency of making sure that migrants are at least fed and sheltered. As Jequezel put it, “cities have a lot to lose from policies that consign asylum seekers to deprivation and exclusion, put them at risk of becoming victims of abusive employers and landlords, smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime, or simply prevent them from as quickly as possible becoming full members of our societies.”

Solidarity Cities make the case for refugee inclusion in terms of the economic and social benefits of migration: “Failing to integrate refugees into our societies impedes the full realisation of the benefits immigration can bring; it inhibits asylum seekers from making a contribution to host societies and can prove costly in the long term for local as well as for national authorities.” Nonetheless, the initiative does not shy away from making the moral case for these kind of initiatives. Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau reflected: “Where are our European values of solidarity, humanity and dignity when it comes to the refugee crisis? The response at national and EU level is clearly not enough, but cities have stepped up. We, the cities, are acting and we’re joining Solidarity Cities to work for an urgent and humane response to the situation.”

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