What role for cities in terms of reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees?
What skills and responsibilities should cities have to welcome and integrate migrant and refugee populations?
In 2015, the European Union (EU) faced a sharp increase in the number of migrants arriving on its territory, with 1.3 million people having applied for asylum in one of its Member States. These newcomers are naturallydrawn to cities, which represent an attractive concentration of economic opportunities and availability of services, making local authorities acutely aware of their responsibilities in terms of reception and integration. While European States have sovereignty over determining the conditions of access and stay and, in some cases, also the reception conditions and social support, cities are increasingly emerging as new stakeholders in migration policy. Given their powers and their willingness to take action, what role can they play in welcoming and integrating migrant and refugee populations?
In Germany in 2017, three quarters of asylum applications were received in the three Länder of North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where several of the country’s most populous cities (Cologne, Munich and Stuttgart) are located. Similarly, in France, 50% of all asylum applications were made in the Île-de-France region in 2018, including 16.5% in Paris. As the “first port of call” for migrants, local authorities “have the responsibility to provide newly-arrived migrants with access to key public services” according to Resolution 411 adopted in 2017 by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which represents local and regional authorities in the 47 Council of Europe Member States.
Within the EU, cities have very different competences depending on the country, in terms of both reception and integration of migrants arriving on their territory. Firstly, in terms of reception, the most pressing and difficult challenge remains the accommodation of asylum seekers. However, in most countries, the creation, location around the country and management of reception centres is the responsibility of the State; local authorities being then only responsible for mobilising and coordinating the various voluntary stakeholders involved in these structures (language courses, discussion groups), or, in some countries such as the Netherlands, for making vacant buildings available to create new accommodation facilities. Germany, Finland and Sweden, are the exception to this rule. In Germany, while the initial reception centres for asylum seekers fall under the regional responsibility of the Länder, local authorities are responsible for establishing, operating and maintaining individual and group accommodation for people who have been unable to find a place to stay through their own means within three months of submitting their application. The City of Hamburg, in the north of the country, doubled the number of facilities between 2014 and 2017, with available places increasing from 11,000 to 28,000, hereby meeting all accommodation needs over the period. On the other hand, in some European countries, local authorities have greater responsibilities in terms of welcoming populations that are considered to be vulnerable. In the United Kingdom, for example, people who are unable to live independently because of their age or physical condition are considered as having a particular need for “care and attention”, to which local authorities must respond.
Local authorities are not only responsible for social cohesion, living together and the creation of a shared public space, but also have broader responsibilities in terms of integration. In most European countries, for example, cities are responsible for the education of migrant children within the facilities that they manage, often elementary and primary schools, and the most proactive are also involved in the fight against segregation within their institutions, as is the case in Barcelona, Glasgow, Gothenburg, Paris and Athens. Some cities have also established temporary programmes exclusively designed to integrate individuals who have been granted international protection, such as the Austrian city of Salzburg which has, since 2015, offered training courses for young refugees, workshops to recognise qualifications, and language courses. Finally, in terms of housing, while refugees generally fall under the common law system, some cities, in the Netherlands for example, are responsible for finding accommodation for them. The City of Amsterdam has thus established an action plan with donors to invest in 2,800 new buildings, 50% of which are set aside for refugees. However, this investment in reception facilities depends to a large extent on the will of the mayors, and some may, in contrast, demonstrate an ability to create problems and block solutions. One notable such case is the Mayor of Calais, who refused to create water and sanitation facilities for migrants despite the injunctions issued by the Conseil d’État (Council of State) in 2017, and then banned “abusive occupation” in the city centre, including “operations to distribute meals to migrants” in October 2019.
Cities often encounter many difficulties in implementing reception and integration policies. First of all, mayors remain very much dependent on central government decisions regarding asylum and immigration. Thus, in the absence of clear and coherent European or national responses to the boom in arrivals in 2015, local authorities have suffered from insufficient human and financial resources and an environment that is largely unfavourable to the integration of migrant populations. Many were thus unable to accommodate and, subsequently, to contribute to the integration of all asylum applicants. In Italy, the restrictive security policy pursued by the former Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini (funding cuts, closure of some reception centres, increase in expulsions, abolition of humanitarian protection for those not eligible for refugee status) has led to an increase in squats and camps in Italian cities such as the Tiburtina district in Rome and the former Olympic village in Turin. In addition, 88% of local authorities who were surveyed by the OECD said they suffer from a lack of clarity regarding the distribution of competences between the different levels of power when it comes to policies for integrating migrant populations. In order to clarify the division of responsibilities, the French Ministry of the Interior was forced to hold an emergency information meeting for mayors in October 2015 to clarify what it was possible for them to do. Finally, although cities can theoretically apply for European subsidies under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) or the European Social Fund (ESF), including for integration projects, these are mainly distributed to central government or NGOs, and local authorities are thus deprived of an important lever for action. Given this context, the Urban Agenda for the EU suggested looking at the possibility of creating “funding mechanisms” through which the AMIF, the ESF and other EU funds could be combined with loans from the European Investment Bank and made available to local authorities.
While the increase in the number of new arrivals in 2015 has highlighted the limits of local authorities’ powers regarding reception and integration in some EU Member States, it has also allowed them, paradoxically, to stand up and stake their claim to be legitimate actors in asylum and immigration policy. The first Global Compact for Migration, adopted in December 2018 thus recognised the role of local authorities in managing migration, and the task of integrating migrants and refugees into cities was incorporated into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, as well as into the partnerships defined by the Urban Agenda for the EU in 2017. In Germany, for example, the mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, has proposed an amendment to the Federal Building Code to allow the construction of temporary accommodation for asylum seekers in non-residential areas. Similarly, some Dutch cities have implemented legal provisions facilitating action on the local level, such as the construction of refugee camps, the use of empty industrial or commercial buildings, as well as airport and hotel hangars for temporary accommodation solutions or transit accommodation. Other European cities have also developed innovative approaches to ensure new arrivals are extended a more dignified welcome : in cooperation with central government, such as the City of Paris, which co-financed the Paris-Nord Humanitarian Centre with the Ministry of the Interior; independently of central government, by further involving civil society and NGOs; by participating in international networks for the exchange of good practices; and by allowing migrants to participate fully in the life of the city by contributing in the definition of public policies.
Finally, some local authorities have turned themselves into forces of opposition, openly taking sides against the anti-migration positions of their national governments and calling for greater autonomy. This is particularly the case in “cities of refuge” such as Barcelona, where Mayor Ada Colau publicly opposed the former President of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, by declaring in 2015: “Spain is one of the EU countries that receives the most aid when it comes to migration issues, but has largely allocated that to building detention centres”. In sharp contrast to government policy, she declared her city open to anyone who had fled their own country and announced the creation of a register of families willing to offer housing or help refugees. Some European mayors have even been targeted because of their positions in favour of welcoming migrants, such as the candidate and subsequent mayor of Cologne in Germany, Henriette Reker, who was seriously injured in 2015, and the mayor of Gdansk in Poland, Pawel Adamowicz, who was murdered in January 2019.
The rise in the number of migrants arriving in 2015 thus revealed a crisis in European national migration policies and, in a number of European countries, turned the distribution of responsibilities in asylum policy on its head. While cities were first and foremost involved in the “final phase” of the reception and integration of migrants, after their rescue, initial reception and admission, it has now been established that local integration policies conducted by cities are ultimately a prerequisite for the development of a coherent and systematic reception policy on the national level. However, this new approach requires clarification around the areas of responsibility and how competences are distributed between the different levels of action (national, regional and local), in order to ensure complementarity and coherence in the development of asylum policy.