What role for cities in terms of reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees?
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“Integration takes place in the concrete, not in the abstract of national political discussions”By Jeroen Doomernik, Professor at the University of Amsterdam and Researcher in the European IMISCOE network
Jeroen Doomernik is Professor at the University of Amsterdam (Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences) and coordinator of the research group on “Refugees in European localities” in the European interdisciplinary research network IMISCOE (International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion in Europe).
For the past two decades (taking the 1999 Tampere Summit as the formal starting point) the Member States of European Union have been working towards a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) in which international protection would be guaranteed in a spirit of solidarity and joint responsibility. When the so-called refugee crisis of 2015-2016 occurred, it became clear that this goal had not been reached. Some of the Member States received large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees, whereas others received fewer or refused to take in any meaningful numbers. Solidarity between Members States was clearly missing and the only feasible means by which an implosion of the Union could be prevented arrived with the EU-Turkey agreement which released pressure by minimalizing further inflows.
Four reasons for the EU Member States’ lack of solidarity can be identified. First of all, it has never been made explicit what the political goal of this CEAS was to be nor which architecture would be required to its achievement. Most of the CEAS consists of Directives, leaving considerable room for national interpretation and thus for unequal outcomes in terms of reception and protection standards. Secondly, the one element of the CEAS that has force of law (i.e. was made into a Regulation) is the Dublin principle (originally the Dublin Convention of 1997). Simply put, this regulation stipulates that the Member State in which an asylum seeker sets first foot is responsible for the subsequent adjudication of the asylum request and for the protection of those who are recognized as refugees. In practice, this means that those Member States located on the EU’s outer borders are disproportionately burdened by the care for new asylum seekers. This furthermore means in practice that the Member States who are located elsewhere on the continent have no interest in changing this Regulation. Thirdly, the first steps towards a CEAS were taken prior to the EU’s enlargement of 2014 (when the Central European states acceded). These States had not been party to earlier negotiations and had no choice but to accept what had been agreed before, such as the Dublin arrangements. As a consequence, the governments of these States can (and do) argue that the failings of the CEAS are not of their making and reject responsibility for their repair (e.g. by taking over a fair share of asylum seekers from Italy or Greece which countries depend on solidarity from other Member States to relieve their burden). Lastly, asylum and migration in general have become the hunting ground for populist, often right-wing, politics. Parties fearmongering on migration issues and blaming “Europe” for their arrival have gained significant political weight in most Member States. This makes it difficult for governments to pursue realistic and pragmatic policies in the field of asylum, migration and further European integration.
The above leaves the CEAS in an incomplete state and the Member States in a deadlock. Political courage is largely absent and collective action problems are cemented by the Dublin Regulation. The only path the Member States collective can agree upon are those measures that keep the numbers of asylum seekers low or reduce those further. This means a prolongation of the EU-Turkey agreement and its emulation in relations with other third countries. If solidarity between Member states cannot be organized the responsibility for refugee protection is shifted elsewhere. This obviously is a grave development, for there are many reasons to suspect refugee protection in these regions is not meeting international standards. And it furthermore means Europe fails to live up to the obligations it set itself in 1999.
The question then becomes if national parliaments and governments are unable to solve this problem, might there be other institutions who could? When the obvious venue – Europe – fails to deliver, could sub-national actors fill this gap?
Regardless of the fact that refugee policies are a national mandate, lower levels of governance usually have to shape the inclusion of refugees. Integration takes place in the concrete, not in the abstract of national political discussions.
Not discounting other dimensions of integration, cities are first and foremost interested in providing core provisions such as housing and access to the labour market. Once those issues have been adequately dealt with the remainder in all likelihood follows. The fundamental problem with housing is that it is scarce in those locations where most people desire to live. In present-day Europe, this usually are urban areas. The political challenge for city governments is then to efficiently house refugees whilst also offering social housing to others. This challenge can be momentous, especially when cities experience political pressure towards de-regularization of their housing markets. A market logic would encourage the housing of refugees in more remote areas with lower population pressure, which in practice is precisely what happens, especially when their relocation follows some sort of national distribution key. However, these locations may well be low in employment opportunities. At the same time, labour market integration would benefit from an optimal match between the refugees’ human capital and regional or local labour market needs. For this reason local governments have an interest in having some influence in refugee relocation mechanisms beyond fair distribution based on sheer numbers.
City governments do not act in isolation. Also civil society actors and businesses for moral and political as well as practical reasons have a considerable interest in successful refugee integration. Their actions in this respect do not occur in isolation: national discourse matters as well as national policies regarding the distribution of refugees, their housing and welfare. Local governments rely on national funding for the implementation of these policies. However these funds often times are limited and restricted to specific policy goals. At the same time cities tend to be more inclusive of immigrants than national governments want to be (e.g. including undocumented persons and rejected asylum seekers), which increases budgetary gaps and political tensions between levels of governance. As a consequence, cities look for support and the exchange of good practices among each other in networks such as “Eurocities”, “Cities of Refuge”, and “Solidarity Cities”. They furthermore seek more autonomy in the field of refugee policies by jointly amplifying their political voice and by lobbying for support with the European Commission and its agencies. Also noteworthy are examples of legal action against national policies through the invocation of international law such as the European Convention for Human Rights. In other words, whereas national governments have become warry of international collaboration, cities increasingly understand the potential benefits of linking up horizontally and vertically in the interest of successful refugee reception and integration.
Birgit Glorius & Jeroen Doomernik (Eds.) (2020) Geographies of Asylum in Europe and the Role of European Localities. Springer: Cham