Cities of Migration
Local governments are developing creative ways of welcoming refugees into their cities, often despite national policies rather than because of them. National and regional governments could learn from those experiences.
Cities of Migration
Sven-Kåre Evenseth/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)
By Parvati Nair /

While leaders in the European Union hold high-level meetings on how to best address the ‘crisis’ by sending migrants back the way they came, more migrants continue arriving daily in cities from Athens to Berlin to Barcelona. After perilous journeys, migrants reach Europe with the hope of finding security and building better lives for themselves. Their immediate needs often include housing, healthcare, legal aid, language training, and assistance finding employment. Much of the practical work being done to provide for these needs is performed by individual city governments, but their local strategies are often at odds with national and regional plans. Such policy incoherence is the result of representatives of cities being largely absent from the negotiations taking place at the international level.

Barcelona became a ‘city of refuge’ last September, and since then it has worked to welcome asylum seekers to the city.

The unprecedented scale of migrant arrivals in Europe is putting increasing pressure on cities to provide for new arrivals, and local governments are taking the initiative to offer creative solutions. Facing the necessity of providing for their newest residents, cities are no longer waiting to enact policies that are handed down to them from decision makers at the international and national levels. Instead, local governments are actively developing their own strategies to welcome migrants and to share best practices amongst themselves. The diverse responses of cities to recent migrant arrivals illustrate how cities are redefining themselves as influential policy actors.

Cities in dialogue

Recently, Barcelona’s ‘urban resilience week’ brought the mayors of Barcelona, Athens, and Tiassalé (Côte d’Ivoire) together with the general secretary of United Cities and Local Governments to exchange experienceswith developing local response mechanisms to welcome migrants in their cities.

The migration situation in Europe is constantly evolving, but there will be no endpoint. It therefore necessitates long-term solutions. Athens, as its mayor Giorgos Kaminis explained, was once a city of transit for migrants, but now that Greece’s northern border is largely shut there are at least 50,000 migrants stuck in Greece. That means Athens needs to change its response from temporary provision for those in transit to sustainable solutions that will integrate migrants into the social fabric of the city. In doing so, it would greatly benefit from the experiences of other cities that are facing this challenge, and city-to-city partnerships are a central strategy for doing so.

Barcelona, city of refuge

Even at the national level, cities are often unable to have a voice in policymaking. The local government of Barcelona has lobbied the Spanish national government to take in more asylum seekers and provide additional services, but these calls have been ineffective in changing national policies. While Barcelona is not currently a major receiving city of asylum seekers, the local government is taking the initiative to not just react when migrants arrive, but to build a resilient city by anticipating the challenges and planning accordingly.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, has emphasised that Barcelona has always been a city of solidarity, and that the response to new migrants should be no different. Barcelona declared itself a ‘city of refuge’ last September, and since then the city council has worked on various funding and logistical schemes to facilitate welcoming asylum seekers to the city.

In March of 2016, Barcelona reached innovative direct agreements with three cities: Athens, Lesbos and Lampedusa. The mayors of Athens and Barcelona have negotiated a city-to-city agreement for Barcelona to welcome 100 refugees from Athens. This is intended to be a pilot initiative that both cities have indicated their willingness to continue in the future. However, because the state has authority of asylum matters, this plan cannot be implemented without the approval Spain’s acting prime minister.

Lesbos and Lampedusa, both hubs for migrants arriving in Europe from across the Mediterranean, have also made agreements with the city of Barcelona. These new agreements are strategic cooperations to enhance exchanges of best practices, and Barcelona will offerLesbos and Lampedusa logistical, social, and technical support. For example, experts from Barcelona’s environmental department are set to advise local officials in Lesbos on waste management strategies, specifically regarding how best to mitigate the negative effects of all the discarded rubber dinghies and lifejackets on the island.

In parallel to Barcelona offering help to some cities, Barcelona has been learning from other cities. Colau and a delegation from Barcelona’s city council travelled to several cities in Germany to learn first-hand from the experiences of local governments there. In Leipzig, local officials explained that they held a community meeting before opening an asylum seeker reception centre in a certain neighbourhood, and Barcelona will be taking the same approach in order to promote understanding and acceptance of new arrivals among the city's established residents.

In working to establish Barcelona as a city of refuge, Colau and the city council have demonstrated their willingness to learn from certain successful cities as well as to provide their expertise to other cities in need, thus setting an example for cities in Spain and in Europe.

Beyond Europe

The migrants arriving in Europe come from across the world, and Europe is not the only destination for those fleeing conflict or seeking economic opportunities. Other cities across Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East are grappling with the same challenges and developing their own solutions.

At the Barcelona Urban Resilience Week event, Sylla Soualiho, the mayor of Tiassalé, Côte d’Ivoire, provided a reminder to look outside Europe for examples. The city of Tiassalé received thousands of internally displaced Ivoirians during the conflict in 2010 and successfully integrated them, and the city is now a leading economic hub in the region. It is crucial to depart from the Eurocentric perspective that deemed current global migration flows a "crisis" only when they reached Europe's borders. There is much to be learned from examples outside of Europe, especially from cities like Tiassalé that have successfully integrated large numbers of migrants in the past.

Changing the narrative

Even while cities are creatively implementing local measures to welcome migrants, a major setback is the negative way in which many governments, media outlets, and ordinary citizens talk about migration. The current ‘migration crisis’ is not just a question of Europe right now, but of Europe in the future: what societies Europe will build and what values Europe will choose to uphold. Changing the dominant narrative is crucial to achieving positive outcomes, Josep Roig, the general secretary of United Cities and Local Governments said. Governments and the media have the power to decide whether to discuss migration as a threat or an opportunity, and this starts at the city level.

But even at the city level, discourses often focus on refugees and asylum seekers at the expense of other migrants. While people arriving from Syria meet the traditional definition of a refugee and are therefore eligible for certain protections, other migrants coming to Europe are no less in need of assistance. Categorising new arrivals as either migrants or refugees is becoming increasingly arbitrary as people move for a mixture of reasons. Upholding the human rights of all migrants must be made a priority in city-level responses as a way of setting an example for national and international policymakers.

New strategies

International institutions are starting to recognise that they can learn from the positive work being done by cities to welcome migrants. At the beginning of April 2016, the European Commission convened a round table of mayors and political representatives from several European cities, including Athens and Barcelona. These leaders discussed ways to strengthen the integration of recently-arrived migrants in an urban context, and hopefully their conclusions will be used to improve EU policy and funding priorities. However, such a meeting cannot be a one-off occurrence. It is just the first step of what should be an ongoing dialogue at multiple levels: cities with cities, local authorities with their respective national governments, and cities with other actors at the international level.

As cities like Barcelona are recognising, there is a need to go beyond simply fulfilling the obligation to receive refugees to actively welcoming migrants as new residents who can make positive contributions to European cities. Cities are taking the initiative to dialogue with each other and develop new partnerships and policy frameworks, and in doing so they are redefining their role as central actors who deserve a voice in the international policy realm.

Parvati Nair directs the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility.She is also Professor of Hispanic, Migration and Cultural Studies at Queen Mary, University of London.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. ​

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Cities of Migration