Many European countries are still failing to provide a comprehensive policy on the hosting and integration of refugees. However, individual politicians and activists in towns and cities across Europe have taken matters into their own hands, motivated by deeply-held convictions about human rights and solidarity. Despite facing considerable challenges and having to cope with often unexpected consequences, experiences from Italy to France to Poland have shown that initiatives at the local level can make a real difference.

Shortly after being elected France’s President last year, Emmanuel Macron pledged to improve the condition of refugees in France, promising that no-one would be left out in the streets as winter approached. Yet with winter now well underway, many refugees continue to live in dire conditions, in streets, parks, woods or makeshift camps. Despite the President’s compassionate statements, France’s policy and rhetoric on refugees appear to be becoming tougher than they ever were. Poland, meanwhile, has maintained its hard line with no sign of change: Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who took office at the end of 2017, reiterated a blunt refusal to take in refugees through European resettlement programmes. Due to its geographical position, Italy has never had the option of ignoring the migration issue, although it has recently received criticism for its failure to manage the flow of refugees. Along with its southern neighbours, Italy has long appealed for EU support to cope with the pressure of arriving refugees.

With their capacity to explore and experiment with creative solutions, and to implement ambitious projects, even if on a very modest scale, Europe’s towns are leading the way in turning EU leaders’ lofty rhetoric of hospitality into real action.

Local and non-governmental partnership in Grande Synthe

Damien Carême, the Green mayor of the small town of Grande-Synthe in Northern France, took extraordinary measures when faced with the large-scale arrival of refugees in summer 2015. By the end of 2015, there were 2 500 refugees in a town of just over 23 000 inhabitants. Carême repeatedly called on the French state to provide support, but assistance from the national level was not  forthcoming. So, the local authorities joined forces with Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to set up a camp. “Of course, this was not an ideal solution as a camp is not a pretty thing,” stresses Carême, “it was an emergency humanitarian solution to the immediate problem we were facing, that people were being left cold and hungry out in the rain – basically in conditions not fit for human beings.” The camp at La Linière was opened in March 2016, providing shelter, water, showers, heating, and food, with medical help also on hand – organised in shifts from the various NGOs.

Far from being supported in this effort by the state, Carême found he had to develop strategies to justify his initiative. “In France there is what is called the ‘Délit de solidarité’ – which means you are not supposed to help someone who is in the country illegally. But as an elected official, I also have other responsibilities and have to abide by codes, such as the Public Health code which states there should be sanitary conditions, like sewage systems and access to water, and the Family code which compels us not to leave young people out in the street.” The national authorities eventually recognised the camp at the end of May 2016 and began to cover the costs of its running and maintenance. Working with state services, local authorities managed to keep numbers at the camp declining as people were progressively placed in ‘centres of reception and orientation’ (CAO) around the country [1].

This worked well until a new camp was opened in Paris, which began rerouting all new arrivals after a matter of days, saturating the system and leaving no places left for those leaving Grande-Synthe. This, coupled with the simultaneous dismantling of the Calais jungle, meant that numbers began to rise again sharply at the end of 2016. The resulting decline in conditions at the camp saw tensions rise, and after a conflict escalated in April 2017, the camp burned to the ground in a single night. This deeply demoralising incident was followed by further challenges, as the spring 2017 presidential elections left Carême without a political interlocutor to hold to account or ask for support in providing help for the refugees who remained in the area.

Carême is still lobbying for the state to provide a CAO for his area, while the state refuses on the basis that they don’t want to create “points of fixation”. For the mayor, however, this is a false argument, “because we see that people are still here, even when nothing is put in place.” Like other Greens and NGOs, Carême takes a dim view of Macron’s policy on refugees. In his view, the securitarian approach of dismantling and evacuation operations is as futile as it is inhumane: “it costs the state a fortune and it doesn’t work as people always come back, so we need another solution – which is a state-funded and managed reception to direct people towards CAOs and encourage them to apply for asylum in France – as was successfully being done before.”

Carême’s initiative met with a largely positive response from the public in Grande-Synthe, “as we explained what was happening throughout and carried out a kind of education towards the population of our town, everything went very well. I never had any petitions, demonstrations, or hostile movements.” A factor which helped to promote positive attitudes, explains Carême, is that citizens felt proud of their town’s achievement. This was largely due to the high level of attention from the press which the town received as it opened its camp. Carême works hard to sustain this attention, travelling around the country to share his testimonial. “The rooms are full – people are clearly interested, and they always ask us at the end what they can do as citizens. So my conclusion is that French people are much more willing to be hospitable than the media lead us to believe.”

A new incarnation of solidarity in Gdansk

As a port town on Poland’s Baltic coast and in light of its history, Gdansk has long held associations with openness and solidarity.  But, as elsewhere in Poland, its provisions and policy towards refugees have been severely lacking. In response, Marta Siciarek, a Gdansk local with a background in cross-cultural psychology, founded the ‘Immigrant Support Centre’ to provide assistance to refugees, most of whom reached Poland from the Caucasus and Central Asia. “I saw the need for a centre like this because nothing is being explained to people and the legal issues change all the time,” she explains. “People are not aware of how to legalise their stay, find a work permit, write a CV, get a job…” The lack of any framework means Poland’s refugees are essentially invisible, unable to receive any formal recognition or official status. As a result, they are vulnerable to falling into illegal forms of work, and have to resort to middle-men who often exploit them. Siciarek’s centre aims to provide people with reliable information and resources as soon as they arrive in the city, before this occurs, yet she and her colleagues often find themselves having to help refugees  overcome difficult situations which have complex legal implications that require the involvement of the police or the authorities.

This is not a sustainable solution, according to Siciarek, as relying on NGOs to provide basic services for integration in lieu of the state takes a considerable toll on individuals, “We do need a state policy – NGOs cannot do all work of integration, there has to be a sharing of responsibility with state and city level.” For Siciarek, Poland’s failure to put integration policy in place has been a cynical strategy to show hostility to refugees and make them move on. “We have been a transit country for years. The refugees who came here from Syria left due to a lack of integration policies in place – if you respect people and want them to stay you need integration policies to help them become full citizens.”

When asked about attitudes of Polish citizens in Gdansk towards refugees, Siciarek says it has “been half and half. We’ve had a lot of hate, and the ultra-right wing have been very strong in expressing their discontent with equality. But I would say that people are more reasonable than they seem in media – where views expressed are much more extreme than those of ordinary citizens. This is not only the case in Gdansk but everywhere in Poland. In 2015, when Poland was expected to host Syrian refugees [through the EU relocation programme] many people in Gdansk contacted our centre to volunteer, wanting to give their support and be mentors. But those refugees never came, so this momentum had nowhere to go.”

For Siciarek, the lack of support from the Polish government, coupled with the disinformation and scaremongering rife in the media, make the work of winning popular support for their initiative much harder. At the end of June 2017, two declarations of cooperation on integration and migration were signed by the mayors of some of the most important Polish cities. Siciarek views the message this sends to be as important as the measure itself: “the policy itself is a source of education. Mayors are modelling attitudes. I believe very much now that leaders’ attitudes are more important than what the media writes which is why I’m working so hard to convince mayors of big cities to support these policies – they are important in shaping citizens’ attitudes.”

Riace’s economy of hospitality

Another mayor who has made a name for himself and his town for a pioneering approach to the reception of refugees is Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace, in the southernmost region of Italy. The small town (1 500-1 700 inhabitants) is home to around 500 refugees, primarily from the Middle East and Africa. The first arrivals of Kurdish and Afghan immigrants in 1998 sparked the idea that refugees could revitalise a town slowly dying from being hollowed out by emigration linked to unemployment and its aging population. Refugees began inhabiting houses that had previously sat empty, bringing life back to the town.

Speaking in August at an open-air citizens’ assembly to a packed audience, the mayor reaffirmed his belief in the town’s initiative and the benefits it has brought to its inhabitants – new and old. “There is a whole economy revolving around this programme of hospitality – I would also call it a social economy, an economy of solidarity,” Lucano said, emphasising the number of jobs created – a key strategy to winning public support in a region where lack of work is a critical issue – as well as the creation of a local currency designed to support local shops and business.

The refugees who arrive in Riace are given housing, a stipend and access to medical care and schooling, while they apply for asylum, a process generally lasting one to two years. The commune is the main actor, drawing up the projects that are then implemented with NGO support, but the funding comes from the government. This dependence on the state creates challenges, primarily linked to the slowness with which the Ministry of the Interior transfers the funds. For Lucano, the situation has reached a chronic tipping point that has pushed him to consider dropping everything.

Cosimina Ierinò, who works for one of the NGOs in Riace, says that attitudes among the people of Riace have been very positive: “Relationships are established between neighbours and the older people like to see the children in the streets […] In other places, migrants are seen as a problem. Here we don’t see them as a problem. They keep the shops busy, the schools open…” Don Pino, a local priest and anti-mafia activist, takes a more apprehensive line, arguing that poverty and unemployment in the south of Italy are barriers to integration and solidarity that are difficult to surmount. “Lucano’s idea was excellent, nobody can deny that, but is it a long-term idea? If you cannot create real sustainable work opportunities rather than assisted places, the problem remains.” As a result, integration in the area is largely a temporary phenomenon.

Lucano’s initiative has drawn significant praise and attention, with various reports, a documentary film and even a book about Riace, while Lucano himself has seen the invitations and accolades come streaming in, and was even cited among Fortune magazine’s 40 most influential global leaders in 2016.  The mayor appears to be revered in Riace by both refugees and staff of the project, yet he has also received strong criticism. The mayor is currently under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for abuse of office, bribery and aggravated fraud in use of public funds since October 2017. The embattled mayor argues that this is part of a campaign to threaten and undermine him.

For all his evident passion and idealism, the global attention has taken its toll on the mayor – even in his public speech, he seemed burdened by a certain fatigue and disillusionment. Nevertheless, enthusiasm about the project from its admirers is in no short supply. Daniela, who moved to Riace from Puglia to be part of the initiative, took the floor at the assembly saying, “Many people ask me how to come and experience the magic that exists in this place. People don’t just want to visit but also to experience.” Given the level of interest, in summer 2017 the commune decided on the construction of an ‘albergo diffuso’ in Riace in order to accommodate what the mayor describes as “solidarity tourism, responsible tourism – we define it with two words: hospitality tourism.” [2]

Local solutions: Filling in the gaps or building utopias?

In the absence of a comprehensive state policy, basic provisions depend on the political will and determination of local officials like Lucano, Carême and mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, who has stated he considers it his duty to make a city a welcoming place for refugees, even if it means losing popularity points. Carême believes that the initiatives taken by local actors have the power to shift the political discourse at a national level – but only if they are affirmed politically through state support. “Even a small town can receive several hundred people and integrate them – it’s manageable. But they shouldn’t have to do everything alone, as we did. The state should support them without being forced to. Mayors who have seen that it’s possible are willing, but only if supported by the state because towns today have very limited means.” Carême is convinced that if the state were to step up to this task, far from being a ‘crisis’ the refugee question would cease to be an issue at all. “The capacity for hospitality that we have in France is enormous – I am convinced of it. And we’ll beat the extreme-right by showing it.” Lucano echoes this: “The idea of making a local contribution to improving the world, the action of a small place to contribute in something much larger – this is how I thought of the arrival of refugees. It is a journey essentially following three imperatives: to do good for those arriving, to do ourselves good, and to send a message to show that it can be done.”

In light of the persistent reticence of states when it comes to supporting and encouraging such local measures, it seems that the level of hospitality refugees meet with in Europe’s towns is set to remain largely dependent on the political will, priorities, and determination of the individuals heading local authorities. Support from the European level could potentially go some way towards compensating for this, despite the obstacles linked to its limitations of competence. Moreover, transnational alliances between Europe’s local actors could help strengthen initiatives, even if this support remains largely symbolic in nature. To this end, the town of Grande-Synthe is set to hold a ‘Convention Nationale sur l’Acceuil et les Migrants’ in March – a meeting designed to bring together migrants, officials, institutional representatives, researchers, and civil society actors from around France and Europe in order to facilitate discussion and promote cooperation. Fuelled by the incendiary rhetoric of far-right politicians and slanted media coverage, the political climate makes winning popular support hard work, adding to the difficulties local actors face to keep their initiatives alive. In this uncertain context, coalitions of this kind are likely to be vital.


[1] A government-run network of Centres d’Accueil et d’Orientation around France provides migrants with information and temporary accommodation.

[2] The ‘alberghi diffusi’ model is revitalising dwindling communities across Italy by repurposing their unused buildings into ‘scattered hotels’. The hostel will be in an abandoned palazzo and is expected to provide around 100 beds.

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