Refugee integration is always a local issue in the end, an issue for the communities in which they will live. Across Europe, cities are playing a prominent role in welcoming refugees and are often pushing national governments to do more. As the issue of migration is not going away, cities, local government, and citizens should be trusted to take the lead on the integration of newcomers.

With the response of central states often found lacking, Europe’s cities have always been at the forefront of dealing with arrival of refugees. Due to their proximity to the people, regional and local authorities are uniquely positioned to recognise the challenges of integration, and to react by putting in place policies and support measures, frequently in partnership with civil society and local citizens. Moreover, cities are becoming ever more popular places for people to settle and, through this growing appeal, are gaining greater flexibility in how they negotiate with states.

The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 saw the emergence of many city or citizen-led actions and initiatives, not only to assist refugees upon arrival but also calling for an active role in offering places for them. However, governments are still the ones who grant refugee status and decide how many refugees will be resettled, where refugees will be placed, and, to a great extent, how the integration process is managed.

A new balance between local and national

The current legal framework creates serious obstacles in the asylum process by centralising power in the hands of national governments. When people are admitted at the border, they are admitted to a country and by a country. As a result, it is the national government that decides how many refugees are admitted and where they go, as well as the amount of money allocated to support them. This power creates a complex division of competences and responsibilities between national governments and local or regional authorities. As refugees necessarily are settled on the local level, the success of receiving and integrating refugees depends on the commitment, ability, and cooperation of government at all levels. Cities also face the challenge of addressing the populations’ fears, be it from cultural differences, possible tensions, security threats, or radicalisation.

The distribution of roles between national and local governments in refugee admissions must be reorganised in a more creative and flexible manner to allow space for cities and municipalities to help set how refugees are admitted and settled. This will not be easy. In the last few years, not all national governments have responded positively to calls from local governments and their citizens for a more direct mandate in the management of refugee admission and resettlement. However, a viable solution is necessary. A new ‘social contract’ between the national and local levels, that leaves room for public-private partnerships, could open the way for an approach to settlement of refugees that both encompasses the needs and capacities of society at large and allows for more refugees to be settled.

Cities take the lead

A number of Europe’s cities have been at the forefront of the response to emerging humanitarian needs. After the closing of the Calais refugee camp, Paris has faced increasing numbers of arrivals to the city. Anne Hidalgo, Paris’s new visionary mayor, recently built two refugee camps inside the city, for which the municipal government covered the majority of the costs. In addition, the city has set up a special housing project for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who have been resettled to help stem discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Elsewhere, Vienna, a progressive island in a rather conservative Austria, has invested substantial resources in reception and integration services. In the summer of 2015, hundreds of thousands of people passed through Vienna on their way from Budapest, during the refugee crisis. During this time, NGOs, citizens and the city administration all joined forces to support refugees. To ease working with asylum seekers, the city administration set up a refugee coordination centre for refugees and also created a mobile app to provide real-time information to the public. In cooperation with NGOs, the city received significant numbers of Syrian refugees arriving via humanitarian admission programmes.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that 1.2 million refugees worldwide will be in need of resettlement in 2018. However, resettlement places in Europe remain very limited. A number of cities and citizens’ movements are pushing their national governments to do more to respond to this global crisis. Between 2008 and 2012, artists, activists in Munich launched the Save Me Campaign, which helped produce 51 city council decisions across Germany in favour of refugee resettlement. In a clear expression of solidarity, cities such as Ghent, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Barcelona, and Lisbon have worked with their governments to offer places to ensure that city-to-city relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy turns into reality.

Lisbon’s mayor was one of the first to announce to participate in the relocation of refugees from Greece and Italy with the establishment of a 2 million euro fund to support refugees who come to the city. The financial contribution of Lisbon is more than matched by 3 million euro worth of support from the EU (6 000 euro per refugee for a total of 500 refugees). This special case is an exception in Europe and the issue has prompted big disputes and debate elsewhere as cities wish to receive EU support directly rather than it being channelled through national governments. Shortly after the announcement, several Lisbon businesses expressed their intention to provide employment opportunities to newcomers, while citizens sent hundreds of emails to the Portuguese Refugee Council offering to accommodate refugees.

These are only the experiences of big cities, besides them there are countless smaller municipalities that have done outstanding work in terms of welcoming refugees. The city of Osnabruck, in coalition with NGOs, churches, and citizens, recently called upon the German government to receive 50 refugees from Idomeni, the site of a major refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. Even in the states of Central and Eastern Europe, commonly regarded as the least welcoming EU Member States, cities and local partners have managed to put progressive solutions on the agenda. A good example is the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, shortlisted for the World Mayor Prize, who earnt the nomination because of his city’s integration model. Adamowicz has for years strived to make the Baltic port city a place where immigrants are welcome despite the anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies pursued by the ruling Law and Justice party.

Sharing refugees across the country

To better manage the inflow of refugees, certain countries have already established internal quotas for the reception of refugees. Each municipality, big or small, has a defined intake, depending on the number of inhabitants and level of wealth. Germany was the first to introduce this system: the so-called Königsteiner Schlüssel. The Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy have followed suit with similar systems in order to overcome the problems caused by a limited capacity and unwilling municipalities.

In such systems, both big and small municipalities have their own advantages and handicaps. Bigger European cities often have more diverse populations, including established communities of refugees and migrants, and thus more resources and greater impetus to support local integration strategies and services. Big cities do not always provide the best opportunity for everyone however. Each refugee need to be settles in the right kind of location. In smaller towns, local communities can provide a so-called soft landing, providing refugees with the optimal environment to learn the language, receive training, get accustomed to the new country, or prepare for integration tests. Not to mention that a single mother with four kids would need to spend most of her time taking care of her children, and, in that case, it could be better to be in a smaller community where everything can be reached comfortably and not in a hectic big city. However, when it comes to work or university-level education, the situation is different. It is usually, but not always, far easier to find a job in a city with over 150 000 inhabitants than in a small community.

Social housing is in short supply

The lack of available housing for people on low incomes is a major factor in explaining why some cities have failed to respond to the refugee crisis. With a steep increase of prices of rents in the larger cities, there is a growing demand from vulnerable populations for low-priced housing. While in the wake of the financial crisis, social housing stock has decreased across Europe. This is most visible in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, which has no affordable housing for newly arrived refugees. On the other hand, Lyon (with approximately 500 000 inhabitants) still has sufficient social housing for refugees and works in partnership with the NGO Forum réfugiés on refugee awareness and protection programs.

In general, social housing is a scarce commodity. There are cities where people have to spend up to 10 years on a waiting list to receive to social housing. Refugees are only one of many groups in need and it is difficult for local governments to prioritise one group over another. In the UK, the government developed a so-called ‘dispersal system’ for asylum seekers, which has led to the placement of asylum seekers in only the cities with cheap housing available. Through the part-EU-funded SHARE project, the International Catholic Migration Commission worked with ‘dispersal’ cities in UK regions such as Yorkshire, where cities such as Sheffield, Hull, and Bradford have done far more for refugees than their richer counterparts.

This ‘dispersal’ has had serious side-effects. Many of these cities suffered during the recession, and from long-term industrial decline, and had pre-existing problems with unemployment and the provision of social services. Additional resources to invest in the reception and integration of newcomers are not always available. The central government’s negligence of these problems helped set the ground for the success of populist and xenophobic political rhetoric, an important feature in the Brexit campaign. In the meantime, London, the multicultural capital of the UK, was kept for urban cosmopolitans with good jobs and high salaries.

The citizens welcoming refugees

To address housing challenges, private initiatives have stepped in. Schemes such as A Refugee in my Home in Italy and Germany offer housing in private homes combined with language learning mentoring programmes and job counselling. The Refugees Welcome campaign, which started in Germany but spread across Europe, acts as a platform for citizens to offer private rooms or apartments to refugees. Private or community-based sponsorships, which have existed for over 30 years in Canada, have received considerable attention in Europe as a way to open up more places for refugees.

Private sponsorship initiatives have recently also been developed in Italy (for 1 500 people), France (for 500 people) and the UK (no set quota). These sponsorships allow refugee settlement support roles, responsibilities, and costs to be shared between local government, private citizens, religious organisations, NGOs, and community groups. As has been the case in Canada, community engagement in sponsoring refugees is often strong and long-lasting. Local engagement supports the refugees’ inclusion into society in a way that makes it easier for refugees to settle in. Local municipalities and cities can play an important role in facilitating and advocating for sponsorship, even in cases where national governments are reluctant to accept refugees.

Hope for the future but a tricky road ahead

National governments depend more and more on the support of cities, regions, civil society partners, and ordinary citizens to receive, house and integrate refugees. The role of local actors becomes even more significant in a context of scarce resources and budgets cuts. Towns or cities, churches, NGOs, and citizens are asked and have contributed to refugee reception and integration services in areas such as education, labour market integration, and language learning.

In his last State of the Union speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that “Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one. Europe is and must remain the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge.” This statement was followed by a Commission proposal that included plans for a new resettlement scheme for at least 50 000 refugees and encouraged member states “to set up private sponsorship schemes allowing private groups or civil society organisations to organise and finance resettlements in accordance with national legislation.” This proposal shows the awareness in the EU institutions that, despite the increased focus on managing migration, Europe will have to continue taking in refugees and expanding legal channels for asylum seekers. For this endeavour to be successful, it must be done through greater cooperation with local levels and civil society.

The refugee crisis in 2015 demonstrated that local communities have an enormous potential to engage and participate much more actively in refugee integration. To make their participation effective will require us navigating on complicated terrain. We need to acknowledge that there are certain things only the state can do, like ensuring security and screening admissions; while the local level should be able sponsor more refugees coming to their communities – not only those coming through government programmes. Therefore, partnerships between cities, NGOs, and citizens will need to gain prominence in order to respond to the multiple needs of refugees, as well as to create further capacity for newcomers in cities. Countries like Canada that have put their faith in both refugees and local communities to develop initiatives have already shown how to respond to the challenge in an effective and humane way for the decades come. Instead of being afraid of newcomers, we must take their lead and invest in new mechanisms in a time of rapid social change.


This article is based on an interview conducted with Petra Hueck.

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