Can Europe Make It?

National governments are failing refugees, so cities must step up to meet the challenge

A lack of political will and a hulking bureaucracy frustrate efforts to find a solution to the migrant crisis at the national level. Multilevel governance is the answer.

Ramón Sanahuja
13 December 2016
Children look out at the sunset over the Bamarne IDP camp in northern Iraq

Children look out at the sunset over the Bamarne IDP camp in northern Iraq. Photo: UK DFID. Flickr. Some rights reserved. Towards the end of the summer and the autumn of 2016 some countries, specially, Germany and Sweden experienced an unprecedented flow of refugees who were fleeing the conflicts of Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. More than one million people were hosted in a very short time with the effort of the whole public administration and the citizens. Many cities in those countries collaborated in an extraordinary effort made by the state, regions and länder to solve the human but also the immense logistic challenge.

At the same time, during the fall of 2015 the 27 countries that form the EU agreed on a plan to relocate 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary and resettle 22,504 refugees from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

More than a year later, the official figures show that only 6,925 refugees have been relocated from Greece and Italy (5.7% of the overall commitment) and 11,852 relocated from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey (52%). How is it possible that the 27 EU states that represent the most developed economies of the world, with more than 507 million inhabitants, are unable to fulfil this agreement? How come the results are so bad? A 5.7% achievement, by any standard of evaluation, is a very poor performance.

Yes, apparently, a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of xenophobia, discrimination and segregation.

Some cities of Europe believe that the reason is the lack of political will. It is the consequence of short sightedness and selfish political strategies and political speculation on the part of some European state leaders.

The extremely complicated “red tape” introduced during relocation procedures that apparently have the purpose of delaying the fulfilment of the agreement came to the rescue of these leaders and are contributing very efficiently to one of Europe’s major political failures.

Yes, apparently, a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of xenophobia, discrimination and segregation. An extreme rightwing wave is challenging the fundamental rights upon which post-WWII Europe was founded: the Declaration of Universal Rights, the State of Law and the Geneva Convention. Some of the most important achievements of European construction – the free movement of people across the internal borders of the Union – is being challenged and very often suspended. Some cities in Europe ask, why?

At the same time freedom of religion as protected in the eighteenth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being threatened by some heads of state that do not want to accept Muslim refugees. How will the values of the Declaration of Human Rights be best defended – by taking cowardly political decisions that reinforce the assumptions of the xenophobe and the racist, or by carrying out the fundamental rights of the Geneva Convention and granting people asylum?

What would happen if 100 cities in Europe pledged that they would host 100 refugees each from Greece? The cities could easily reach 10,000 refugees for relocation.

It is a time for those who are brave, and it is time for cities and Mayors to have an active role, such as we are eye-witness to in the USA where cities are opposing the plans of the elected president to expel millions of migrants, by declaring their cities sanctuary cities.

History will judge Europe at this critical moment: and the agreement with the autocratic Erdogan to abruptly block the flow of refugees, is not a good sign. We also must remember the causes of the crisis and their origin and the responsibility of many European countries in the Iraq and Syrian conflict. We are not the innocent recipients of the consequences of war, but Europe is also somehow partly responsible for the situation.

On the other hand, across Europe, we have also seen an incredible wave of spontaneous solidarity towards refugees. Many people simply cannot cope with the pain of so many refugees being mistreated by border guards and police across European borders or cannot bear to watch them just drowning themselves in the Mediterranean. People from many ideological backgrounds all over Europe are willing to cooperate and to defend basic human rights.

In this climate, many cities and mayors have stepped forwards and have expressed the political will to host refugees in their cities. In many cases, these Mayors are opposing the will of their own states. This also includes eastern European cities and countries.

It is important to remember that the obligation to accomplish the Geneva Conventions relies on the state, nevertheless asylum seekers and refugees end up living and settling down in a concrete place, usually big cities, where job opportunities are available. Cities are magnets for refugees and migrants. This has always been the case. Nevertheless, the local impact of the Commission and the 27 member states' decisions with regard to asylum and migration are far too often not taken into account.

What would happen if 100 cities in Europe pledged that they would host 100 refugees each from Greece? The cities could easily reach 10,000 refugees for relocation. That figure is more than what the 27 states have done between them in over a year. Of course, this is not the solution for the crisis. But it is a strong message to the states and to the peoples of Europe.

This is the sense of the agreement signed by Mayor Kaminis from Athens and Mayor Colau from Barcelona in March 2016. It is a simple pledge to relocate directly from Athens to Barcelona 100 refugees. The pledge, as the reader might guess, was blocked by the Spanish State Administration. The answer came that asylum and refugees are an exclusive competence of the State, and that no local administration had the right even to have an opinion. In the coming weeks we will see some local pledges being allowed and hopefully this will trigger more cities to pledge for more relocation of refugees city to city.

In October 2015, under the umbrella of EUROCITIES – the organization that represents European cities with over 250,000 inhabitants – during the meeting that took place in Athens, launched the “Solidarity Cities Network” headed by the city of Athens and with the support of many other European cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Gdansk, Ghent, Leipzig, Stockholm, etc.

Solidarity Cities Network is structured around four pillars:

  1. information and knowledge exchange on the refugee situation in their cities
  2. advocating for better involvement and direct funding for cities with respect to the reception and integration of refugees,
  3. city-to-city technical and financial assistance and capacity building
  4. pledges by European cities to receive relocated asylum seekers.

Those cities also demand that the EU commission and the 27 member states reconsider the allocation of funding for their integration policies in the future. The actual AMIF funding scheme for the integration of refugees and migrants is not reaching the local level in many states. In some countries, the bulk of the funding – like the 330 million euros that Spain will receive – is being used for voluntary return rather than for attending to the needs of the refugees and is withheld by the ministry.

Funding is important, but it is more important how priorities are decided, and who decides those priorities. Cities and mayors are the institutions with the most direct experience of the challenges involved in welcoming refugees, and so they need their opinions to be be heard and considered.

Finally, many cities believe that other models of welcoming asylum seekers and migrants in Europe are possible. These cities also believe that solutions to the challenge of the “so called” asylum crisis will be reached only through the collaboration of the whole administration (EU, state, regional and local administrations) as well as civil society. Therefore, multilevel governance is the answer.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData