Mr. Thomas Jezequel
To quote the article kicking off this debate, “More and more, the refugee and migratory mobility towards the EU is viewed openly by the EU organs through the lenses of border security”.
Cities do not have this luxury. While member states are often reluctant to act, many major cities are the one taking their responsibilities when refugees inevitably end up crossing borders and settling in Europe. It means that the reception and integration infrastructure in cities must be properly funded by the national and European levels. Any attempt at making protection temporary will be counterproductive and detrimental to integration and social cohesion in cities.
Cities taking responsibilities
Refugees coming to the European Union primarily aim at reaching and settling in Europe’s larger cities. This urban reality of migration was made evident in the summer and fall of 2015, when refugees who managed to enter the European Union through the “Balkan road” made their way to Vienna, Munich, Berlin or Malmö.
Nearly one in five of all migrants live in the world’s top 20 largest cities.  In Europe, the majority of foreign residents settle in large cities. As policy makers, service providers and buyers of goods and services, large cities have an integral role to play in their integration.
The refugee dream is an urban dream, as reception networks (Family, friends, or fellow nationals) economic and education opportunities are located primarily in cities. This is why cities are often why refugees embarked on potentially deadly trips across the Mediterranean, why they walked from Greece to Hungary, and why they, once placed in a reception centre in rural Germany or northern Sweden, try to move further.
Cities play different roles beyond reception and integration. When member states are not able or not willing to take their responsibilities, cities are for example also the ones able to organise mass transit for refugees willing to travel further.
Refugees taking the southern-Mediterranean road all go through Milan train station, in a “transit camp” created, financed and managed by the city of Milan with the invaluable help of civil society organisations and volunteers. Vienna was the entry door to western and northern Europe through the “Balkan road”, and 250.000 refugees and asylum seekers were taken care of by the city authorities before reaching Germany, or staying in Vienna for 50.000 of them. The same scenes were seen in Munich, Berlin, or Malmö, and at an even greater degree in Athens, where 500,000 people transited through the Piraeus harbour in 2015, often spending only a few days in the city.
On the refugee crisis as on migration policy in general, member states take decisions but it is cities which ultimately receive and integrate migrants and refugees, often without any official mandate, almost always without adequate and direct funding from the national level or from the European Institutions.
The urban dimension of the refugee crisis
As the network of major European cities, EUROCITIES started working on integration in 2004, when it published its “Contribution to Good Governance concerning the integration of immigrants and reception of asylum seekers”. Our primary focus is the long term: social inclusion and cohesion, and the integration of all migrants, irrelevant of status. This dimension is emphasised in our “Charter of integrating cities”, published in 2010 and signed by 35 major cities.
EUROCITIES started to develop its position on asylum in cities in 2014, at the demand of its members who felt that the urban dimension of the refugee crisis was being overlooked. They were quickly proven right, which emphasises the fact that the effects of European and national decisions on migration are first felt at the local level.
Our statement was published in May 2015, and argued that “Cities in arrival, transit and destination countries in Europe are in a central position regarding the social, humanitarian and financial challenges caused by the refugee crisis. They have a particular role in the guarantee of basic protection to asylum claimants and in the reception and integration of newcomers in our society. Cities are also the places where asylum seekers wait for a decision on their Refugee Status Determination process and where services are provided to them. Finally, it is in cities that asylum claimants often remain as undocumented migrants if their asylum applications are rejected and return decisions are not applicable or enforced. Their exclusion from service provision would have a detrimental impact on social cohesion, public health and order, and protection of fundamental rights”
European cities are where the integration of newcomers will succeed or fail. They are facing this two-fold challenge of providing for the immediate needs of asylum seekers and refugees, whilst also having to organise the more long-term integration process of all newcomers, essential for ensuring social cohesion over the years to come.
The dangers of temporariness for cities
The article “Temporary migration, refugees and the crisis in Europe”, kicking-off this debate, makes in this regard a very valid point. “The revoking of refugee rights is detrimental to the wider political programme of the establishment of the European acquis as regards democracy and human rights. The recent developments set in a totally different light the mainstream perception of “others’” rights: it imposes the idea that the best way to override the difficulties that their rights confront us with is to get rid of their presence, any time, anyway. This line of thought undermines the prospects for social integration in Europe”.
This is of crucial importance to European cities. It is also our view that integration at local level cannot be achieved if beneficiaries of international protection are under constant threat of being sent back to their countries of origin. The ambition of having more often recourse to the cessation clause or at least to re-examine yearly if the fear of persecution is still “well-founded” will be counterproductive and detrimental to integration and social cohesion.
Migrants have been treated before as “temporary guests” bound to go back to their countries without putting down roots. These expectations have often been proven wrong in the past, and have represented a waste of years or of decades in the elaboration of sound integration policies at national and at local level.
Restrictions to family reunification in some countries for example already have adverse effects to integration, as they push family members of beneficiaries of international protection to make use of smuggler networks to reach Europe, putting their lives and economic prospects into danger. They also prevent beneficiaries of international protection to fully focus on their swift integration in our societies while they fear for their family members.
Cities have a lot to lose from policies that consign asylum seekers to deprivation and exclusion, put them at risk of becoming victims of abusive employers and landlords, smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime, or simply prevent them to become as quickly as possible full members of our societies.
Failing to integrate refugees into our societies impedes the respect of fundamental rights as well as the full realisation of the benefits immigration can bring; it inhibits asylum seekers from making a contribution to host societies and can prove costly in the long term for local as well as for national authorities. As stated in our Integrating Cities Charter “Our vision of integration is one where all city residents can develop their full potential and have an equal chance of a life in safety and dignity”
This is why European cities are unwilling to reproduce past mistakes, and have started, since the beginning of the refugee crisis, to work on “integration from day one” or “fast-track integration”, irrelevant of legal status and irrelevant of perspectives to stay or not. This approach is used at every level in cities’ integration strategies, such as housing (quick transition from shelters to temporary then more sustainable social and affordable housing, while avoiding segregation), care for unaccompanied minors (adequate shelters and professional support, and education (welcome class for refugee children, mentoring).
Investing in the integration infrastructure at local level
However, the much needed reception and integration infrastructure is often insufficient to face what can amount to a demographic change in some cities, especially at a time when many cities have had budgets and resources cut due to austerity policies at the European and national level. Nevertheless, cities have taken many actions to cope with this new and rapidly evolving situations.
As we see from the examples below, gathered from our work on “cities welcoming refugees” and our first report on “Reception and integration of refugees in cities”, cities see integration as a necessary long term investment and as a process which should be sustained and durable, essential to promote social cohesion in increasingly complex and diverse societies.
Reception and Housing
To respond to the refugee crisis, cities have opened shelters, created reception centres, reclaimed vacant residential or commercial buildings. They also have started, like Berlin, to think about the long term perspective and to the transition between temporary and durable accommodation. In many cities, the focus is on avoiding concentration areas and segregation, in other words on not repeating the mistakes made in the 1960’s and 1970’s which allowed to ghettoization and insufficient integration.
In countries like Sweden, cities are responsible to care for registered unaccompanied minors. At its most, the city of Malmö had around 2,300 places of transit available for unaccompanied. Nearly 15,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the city in 2015, compared to just 1,567 the previous year. The city had to hire more than 2,000 people over the course of several months to staff the homes for unaccompanied minors. However, cities sometimes struggle to find qualified staff to fill the gaps. Cities like Gothenburg and Stockholm have also expressed concerns about staff retention, training new recruits, and increased workload on existing staff.
With its rapidly growing population, which includes the large-scale arrival of families and unaccompanied minors, Malmö is planning to build around 20 new schools over the next ten years, at a cost of over €4bn. In Berlin, around 10.000 refugee children attend 900 “welcoming classes” providing fast-track integration. European cities like Helsinki, Espoo and Leipzig have had to increase their educational infrastructure at all levels in order to rapidly accommodate children of asylum seekers and provide specific support to unaccompanied minors as quickly as possible. These measures are also taken with a long term view in preparation for future family reunification procedures.
For a better involvement of cities in migration policies
In order for integration to be a priority on the ground, funding must be made available at the local level without filters or barriers.
As the public authorities closest to citizens, cities are in a good position to determine needs and priorities in the field of migrant integration. As such, direct access to EU funding (such as EU emergency assistance and AMIF) would enable cities to better address the needs that are presented daily both in a way that would allow for pragmatic solutions to everyday needs and with a long-term perspective, to ensure integration and social cohesion.
Furthermore, Multi-level governance and effective and meaningful involvement of city authorities in decision making is a pre-condition of successful integration. This is why EUROCITIES is calling for the concrete application of a true partnership principle for the management of integration funding, involving European Institutions, Member States and Cities in the new European Network on Integration announced in “the Action Plan on Integration of third country nationals” published in June 2016.
EUROCITIES will continue to gather in depth knowledge about the way cities are coping with the reception and integration of refugees. Its Social Affairs Forum / Integrating Cities Conference organised on 17 and 18 October in Athens, will be an opportunity to take stock of the accomplishments of cities facing the refugee crisis, and to discuss at political level the role of cities within the wider European response to the challenges.