European cities demand a say in refugee policy

His regional government is proud of developing its own tools for refugee reception without waiting for directions from the Spanish central government, but the will to bypass central governments is strong beyond the potential breakaway region.

“We have a duty to support the European ideals,” says Rena Dourou, Governor, Region of Attica in Greece, mentioning the example of how Europe did away with death penalty before the general moods of the population shifted in that direction.

Elected to the Greek Parliament with Syriza in 2012, she believes that successful policies start with changing terms and argumentation. “We do not refer to refugees or asylum-seekers as illegals, but as human beings, and we do need to treat them as persons,” she told the Lithuania Tribune, urging Central and Eastern European countries to do their share and not see the crisis as a Greek or Italian issue.

In a recent report, the European Commission criticized Lithuania, among others, for slow progress with refugee resettlement, and member states have heard criticism from the European Parliament earlier.

Yet apart from supranational institutions, some cities and regions are growing increasingly weary of inability to do more to help refugees – their new and potential residents. A recent report by Eurocities, a network and lobby of cities, suggests that cities are showing “strong leadership” in coordinating different services when national responses fail.

Cities with well-funded public services appear to cope better. The report singles out Riga, where the city’s welfare department took part in developing action plans for asylum-seekers and recipients even though Riga did not experience a large wave of migration.

When asked to explain how rights-based treatment plays out on the ground, Governor Dourou of Attica mentioned halting push-backs at sea and questioning distinctions between the status of war-zone asylum-seekers, e.g., from Syria, versus others, e.g., from Afghanistan.

Elena Sánchez, Senior Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), told the Lithuania Tribune that recent research found as many as 70% young people in North Africa willing to migrate in search of better opportunities.

“There are no possibilities for these people to arrive in Europe legally,” she said, predicting that migration from this region will increase regardless, even though asylum applications from North Africans are typically rejected.

Governor Dourou thinks that solutions to the migration crisis must take Ukraine into account as well. “Either the EU will welcome newcomers and be democratic, or it will not exist,” she said in her speech in Barcelona.

In September last year, the Association of Local Authorities in Lithuania, mayors and the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour met to discuss refugee reception in Lithuanian cities. Only one in five municipalities positively responded to the call to outline integration tools – with only Šiauliai representing Lithuania’s major cities. Some municipalities made specific plans early on – the municipality of Alytus promised to buy social housing for refugees (see the Lithuania Tribune’s feature on foreigners in Alytus). In addition to Šiauliai and Alytus, the spa resort Birštonas was the third urban municipality that responded to the call.

In 2003, Migration Policy Institute in Washington claimed that while “bedrock” social policies, such as education, healthcare and income support, are decided by governments, cities are the areas where social inclusion plays out. Decisions by cities, from street design to licensing of street vendors, affect how migrants find their place in their new home. For refugees specifically, local authorities are the ones who provide housing, language courses and other services.

Yet so-called transit cities in Greece, Italy or Hungary also face pressure to offer a new range of services depending on the situation. When urban integration policy fails, it is also up to cities to face consequences – unemployment, poor school performance, social tensions, etc.

Cities are increasingly coordinating their responses to the challenge. In Paris, the municipality, according to deputy mayor Dominique Versini, is developing urgent measures and integration measures simultaneously, despite the fact that only a fraction of the planned refugees have been resettled according to the EU mechanism.

“We mobilized services for health checks and interpreters,” she explained. A mentoring program was set up, and particular attention will be given to unaccompanied minors.

“No human person is illegal in Valencia,” the Spanish city’s councilor Roberto Jaramillo seconded his Greek counterparts. “We had experiences in integrating refugees from the Balkan wars,” Xulio Ferreiro, the mayor of A Coruña town in Spain, seconding Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, who criticizes limited access to funds as much as distinctions between refugees and economic migrants.

These statements, however, are not voiced for the first time. In April this year, a roundtable discussion in the European Commission with representative mayors arrived at similar conclusions. According to the European Commission, cities already have access to €15 billion of EU funds to be used by 2020. Some city representatives complain that local authorities still need approval from central governments to access these funds.

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The author’s reporting trip to Barcelona was paid by the Public Diplomacy Council in Catalonia.

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