1. Governance
April 8, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 10:19am

“States grant asylum, but cities provide shelter.” How cities are responding to Europe’s refugee crisis

Some 500,000 asylum seekers transited through Athens between January 2014 and December 2015. Over the same period, Hamburg and Munich hosted 25,000 each; 40,000 arrived in Vienna, and a further 250,000 used the city as a stopover before continuing their journeys.

The numbers are overwhelming, but this is what cities are dealing with every day. They have no choice but to manage; failure to do so would be unethical, a breach of basic human rights and a major threat to social cohesion and public order. Every day, local authorities and their partner organisations – agencies, NGOs, civil society organisations and volunteers – provide shelter, healthcare and education to vulnerable men, women and children.

At the end of last year we asked our members – major European cities – how they are coping. We were interested in the impact the crisis is having on the city budget and on staff resources, and how they communicate with the public. This was also an opportunity to identify some of the discrepancies between legal competences at different levels of government: who is doing what, and where the money is.

Money and resources are major obstacles. Many cities are operating under staff freezes and budget cuts. In most European countries, looking after refugees is the responsibility of national governments, but in reality it is cities having to cope with the everyday challenges. Some are reimbursed for their costs, but often this doesn’t reflect the reality. Chemnitz gets a quarterly sum of €1,900 per refugee from the German government, but still estimates its overspending at €7.5m in the last year.

Cities must find ways to do more with less. Providing affordable housing is a particular headache, with many already suffering from housing shortages. Tens of thousands of new arrivals means more pressure on an already precarious situation, leading to overcrowding and the risk of creating ghettos.

Local authorities don’t just need to find the accommodation – Berlin needs a further 24,000 places to fill the gap between the current availability and anticipated needs – they need to be strategic about how they do it. Leipzig, for example, has an approach of distributing refugees around the city, in poorer and better off neighbourhoods. This, says deputy mayor Thomas Fabian, is a way of appeasing the “not in my backyard” brigade.

Education is seen as a fast track to integration for many cities, whether that’s providing language tutoring or finding school places. Malmo is in a particular predicament: more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the city in 2015. At the height of the crisis, the Swedish city was receiving 300 a day. Malmo’s rapidly growing population means it expects to build 20 to 25 new schools over the next ten years at a cost of €4-6bn.

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Some cities have schemes to help refugees find jobs, so they can settle into the community and contribute to the local economy. Helsinki’s “refugee jobs” website is one example, and new arrivals in Germany have their qualifications assessed by experts and are placed in suitable employment where possible.

When we look at how the local population has responded, most cities describe being overwhelmed by the solidarity of individuals and civil society organisations, despite pockets of hostility widely reported in the media. Transparent and regular communication has proven essential to defuse tensions. Utrecht did this well by hosting information sessions where residents could voice concerns to politicians, police and doctors working with asylum seekers.

What strikes us is that where national responses have been sluggish at best, cities are taking action. Often they do this in the absence of any official mandate to act. As Barcelona mayor Ada Colau puts it: “It may be states that grant asylum, but it is cities that provide shelter.” Colau also initiated “Cities of refuge”, one of several networks of European cities positioning themselves as welcoming places for refugees.

The resources don’t always match the commitment, however. European cities have been calling for direct and faster access to EU emergency assistance and funding to support longer term integration of asylum seekers. Too often these are not reaching those that need it most, lost in complex bureaucracy or bottlenecks at the top.

What we see is cities taking action against the odds – without the budget, mandate or resources to do so. Despite this, city leaders have taken responsibility and shown leadership.

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES.

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