BARCELONA – Even as Europe’s nation-states erect fences along their borders to deter migration, European cities continue to attract the displaced and dispossessed. Over 80 percent of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe live in urban areas such as Berlin, Athens, Milan and Leipzig. Some make them their homes, while others use them as transit points.
This trend towards an increasing number of urban refugees is not unique to Europe; the continent’s experience is very much in line with the global statistic. At least 60 percent of the world’s refugees are in urban centers that provide more opportunities for work. Cities, which are often multicultural, are more accepting of outsiders.
“In almost every country in Europe, we have problems with hostilities, problems of xenophobia,” says Annika Forsander, head of Finland’s Center of Expertise on Immigrant Integration. “In the cities, the attitude is much more positive.”
But despite a majority of refugees living in urban areas, officials from cities throughout Europe say that national governments are not paying enough attention to the core needs of asylum seekers. They argue that more resources are needed to provide basic services such as housing, education, public health and job integration.
The latest annual report of EuroCities concludes that the urbanization of refugees in 34 cities across 17 E.U. member states has not resulted in more political influence of city governments when it comes to funding and policy.
“The role of cities as first points of arrival, transit hubs and ultimate destinations is well established and widely acknowledged by institutions and stakeholders at a national and European level,” the report states.
While the European Union allocated some €3.137 billion ($3.5bn) in 2014, to be distributed over seven years for the integration of migrants and refugees, the E.U. is unable to keep track of how much of that budget has gone towards integration programs in cities as the money goes directly to the national governments. Some city officials claim they have not seen any E.U. funding for integration.
As a result, the municipalities are struggling to provide for the most basic needs of newly arrived asylum seekers and even refugees who have been granted asylum.
Barcelona is a case in point. “That is the question that we are asking the commission,“ says Ramon Sanahuja i Velez, director of refugee immigration for Barcelona. “We want to know where the money went. What was the purpose? It is public money, yet there is a lack of transparency.”
Given this combined lack of accountability and support, cities have been left to their own devices when it comes to developing the competencies needed to accommodate new refugees. They are seeking alternative means to coordinate activities in areas such as community awareness, housing, health services and public-private partnerships.
“Of course we need money for houses and integration,” says Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor for youth, social affairs, health and education for Leipzig. “But just as importantly, we need technical expertise. Know-how is extremely important.”
Europe’s cities continue to welcome the dispossessed
Cities like Gdansk in Poland, La Coruna in Spain and many others are at odds with national governments that have been slow to take in asylum seekers. The E.U. scheme to redistribute 160,000 refugees across the continent has met only a fraction of the 2015 targets.
Meanwhile, Barcelona city officials, who say the city can easily accommodate 2,000 to 4,000 arrivals over the next two years, are wondering why the Spanish government is dragging its feet.
“I don’t think there is a refugee problem,” insists Ignasi Calbó Troyano, who heads Barcelona’s City of Refuge project. “The flow of people into Europe – it is nothing compared to other parts of the world.”
Troyano and others acknowledge that the general reluctance of European nation-states to accommodate more refugees is due to the recent history of migration flows both within and into the continent. In the city of Barcelona alone, the number of immigrants increased from 53,000 in 2000 to 282,000 in 2012. A majority came from Latin America, Asia and North Africa.
There is increasing awareness among urban centers of Europe, both large and small, of the need to assist one another when it comes to providing relief and aid. Larger, better equipped cities are helping smaller places like Lampedusa and Lesvos with everything from garbage disposal to tourism promotion.
“I tell all my friends, ‘Visit Lampedusa,’” says Troyano. “It’s a beautiful place, and by going, you are helping refugees and helping the city meet its goals.”
A more direct approach to refugee resettlement is also in the works. Troyano says that Barcelona has agreed to take 100 refugees from Athens in an effort to show that quick relocation and even family reunification are possible and desirable. While such a move would require the final approval of the Spanish and Greek governments, he and his peers believe that such cooperation places a healthy level of pressure on national authorities to act.
Other city workers also believe that this approach can generate a new cross-continental discourse on the value of migration to Europe as a whole. These administrators acknowledge that in the past, central governments have made critical mistakes by characterizing refugees as a monolithic community that is innately helpless and one that required support based on pity rather than productivity.
“Immigrants have been instrumental to my country,” says Forsander of Finland. “We have to retell the story of Europe as settler societies. We have to leave behind this old dusty nationalist discourse.”