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How Cities Can Help Solve Europe’s Crisis Over Refugees

Local authorities are often responsible for supporting refugees, but excluded from resources and policymaking. We talk to Frederic Vallier, secretary-general of the ‎Council of European Municipalities and Regions, about why cities should have a seat at the table.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The now-demolished Millenaire camp in Paris during a visit by Mayor Anne Hidalgo earlier this year.Sadak Souici / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

When Italy’s hard-line new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, declared Italy’s ports closed to migrant rescue boats – effectively stranding 629 people at sea – the city of Palermo rebelled. Mayor Leoluca Orlando said he was ready to accept the MS Aquarius at the Sicilian capital’s port, but without the help of the Italian coast guard it was impossible for him to do so.

The conflict between the mayors of southern Italian cities and the national government, as well as recent disputes in Paris between Mayor Anne Hidalgo and President Emmanuel Macron over who is responsible for that city’s ever-shifting migrant camps, are only the latest manifestation of long-building tensions between European cities and nation-states over what to do about refugee populations.

Ever since 1 million people arrived on the shores of Europe three years ago, local authorities in cities and towns have been first responders, and mayors and other local leaders have warned that they continue to shoulder much of the responsibility for delivering services and integrating refugees and migrants, without adequate funding or input into refugee and migration policy.

Frederic Vallier, the secretary-general of the ‎Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), is trying to address this disconnect. CEMR advocates for thousands of local and regional governments across Europe. We spoke with Vallier about local innovations, national politics and E.U. budgets.

News Deeply: Europe is sharply divided over issues of refugees and migration. What role does local government play in addressing these divides?

Frederic Vallier: Europe might be divided, but local governments are not really divided. When the crisis started, the first thing [CEMR] said was that we need to empower and support local governments in hosting and organizing the arrival of refugees. At that time, a few years ago, nation-states clearly said, “No, this is our responsibility, you should not interfere.” But people were coming to cities and cities had to provide shelters and organize the hosting and welcoming of those people.

Throughout Europe, cities have monitoring programs for emergency support, either alone or with the support of civil society organizations. Many volunteers everywhere helped with this. At the peak of the crisis, thousands of people were arriving in cities like Vienna and Munich and the citizens and the local mayors could not stand there and do nothing, so they took up their responsibilities and did their jobs.

News Deeply: We’re still seeing that happening. For example, in Paris, there’s been some tension between Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and the government of President Emmanuel Macron over responsibility for refugees.

Vallier: It is still very conflictual, because the mayors really want to address the issue both for humanitarian reasons and also for ease of living together. You cannot have hundreds of people coming into a town and let them live in the street with no support and no facilities. So cities have to deal with the problem.

Of course, states – and not specifically France – don’t want cities to interfere because they want to control the migration issue. They want to see where the refugees are. They want to have them in one place to handle the problem, whereas we think it would be much easier if things were done in cooperation with local governments.

Things are very unclear because, on the one hand, President Macron gave a speech in Strasbourg a couple of months ago saying that the European Union should dedicate some funding directly to municipalities to deal with the problem. This is a position that we have had for many, many years. And at the same time, in his own actions, he is in conflict with municipalities and the city of Paris over responsibility for the situation.

News Deeply: Do mayors need more power to be able to take on these issues?

Vallier: They need more support. There is a need to clarify who is responsible for what. This is something that came up very suddenly so it’s not in any treaties. In the regulations that we have between different spheres of government, it’s not the responsibility of the European Union to take care of the refugees, and it’s not the responsibility of the cities.

But we have seen that if there is not a common understanding of how to deal with the problem, the problem will not be solved. So we now need to sit around the table with representatives of local governments, nation-states and the European Union to see how to organize things so that it will be easier and fairer to deal with.

News Deeply: Have you seen any examples of things going better since 2015 in municipalities around Europe?

Vallier: Yes. Many municipalities have organized policies to address emergency issues, like violence against women or unaccompanied minors. In many cases, the situation has been organized better and better, for example in Greece. The Greek municipalities have done an incredible job in delivering support to newly arrived refugees, when the state was practically broke and the situation there was really critical. If the municipalities had not been there, it would have been a humanitarian catastrophe. Elsewhere on the continent, the city of Vienna did a lot, as did Munich and other German cities, for example on integration and language.

News Deeply: How would the current E.U. budget proposal for 2021–27 impact refugees and migrants living in European towns and cities?

 “If the municipalities had not been there, it would have been a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Vallier: This is still being negotiated, but we have requested a clear budget to support cities, maybe a specific fund or a part of existing funds dedicated to that issue. If funds go to national governments, then it is very difficult to drive it to local governments. So we would like direct E.U. funding to local governments. We have the support of some nation-states and members of the [European] Parliament on this, so I’m fairly optimistic.

News Deeply: What specific things would you like to see in the global compact on refugees and the global compact on migration with regard to municipalities and how they deal with refugees and migrants?

Vallier: There are many issues where municipalities can be involved. The first is emergency housing. We would like to change the perspective, to move from big shelters of several hundred people to smaller places where they can be accompanied by social workers and be provided with support for language issues.

We would like [refugees] to be able to work. We understand why states want to keep them with the status of refugees, because they think once the situation is better in their country, they will go [back]. But we all know that’s not the case. It’s much more intelligent to think about how to deal with the problem in the mid-term or long-term perspective, rather than keeping people in a situation where they are vulnerable and dependent on social welfare.

News Deeply: You mentioned examples of cities doing a good job of emergency response. Have you also seen innovations by cities regarding the integration of refugees and migrants?

Vallier: I think the crisis has shown that citizens are willing to help. For example, in Belgium there is a program supported by civil society and municipalities in suggesting citizens to welcome [refugees], sometimes to partner with a family or to accompany minors.

We always talk about big cities, but it’s also interesting to see what some small villages are doing – for example, in France. When the crisis was at its peak, many French municipalities volunteered to say, “We are willing to host a family and to give them support.” This was not supported by the state, because they want to keep people in big shelters and control them. But it did happen in some cases and it proved to be very efficient and also very good for populations who are not confronted directly with these problems. It helped them understand that [refugees] are not all thieves or dangerous, they’re just human beings who need help and support.

“We have 130,000 municipalities and provinces in Europe. If every one takes only five refugees, it’s already close to 1 million.”

A few years ago, I said that if every municipality would host only one or two families, the problem would be solved. We have 130,000 municipalities and provinces in Europe. If every one takes only five refugees, it’s already close to 1 million. But of course, states don’t see it that way.

News Deeply: We’ve talked about ways that cities can help refugees integrate. What about the other way around – is there a role for cities or local governments in helping host populations become more welcoming to refugees?

Vallier: Partnership and welcoming programs are very important. It’s also important that things are not hidden. Many problems have happened because states suddenly took over a place and said, “We’re going move 100 refugees there,” and the local population was not aware about it. Sometimes even the municipality was not informed. This created a lot of tension because people suddenly were in fear of having a group of people that they didn’t know about coming in without warning.

It’s very important that when a shelter or a camp is set up, the local population is informed and that links are created between the different groups. It’s really important to organize this with civil society. When that’s done, it’s much easier for everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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