What are the best approaches to receiving and welcoming refugees from Ukraine, as well as from other places? All over Europe, cities have struggled to find solutions and provide the best possible services and formulate policies and initiatives. Despite the different approaches, cities have talked to each other, sharing experiences and tailoring initiatives according to their needs and legal and budgetary limitations.
Warsaw saw a peak of 400,000 Ukrainians arriving per day, following the outbreak of war in Europe earlier this year. With an average of 25-30,000 arriving each day, and 170,000 refugees currently in the city (about 15% of the local population), the city has had a lot to deal with. Thanks to the quick response of organisations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNICEF, and other organisations with funding and expertise, and provisions from the city budget, Warsaw was able to increase school capacity, catering to the newly arrived young people, and upholding a human right to education, and was able to focus on other issues, such as long-term integration processes.
Challenges for cities
Warsaw faces challenges on three main fronts. First, the humanitarian. According to Michał Olszewski, Deputy Mayor of Warsaw, “some national governments seem more interested in building fences and not in integration policies or in welcoming refugees/migrants or transferring funds for cities.” Given these tensions that are prevalent not only between Warsaw and the Polish government, but in the cooperation between EU member states on all matters related to refugee reception and integration, the city did all it could, including looking for inputs and help from other cities throughout Europe.
In addition, he pointed to the fast mobilisation of other parts of society, which was essential to make the reception of so many Ukrainians possible in such a short space of time..
“I was surprised by the mobilisation of civil society – being able to cope in such a short time,” he said. Without the mobilisation of citizens, businesses, and NGOs, it would be impossible to welcome as many refugees as Warsaw did and the same can be seen all over Poland. Companies ceded abandoned buildings and office spaces to host Ukrainians and the city was able to transform office buildings into accommodation centres for the most vulnerable (for around1,500-2,000 Ukrainians). The fact that Poles and Ukrainians are culturally close helped the process, also many Ukrainians had family in the country, making the process even smoother.
The second dimension is the economic one, with the city mobilising huge assistance to refugees and aid support to Ukraine, and receiving more than 5,000 pallets of goods from other cities.
Third the political dimension – considering that the Polish government is not as open as Warsaw to welcoming refugees. Warsaw disagreed with the national government on several issues. Given its history, Warsaw already had many migrants living in the city, and has well established city-level integration policies – but a chief source of tension centred on the political differences between the mayor, a Christian democrat with liberal slogans on LGBT rights and migration, and the far more conservative national government.
Nonetheless, as Olszewski pointed out, change was suddenly made possible due to the peculiarities of responding to a neighbour. “What had previously been impossible for years – happened in days, they adopted new laws and procedures for eg a change in construction law to be able to refurbish buildings for reception. This shows political will to become more migration friendly,” he said.
The experience from Utrecht
Hans Uneken, Director of the Department of Social Development, noted that Utrecht does not have to deal with the same number of refugees as Warsaw and Poland, but “we still needed to scale up our reception to find shelter for Ukrainians.” One key difference that helped with welcoming and integrating Ukrainian refugees is that they were automatically allowed to work in the city. In contrast, other migrant groups are only allowed to work when they get their refugee status.
In any case, the city faces many issues when it comes to housing – with many people simply stuck in asylum shelters. However, Uneken added, “we scaled up to find shelter, and the next step is how to include them in society. We can learn from our immigration system and our Plan Einstein concept, to provide social activities.”
The Plan Einstein concept ensures that new arrivals get the same right to services, such as job support and activities, as the existing local population, and in so doing offers opportunities for people to meet and interact, building support for refugees and migrants in their adopted community.
Despite the success of the city’s integration policies and Plan Einstein, several issues remain:
- National policies/programmes cover only people with a residence permit, so EU funding is needed to support everyone in the city.
- The procedure to apply for EU funding is challenging, but this made Utrecht more creative and able to deliver at a high level.
- The city received direct EU funding for the start-up phase of its Plan Einstein through the EU’s Urban Innovative Action programme. Nonetheless, the city has identified a need for more funding and is now working with many partners, including local residents, professionals, volunteers and organisations, and encourages more cities to join this and other similar innovative initiatives
- Funding for innovative projects is hard to get from the state level: “for innovative projects, cities cannot rely on national funds, therefore, cities need direct access to EU funds,” reinforced Uneken.
Dortmund’s One Stop Shop
In Dortmund, a similar approach to Utrecht’s Plan Einstein is already being taken. Birgit Zoemer, Deputy Mayor in Charge of Labour, Health, Social Affairs, Sports and Recreation, said that the city adopted, in 2015, a decentralised concept to create ‘local welcome centres’ in different neighbourhoods of the city, also organising festivals and activities to gather both refugees and people living in these neighbourhoods.
The project was so successful that they tried it again once the Ukrainians started to arrive, and the city also set up in February 2022 a One Stop Shop, providing a space where all the different representatives from the different offices and the welfare organisations were together in one place for people to access. Despite the overwhelming numbers, the city also set up an information counter with information being provided in Ukrainian and Russian.
Dortmund, as well as other German cities, struggled with national legislation, particularly related to employment. The job centre usually only helps the unemployed and according to the previous system, asylum seekers had to wait two years to have access to the job market and health insurance. This changed after the EU’s directive of 1 June recommending that refugees coming from Ukraine should have the same access as long-term unemployed people to employment training and education services.
As is the case in other cities, the budget was tight, and the city had to search for alternative sources of funding, such as making use of the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, and local networks. Zoemer noted that “we need flexible responses, sometimes the idea is very theoretical and misses the situation on the ground – we need to be able to take a holistic approach – the logic of funding should fit the project, not the other way around.”
Nantes and the French system
Distant from Ukraine, Nantes has not faced the same scale of refugees as cities in Eastern Europe. Yves Pascouau, Municipal Councillor in charge of European Affairs, Migrants and Travellers & Vice Chair of Nantes Metropole in charge of European Affairs noted that only around 100,000 Ukrainians were accommodated in France, with less than 10,000 accommodated in the entire region where Nantes is situated.
The role of Nantes is to accompany a state-oriented process that is decided at the local-national level by the state with representatives of the central government appointed for the local level. However, noted Pascouau, “we are as campaigning as cities. Nantes is the French city that has welcomed the biggest number of Ukrainian people, and provided daily services, even those not provided by law.”
In other words, the city acts as a buffer, closing the gap or the delay between the period when the person is granted the rights and when they’re able to access that right – money, food accommodation and other services. In France, explained Pascouau, “there is a territorial agreement, the State provides a lump sum to be implemented at the local level with partners, so they can experiment with new ideas to use the money where they want.”
Above all, Pascouau noted that in Nantes the belief is that solidarity should be a recognised solution to help refugees, even if it is a complex process. “Nearly half of Ukrainians in France are with family hosts, this is 50-60,000 people. There is a high risk of exploitation as we don’t know where they are, and most are women and children. The reception is state-oriented, and they are trying to organise this – both managing the hosted and also the hosting, it’s difficult to prepare for a sustainable welcome,” he said
The role of the EU Commission
From the EU Commission, Giuliana Benedetto, Policy Officer for Integration, Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs, stated that there is a dialogue between the institution and the cities, “this is not new and it’s obvious, but it’s useful to state this,” she said.
With this in mind, Benedetto outlined some steps the EU commission has taken via its new Solidarity Platform, which brings together EU member states and Ukrainian authorities to detail how to welcome Ukrainians:
Already exchanges have taken place on the role of local authorities and civil society, as well as educational needs.
Benedetto also elaborated how cities can better access EU funds, noting in particular AMIF, which has a budget of €9.9 billion in the current programming period. Although most of this is targeted towards EU member states, €1.6 billion is specifically designed to incentivise and involve local level involvement in such plans, and 5% is earmarked for direct management by the local level.
Lastly, Benedetto suggested that cities must play a key role in the dissemination of information on different funding opportunities, and that doing so can also help shape the narrative on integration.
Taking this from a slightly different perspective, and as was brought up by the panellists, the EU role in reception and integration can often be seen by local populations as solely focused on Frontex and border management. On the other hand, directing EU funds to the local level and to organisations involved in welcoming and integrating refugees, would send a very strong signal to people who might then be more inclined to change their minds on this topic.
In terms of multilevel cooperation, there remains much room for improvement, as was explained by Zoemer, to understand the realities on the ground. For instance, while the federal government in Germany decided that refugees from five countries determined most likely to be granted refugee status should be entitled to language courses, it was in fact other people who most requested language courses locally.
In sum, the period since February 2022 has seen a lot of existing ideas brought to the fore of decision making on asylum and integration, while seeing a number of innovations. Nonetheless, the story told from the ground makes clear that, while this now makes for an impressive baseline, more must be done.
This discussion took place during the 10th Integrating Cities Conference in Utrecht, on 16 November 2022, during panel I: “Cities welcoming refugees: exploring opportunities for multi-level cooperation and funding.”
Integrating Cities X, ‘Inclusion for all, Empowering vulnerable migrants in cities’ was organised within the framework of the Eurocities project CONNECTION (CONNEcting Cities Towards Integration action), funded by the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.
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