How to secure funds to welcome all refugees? An interview with MEP Damian Boeselager

13 June 2022

As the Ukrainian refugee crisis continues to put pressure on the budgets and services of cities and states across Europe, the European Parliament is looking for ways to extend direct funding to enable them to receive and integrate as many refugees as possible.

MEPs are also keen to adapt the EU funding system for future crises and, above all, want to be prepared to welcome all refugees, whether they are Ukrainian or coming from other parts of the world in search of refuge and safety. It is not a simple process, in fact, it is a tortuous, long road, but it needs to be travelled as soon as possible.

Eurocities spoke to MEP Damian Boeselager, Volt/Greens/EFA Germany, who has played a leading role in trying to push the EU and Parliament to move quickly in helping all refugees.

The Commission has proposed to make spending under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and the cohesion policy funding more flexible in response to the war in Ukraine. While this is a welcome initiative, cities are reporting that this won’t be enough and that they are facing an urgent lack of resources. What more can be done to provide local authorities and civil society with additional funding to continue providing services and support to Ukrainian refugees?

MEP Damian Boeselager. Image: Personal archive
MEP Damian Boeselager. Image: Personal archive

Both the Commission as well as my office are definitely looking into how to change the actual financial regulation to allow for direct funding of regions and cities. Because currently most of the emergency measures available are going into national budgets and that doesn’t always best support cities, regions and potentially the NGOs that are actually dealing with the issues.

So, how to ensure that funding is available in an unbureaucratic and fair and just way where it is needed? That’s something that we are looking very much into. And so far I haven’t seen great solutions being provided by the Commission, but that’s something that we are in constant exchange with [Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva] Johansson’s cabinet and she’s very interested in making this work.

You have called for the direct dispersal of funds from AMIF and the Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) to local authorities and Civil Society Organisations (CSO) on the ground. How would this look in practice?

For me, the question is where the money is currently needed and how do we best get it there.

And again, how can we also ensure that the funding is not just going to a national government who then has to prioritise according to their own needs, but how can we give it to local governments, how can we ensure that this is actually following the European Union priorities?

What will it look like? Again, as I said for the Financial Regulation details, we are still looking. We can learn a bit from the Cohesion Fund, but I think we still need to understand how this is best possible.

We very often work with very large CSOs, even though we would like to support smaller ones just because of the, let’s say reporting requirements and so on. As you can see, I don’t have the best solution yet, but it’s definitely something that we need to understand better and it would also be quite a new system for the European Union. So there aren’t many precedents that we can look at at the moment.

In the future, how can EU funding be adapted to better take into account the needs of cities and other local stakeholders?

We have the Solidarity Forum that already exists on the national level, and I think it could also make sense to come up with similar solidarity fora at the regional and local levels.

I have started a campaign that you can find online, which is called Europe Welcomes, where you basically see all the cities and local municipalities that are willing to, for example, accept asylum seekers from the Greek and Polish borders.

And that was already before the Ukrainian war, or the War of Russia in Ukraine. And I think that if we would unlock that solidarity potential that exists at the local level, a lot of our national quarrels would be solved because you can see that the solidarity potential is much higher than any given population of asylum seekers at our borders.

If we could get to a more volunteer or solidarity-based model, this would help a lot. And you can see that cities are often much further than the national and the regional level.

Do you think the swift agreement on the Temporary Protection Directive could be beneficial in progressing on other migration files at the EU level, as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum?

I work on the Crisis and force majeure file, which basically would replace the Temporary Protection Directive so we could regulate the temporary protection status and some other voluntary solidarity tools. Our hope is, since this has been triggered for the first time in 21 years, to use this impetus and this energy to say “look, this is really what we need.”

I do hope that this will speed up the European migration system, but the issue is, as always, the fact that in all capitals there are still difficulties to align on the migration system. And this brings me back to my cause as a Volt MEP, which is that our decision-making system, when it comes to controversial issues, is not very adapted in Europe.

When people say “hey, the EU can’t align on something or the EU can’t come to a conclusion,” this really means that our capitals, our Member States, are not able to agree on their position when it comes to these new asylum files. Then the whole process is stopped because the Parliament and the Member States can’t really negotiate because the Member States haven’t even found their own position yet.

I hope that the Member States will see this as a call for further alignment and to find a position. Because the Parliament will always find its position by a majority, and we will always be able to negotiate with the Member States. So let’s hope that the Member States get their act together.

What other types of impact can we expect after the Ukrainian refugee crisis on legislation related to migration, funding, and asylum?

I hope that the positive example of how Europe and the EU received the Ukrainians and gave them special status teaches us that this is possible. And that we can show solidarity and support.

When it comes to the effects on migration and asylum, I just hope that there’s a bit of a better understanding that solidarity doesn’t destroy our societies or that this is not a threat to our internal functioning.

This just means helping people who are coming from a war zone, and I hope that we can see that this is the same for people from Afghanistan or Syria. I hope we understand that we can help and that it doesn’t harm us, but actually enriches us.

There’s a need to rethink how we see nationality in Europe and integration in Europe. For example, if some Ukrainians choose Europe as their home, I hope that we can understand that this enriches us and that these people can become German or French and still have parts of their Ukrainian identity.

I think we still haven’t really understood what an immigration society looks like. It also means opening up our national identities and potentially strengthening the European identity.

Do you believe that the criticism that the EU institutions are doing a lot for Ukraine, but weren’t so quick or swift during the Syrian refugee crisis is fair?

Yes, it’s fair. But since I’m usually criticising the European Union on all matters of asylum and migration, let me also defend it for one second.

It is a fact that Ukraine is a direct neighbouring country to EU countries. This means that in a crisis the Ukrainians could not go anywhere else but to the EU, and I think it’s more logically understandable for many people within the European Union to show solidarity due to this geographic proximity – actually, it’s not even proximity, but intimacy for being right next to each other.

It’s easier to understand for many Europeans why we would have to host, welcome, and receive Ukrainian war refugees. That’s the first factor. The second factor is that I think Europeans also understood that the aggressor having conquered Ukraine would have an even longer direct border with the European Union. That’s an issue to consider from a security perspective.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s understandable why European Union citizens and governments would see this as a more imminent issue than, for example, the war in Syria. Now, we need to get to an understanding that if you’re Syrian or if you’re Ukrainian and you’re bombed and you need to flee, you are in a similar situation and what you need is shelter.

And we need to also understand that not all countries neighbouring Syria are potentially not able to host all the asylum seekers and all refugees that had to leave Syria. Then extend this to “look, if Syrians asked for asylum in Europe, we should be willing and able to take them up and to receive them and welcome them as much as we welcomed and received the Ukrainians.” This would be a logical conclusion.

I understand why European Union citizens thought this way with Ukraine and why they potentially see a difference with Syria, but then we need to make our way to help everyone understand that when you are fleeing bombs – and actually in both cases Russian bombs – it doesn’t make a difference what kind of nationality you are and that it doesn’t always work to say “hey, you should go to a neighbouring country.”


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer