Welcoming cities

Migration into Europe is increasing once again. 
Four years after the ‘refugee crisis’ reached its peak, when pictures of lines of people queueing at national borders dominated our news headlines, thousands are still risking their lives on the hope of a better life in Europe.
It’s something that new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has already come under fire for…while trying to address it.
Speaking to MEPs following the recent approval of her Commission College, von der Leyen said, “Europe will always provide shelter for those who are in need of international protection, [and] it is in our interest that those who stay are integrated to our society, but we also have to ensure that those who have no right to stay return home.”
Of course, it was the notion of who or what required protection that first got her into hot water on this issue – the title awarded to Greek Commissioner Margaritis Schinas now having been updated to ‘promoting our European way of life’ from the original ‘protecting’.
Nevertheless, migration is still clearly a hot button issue that needs to be addressed at the very top echelons of European politics as the challenge to find a common European way on migration continues.
In lieu of such action, many cities have taken it upon themselves to launch common projects.

Solidarity cities

Naturally, most migrants and refugees head to cities, which offer them the greatest prospects to find a job and make ends meet.
However, from the city perspective, this means providing a variety of different services. As Michael Müller, governing mayor of Berlin, says “we support decent accommodation for refugees, training and education for young people, job placement and German language classes for all newcomers.”
For Müller, the aim must be to integrate newcomers “from day one”. 
For many city administrations doing so can mean assuming national level competences, which can make providing such basic necessities to people already on their doorstep all the harder. And yet, not doing so has implications for social cohesion.
This was behind the creation in 2016 of Solidarity Cities – an initiative of the city of Athens and the network of major European cities, EUROCITIES.
Solidarity Cities brings together city representatives to share best practice in order to help increase cities’ capacity to welcome and integrate migrants and refugees.
One example is ‘Bella Milano’ (Beautiful Milan) through which asylum seekers living in reception centres volunteer alongside Milanese citizens to take care of public spaces in the city (cleaning of green spaces, emptying the bins, etc). These vocational activities aim to foster a culture of integration and allow the refugees to experience life outside the centres, practice their Italian language and establish a positive relationship with the neighbourhood they live in.


Integration is also a key focus of the EU-funded VALUES project (Volunteering Activities to Leverage Urban and European Social integration of migrants), which offers 16 cities the chance to participate in work exchanges. 
“We will find creative ways to ensure that, as well as our existing citizens, all newcomers including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are able to contribute to the city’s politics, culture, and development in a meaningful way,” says Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol (one of the cities involved in VALUES).
The city of Bristol funds and shares experiences with volunteer organisations. This includes working with migrant parents of children who have places in one of the local nursery schools. As ‘cultural competency champions’ they use their cultural insights to help the school keep resources and services relevant to migrant users. For example, the parents work with teachers to develop learning materials that include themes and ideas from their culture of origin.
One group of migrant parents have brought this a step further, using the skills they learned as cultural competency champions to form their own social enterprise. This business provides trainers who go from school to school helping staff create better relationships with, and get the most from, migrant pupils.
Another example comes from Madrid, where the city directly coordinates more than 15,000 volunteers. “We want to work on a feeling of belonging,” says Concha Fernández, head of Madrid’s volunteering department. “We want to create a feeling similar to football fans, where volunteers are part of a team and they identify with their city.”
12% of the volunteers are migrants, mostly from South America. For local and migrant volunteers, one of the advantages of being part of this team is making friends and meeting people they might not usually have the chance to interact with. From handing out rations at food-banks, to looking after abandoned animals, to giving language lessons, volunteering is a chance for Madrid residents with different backgrounds to be brought together by shared passions.

A place to call home

Clearly cities have to assume many roles, often working through innovative partnerships to fully achieve the goal integration of migrants and refugees. Cities supporting each other through shared tips and trips is one thing, but, as was made evident in the recommendations to the European Commission made by the Urban Agenda for the EU partnership on the inclusion of migrants and refugees, long term integration is far more complex and requires funding – not easy at a time of squeezed public budgets.
The urban agenda partnerships each bring together representatives from different levels of government to focus on a key challenge that has an impact on cities. In doing so they work towards finding ways to improve funding, existing regulations and share knowledge. 
One challenge faced by cities, that the partnership would like to overcome is that very often ‘decisions on allocation of relevant EU funds are made by national or regional authorities’, meaning that cities lack direct access to the money.
This can lead to all sorts of other bottlenecks – such as political considerations when national and city governments are on different sides of the political aisle, or even mean that the design of such programmes entirely misses the integration needs of cities.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said last year on World Refugee Day, when mayors from more than 50 cities joined together to call for more action on settling refugees in urban communities, “with the majority of refugees now living in towns and cities, mayors and community leaders play a critical role in mobilising support, providing services and opportunities, and helping refugees become members of communities. As we work towards a new Global Compact on Refugees, we want to ensure that when local people and organisations come together to welcome refugees, they receive the recognition and support they need.”
Integration, according to Grandi, is thus a two-way process, and the needs of the receiving community must also be considered.
Currently, the European Commission has agreed to a proposal that would allow the key role of city administrations in welcoming newcomers to be reflected in the next iteration of its Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). The proposal suggests that member states will need to consult with cities at all stages of the process, with cities having more direct access to funding
However, with the future shape of the next seven year EU budget still in a state of flux, and other funding options still unclear, cities have to hope the new Commission keeps this promise.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer