Cities Across the Atlantic Raise Their Voices for Migrants and Refugees
BERLIN - In the face of increasingly uncertain and less welcoming times for migrants and refugees in Europe and the United States, cities across the Atlantic are leading the charge for more open and fair policies. Ranging from protest or even outright defiance to national initiatives to proactive policies on integration, efforts at the local level are gaining momentum.
Faced with resolute inaction at the national level, over 160,000 protesters marched in the streets of Barcelona on February 18, urging the regional and local governments to take action and welcome refugees. After committing to take in more than 17,000 by September 2017, to date the Spanish government has only actually taken in around 1,100 refugees. In protest, more than 900 civil society organizations, over 100 mayors — including the mayor of Barcelona — and six ministers from the regional government gave support to the Casa nostra, casa vostra (Our home, your home) platform in demanding that the national government take in refugees and allow cities and regions to fulfill commitments and duties in accommodating them.
In Germany, several center-left governed states are refusing to deport people whose asylum claims have been denied back to Afghanistan, in direct opposition of orders from the Interior Ministry. While the German government has made the increase in deportations and returns a key priority ahead of the national elections in September, these five Länder argue that Afghanistan does not have “secure provinces” and are using their legal right to issue a temporary moratorium on deportations (Abschiebestopp).
Across the Atlantic, cities from Austin, Texas to Montreal, Canada are adding themselves to the long and growing list of self-declared “sanctuary cities” with the goal of defying federal policies to deport unauthorized migrants. The term sanctuary city refers to cities that limit the collaboration of local police with federal law enforcement authorities by not inquiring about a person’s immigration status. In response, the Trump administration has already threatened to block federal funding for these cities, and is now ratcheting up its efforts by expanding the target group for deportations and extending the authority of local police to act as federal deportation agents.
Beneath this resurgence in municipal defiance of national policies, many cities and towns are already leading the way with innovative policies that are successfully helping to welcome and integrate a growing numbers of migrants and refugees. The 2016 World Mayor Prize was just awarded to the mayor of Mechelen in Belgium for the city’s successful integration policies in one of Europe’s most diverse cities. Also on the list is the mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk, who, in a country known to be highly skeptical to any type of migrants, immigrants, or refugees, set up a pioneering Council of Immigrants to advise the mayor and city administration as part of a comprehensive and robust effort to support integration and make immigrants feel welcome.
However, important legislative and regulatory hurdles still limit the impact of local efforts of migration and refugee matters on a national scale. Last year, the regional government in Barcelona already tried to bypass the national government by reaching out to the EU Commission directly, offering to welcome 4,500 refugees — an action for which it was reprimanded because only national governments are considered a legitimate interlocutor for these matters. Barcelona — together with other cities in Spain and Europe – has repeatedly expressed frustration at the impotence of not being able to accommodate refugees while other European cities are doing more than their fair share and is actively participating in the growing network of rebel cities.
When asked to comment on the recent demonstration in Barcelona — the biggest pro-refugee demonstration known to date — the spokesperson of the EU Commission was not even aware of the demonstration and asked if people were demonstrating against refugee resettlement. In the case of Germany, local governments can only refuse implementation of deportations to Afghanistan for three months, unilateral approval from the federal level is required thereafter. In the United States, the politically symbolic self-designation as sanctuary city will in itself not be sufficient to prevent federal law enforcement from obtaining information on unauthorized immigrants; more will need to be done to ensure these cities are actually safe havens.
With the rollout of the Trump administration’s augmentation of deportation efforts, and upcoming national elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany among others, the migration debate will continue to be a fertile breeding ground for populist sentiment and actions. In such a context, the voices of cities and local level representatives may become the prime advocates for open and inclusive societies. It will be up to cities to provide safe communities and successful integration models that will make or break national migration policies in the years to come. Citizens can hold mayors and local representatives accountable to doing everything they can to make good on their proclaimed status as sanctuary or rebel cities. These cities offer the potential for creating the social glue of tomorrow’s diverse communities.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.