Urban dialogues – migration and asylum in cities


The second in our series of urban dialogues debates focused on the topical issue of migration and asylum in European cities.

As discussions at European level continue on how to address the current refugee crisis, we organised a debate on 21 September in Brussels to look at the city angle. The discussion was the second in our series of ‘urban dialogues’ debates, organised in partnership with The Centre, Edelman Brussels’ forum for debate. The first, which focused on work, took place on 12 May.

Our debate attracted a large crowd, as participants gathered to hear first hand experiences from the city of Vienna, represented by Michael Kauer, director of Vienna house in Brussels, as well as from Anna Colombo, special advisor at the European Parliament, and Michele LeVoy, director of PICUM (Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants).

Michaela Kauer described the state of exception in Vienna, where the city had to organise a response overnight when tens of thousands of migrants and refugees crossed the border from Hungary. She explained how the city works closely with partner organisations, citizens and volunteer groups to provide the emergency assistance refugees need upon arrival. She also explained the city’s plan for longer term integration of refugees, including the ‘Vienna Charter’ which aims to improve relations and understanding between different communities in the city.

Vienna’s involvement in EUROCITIES has also been very useful, she explained, not least because it shows cities that they are not alone in their challenges. It is useful to learn how other cities are coping with the crisis, and she praised EUROCITIES for its efforts to facilitate the integration of asylum seekers. She reiterated the call we made in our May 2015 statement for asylum seekers to be given the right to work, which would improve their prospects for long term integration. Nevertheless, she referred to the need to have strong and well-funded public city services to be able to welcome many newcomers, from kindergarten places to labour market demands. It is therefore important that cities are part of the process when designing policies around migration, as they can provide vital insight into the everyday challenges of welcoming refugees.

She went on to describe the overwhelming response in her city to the news that thousands of refugees were soon to arrive. Vienna has come up with an extremely well coordinated response to the crisis (read our article here for more details), including providing 8,000 places to sleep and emergency medical aid. She praised the mayor of fellow EUROCITIES member Gdansk, which became the first Polish city to pledge to welcome refugees (read more here). These experiences show that cities can do it, but they need immediate financial assistance and long term support in order to adapt their services to a new set of needs.

The speakers addressed the need for reform of the Dublin agreement, which in its present form puts disproportionate pressure on EU external border regions, where local authorities are less able to cope with the influx of refugees. They also discussed the need for mutual recognition of asylum status, so that refugees can travel across European borders to be reunited with their families for example.

Anna Colombo called for a greater direct involvement of cities and civil society organisations, dealing practically with concrete issues on a daily basis and away from the rhetoric often observed at national level.

Michele LeVoy from PICUM widened the discussion by reaffirming the need to take into account the fate of rejected asylum seekers who become irregular migrants but still require services. This situation leaves cities once again at the frontline, as they cannot risk the cost of exclusion and marginalisation. This is a topic that a number of our members are taking a leading role on.

The debate was another step in our efforts to raise the profile of cities’ work on managing the current refugee crisis. We continue to profile examples of how our cities are managing practically, and while they are doing their bit, we are pushing the EU and national governments to give them the appropriate political and financial recognition.

Follow the discussions on Twitter via #citieswelcomerefugees.