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The images of thousands of people crossing into Europe may have slipped somewhat from the media headlines in recent months, but since the start of the migration crisis, cities have always been clear that the influx of refugees would be long-term.
More than one year after the deal between the European Union and Turkey that theoretically closed the ‘West Balkan route’, arrivals have not ceased. The routes have simply changed. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees are stuck in Greece, many in Athens or Thessaloniki. Thousands keep risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy, ultimately making their way to Palermo, Rome, Milan and elsewhere.
Despite cities such as Barcelona, Ghent and Gdansk saying they are willing to play a role in the EU relocation scheme and ready to directly welcome refugees transiting Greece or Italy, there is not yet a model of collaboration with national governments to authorise this direct city-to-city relocation.
Meanwhile cities across Europe deal daily with the challenges of receiving and integrating new arrivals. Cities have no choice but to manage; failure to do so would be a breach of basic human rights and a major threat to social cohesion.
It was in this spirit that EUROCITIES launched the SOLIDARITY CITIES initiative. This project works to promote mutual assistance between cities, focus on capacity-building, and advocate for better funding and a fairer distribution of responsibilities across the EU.
As the level of government closest to citizens, cities are well placed to assess needs and priorities in the field of migrant integration. Cities also have a role to play in challenging the public perception of asylum-seekers and promoting better understanding of our collective responsibility to respect their basic human rights and right to protection.
Cities have a role to play in promoting better understanding of our collective responsibility to respect asylum seekers’ basic human rights
EUROCITIES vision for integration is one where all city residents can develop their full potential and live safe and dignified lives. Our members – in over 140 large cities throughout Europe – tell us that access to funding and a lack of say in national and European decision-making are major obstacles to achieving this long-term goal.
Providing affordable housing is a particular challenge, with many cities already suffering from housing shortages. Welcoming new arrivals adds more pressure to an already precarious situation, leading to challenges such as overcrowding. This is especially true in cities like Berlin, Munich, or Vienna, which have all welcomed tens of thousands of newcomers over the last two years (on top of already significant demographic changes).
Ensuring access to education for unaccompanied minors and the children of asylum-seekers and refugees is one of the main integration tasks facing European cities. Most European cities have been involved in the provision of education for migrants and people with a migrant background for many years, but the current volume of new arrivals presents new challenges.
Cities like Milan or Thessaloniki are experiencing this first-hand. But through SOLIDARITY CITIES they have recently benefitted from city-to-city mentoring and knowledge transfer from Stockholm, Leeds, Amsterdam and Zurich. This has helped them to adapt their formal and informal education programmes to the needs of a population that was once transient but which increasingly looks like it is here to stay.
Integrating refugees and asylum seekers into the labour market is another major challenge that cities have started to address. This will enhance individuals’ long-term ability to contribute to local economies and society, both before and after refugee status is granted. Our CITIES GROW project, with the participation of sixteen of our members (Athens, Barcelona, Birmingham, Brighton & Hove, Dresden, Gdansk, Ghent, Helsinki, Lisbon, Munich, Nantes, Nicosia, Riga, Rotterdam, Tampere and Utrecht) works on all aspects of integration in the economic life of the cities, from entrepreneurship to anti-discrimination strategies on the job market.
We need to make sure that labour market and economic inclusion go hand in hand with social inclusion
If we want to ensure the successful and long-term integration of newcomers, we also need to make sure that labour market and economic inclusion go hand-in-hand with social inclusion and other policies that support participation in the civic and political life of our cities.
Cities have proven that they are willing and able to act quickly in response to these situations. Yet cities do not have sufficient access to the main European funds that can be used to help integrate migrants, and too often funds do not even reach the cities.
For reception to be a priority, cities must have better access to EU emergency assistance and to the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). These instruments should be made directly available at the local level.
We cannot allow cities to be left alone to deal with the reception and integration of refugees. The Urban Agenda for the EU signals a step in the right direction as it recognises the role of cities in this field and the importance of funding solutions that use a multi-level governance approach.
The Urban Agenda’s Partnership on Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees should be used as a sounding board prior to drafting new legislation on migration and refugees. It should also include discussions about the future of EU integration funding. As a member of this Partnership, EUROCITIES coordinates the action on better funding. We will feed into the reflections on the next multi-annual financial framework, by offering recommendations on how to guarantee better access to funding for cities across Europe.
By systematically involving cities in the way integration policies are devised at the European and national levels, we can ensure better and more effective policies and use of EU money.
More can be done to support our cities’ responses to this challenge and uphold our fundamental European values of solidarity, humanity and dignity. By doing so we will ensure a better future for Europe.
This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.
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