Sanctuary Cities Challenge Restrictive Migration Policies

While European leaders are busy closing borders, a growing number of cities have decided not to blindly accept their government’s restrictive migration policies but instead provide a sanctuary for refugees.

Fewer migrants are reaching the shores of European coastal states. European leaders have successfully managed to outsource border control. By now, it has become almost impossible for refugees traveling across the Central Mediterranean route to seek asylum in Fortress Europe.

This is a result of the deals the European Union sealed with third countries, especially with the United Nations-backed Libyan government. As part of the deal, European forces are training the Libyan Coast Guard. Unfortunately, they have forgotten to include a course in human rights.

A video from The New York Times shows disturbing scenes of Libyan Coast Guard officers watching passively as dozens of people drown as they instead threaten the crew of the German aid organization Sea-Watch and hinder them in their rescue efforts.

While EU member states are busy sealing their borders and accepting the deaths of thousands of migrants, a growing number of cities have decided to defy their government and become sanctuaries for migrants.

“Unconditional welcome” for refugees

Several influential local politicians have decided not to accept blindly their government’s restrictive migration policy. In Italy, the mayors of Florence, Palermo and Naples openly opposed the recently adopted anti-immigration law, which limits residence permits and facilitates the expulsions of migrants. The law also removes humanitarian protection and has led to the closure of Italy’s second-biggest reception center, forcing hundreds of migrants onto the streets.

The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who accused Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of spreading fake news about refugees and producing criminality with his xenophobic rhetoric, has become a symbol of resistance to the country’s hard line on migration. Most recently, he defied Salvini by ignoring the new immigration law and registering four migrants as full residents.

In France, cities and municipalities have united to show their “unconditional welcome” for refugees and demand that their government, which has recently adopted stricter migration laws, assume its responsibility to provide solutions for reception, accommodation and support.

In Belgium, more than 60 French-speaking municipalities have joined the “communes hospitalières” (hospitable communities) movement, committing themselves to implementing welcoming policies and mobilizing their citizens for refugee support.

In Poland, the city of Gdańsk has been one of the pillars of solidarity with migrants and refugees. While Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, has warned in the past that migrants carry “all sorts of parasites” and will want to impose Sharia law and use churches as “toilets”, Paweł Adamowicz, who was Gdańsk’s mayor until he was tragically murdered during an event in January, managed to rally the population of Gdańsk behind migrants and refugees and announced that the city was ready to welcome more refugees.

A project initiated by EUROCITIES, a network of more than 140 major European cities, and the mayor of Athens regroups dozens of European cities to better address the reception and integration of refugees and asylum seekers. Berlin is the most recent member to join the “Solidarity Cities” club, which also includes big European port cities like Barcelona, Athens, Naples, Hamburg and Rotterdam.

Solidarity towards private sea rescuers

Besides the general divergence on migration policies, the biggest disagreement between sanctuary cities and national governments is probably the one on what to do with the people rescued in the Mediterranean. While European leaders have been unable to come up with sustainable solutions, cities have expressed their willingness to receive more migrants.

When at the end of last year European leaders were ruminating about what to do with the 32 rescued people aboard the Sea-Watch 3, which subsequently had to roam off the coast of Malta for weeks waiting for the authorization to disembark, more than 30 German Bundesländer and cities declared that the migrants would be welcome in their communities.

In Italy, the same mayors who oppose Salvini’s immigration law have also strongly criticized his position towards private rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They also have declared their willingness to open their ports for the blocked ships of German aid organizations with rescued migrants aboard.

In Spain, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, pleaded with her government to allow Proactiva Open Arms' NGO rescue vessel to leave the port of Barcelona – it was previously denied setting sail based on accusations that it had violated maritime regulations on past rescue missions.

Getting a seat at the table

Cities have however little room for maneuver because asylum policies are a national responsibility and local budgets are often insufficient to welcome more refugees. As a result, a movement of 'Fearless Cities' has emerged to provide a counterweight to central governments. The first gathering took place in Barcelona in 2018, followed by several regional summits in cities such as Brussels, Warsaw and New York.

The idea behind the movement is a decentralization of power whereby cities and municipalities can decide on their own affairs. This bottom-up approach has the additional advantage of giving civil society, those directly affected by decisions made at national and European level, a seat at the table.