“States grant asylum, but cities provide shelter.” How cities are responding to Europe’s refugee crisis

Migrants and refugees arrive in the the Greek port of Piraeus in February 2016. Image: Getty.

Some 500,000 asylum seekers transited through Athens between January 2014 and December 2015. Over the same period, Hamburg and Munich hosted 25,000 each; 40,000 arrived in Vienna, and a further 250,000 used the city as a stopover before continuing their journeys.

The numbers are overwhelming, but this is what cities are dealing with every day. They have no choice but to manage; failure to do so would be unethical, a breach of basic human rights and a major threat to social cohesion and public order. Every day, local authorities and their partner organisations - agencies, NGOs, civil society organisations and volunteers – provide shelter, healthcare and education to vulnerable men, women and children.

At the end of last year we asked our members – major European cities – how they are coping. We were interested in the impact the crisis is having on the city budget and on staff resources, and how they communicate with the public. This was also an opportunity to identify some of the discrepancies between legal competences at different levels of government: who is doing what, and where the money is.

Money and resources are major obstacles. Many cities are operating under staff freezes and budget cuts. In most European countries, looking after refugees is the responsibility of national governments, but in reality it is cities having to cope with the everyday challenges. Some are reimbursed for their costs, but often this doesn’t reflect the reality. Chemnitz gets a quarterly sum of €1,900 per refugee from the German government, but still estimates its overspending at €7.5m in the last year.

Cities must find ways to do more with less. Providing affordable housing is a particular headache, with many already suffering from housing shortages. Tens of thousands of new arrivals means more pressure on an already precarious situation, leading to overcrowding and the risk of creating ghettos.

Local authorities don’t just need to find the accommodation – Berlin needs a further 24,000 places to fill the gap between the current availability and anticipated needs – they need to be strategic about how they do it. Leipzig, for example, has an approach of distributing refugees around the city, in poorer and better off neighbourhoods. This, says deputy mayor Thomas Fabian, is a way of appeasing the “not in my backyard” brigade.

Education is seen as a fast track to integration for many cities, whether that’s providing language tutoring or finding school places. Malmo is in a particular predicament: more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the city in 2015. At the height of the crisis, the Swedish city was receiving 300 a day. Malmo’s rapidly growing population means it expects to build 20 to 25 new schools over the next ten years at a cost of €4-6bn.

Some cities have schemes to help refugees find jobs, so they can settle into the community and contribute to the local economy. Helsinki’s “refugee jobs” website is one example, and new arrivals in Germany have their qualifications assessed by experts and are placed in suitable employment where possible.

When we look at how the local population has responded, most cities describe being overwhelmed by the solidarity of individuals and civil society organisations, despite pockets of hostility widely reported in the media. Transparent and regular communication has proven essential to defuse tensions. Utrecht did this well by hosting information sessions where residents could voice concerns to politicians, police and doctors working with asylum seekers.

What strikes us is that where national responses have been sluggish at best, cities are taking action. Often they do this in the absence of any official mandate to act. As Barcelona mayor Ada Colau puts it: “It may be states that grant asylum, but it is cities that provide shelter.” Colau also initiated “Cities of refuge”, one of several networks of European cities positioning themselves as welcoming places for refugees.

The resources don’t always match the commitment, however. European cities have been calling for direct and faster access to EU emergency assistance and funding to support longer term integration of asylum seekers. Too often these are not reaching those that need it most, lost in complex bureaucracy or bottlenecks at the top.

What we see is cities taking action against the odds – without the budget, mandate or resources to do so. Despite this, city leaders have taken responsibility and shown leadership.

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES.


In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.

Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.