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24th Jul 2021

EU cities want say on refugee policy

  • Berlin receieved 80,000 aslyum seekers last year, stretching local authorities' capabilities to a breaking point (Photo: Oxfam International)

Cities are at the forefront of the migration crisis, yet have little access to direct EU funding and need to have a bigger say in national policies, a roundtable discussion in the European Commission with mayors revealed on Tuesday (5 April.)

“Migration is largely an urban reality, cities are confronted with challenges of education, housing, employment. Cities are at the forefront of these challenges,” EU commissioner for regional policy Corina Cretu said after meeting with the mayors and vice-mayors of Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Ghent, Leipzig and Paris.

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Cretu highlighted that €15 billion of the EU’s 2014-2020 cohesion funds are directly managed by cities.

She said cohesion funds are ready to help with housing, childcare, health care, language courses and professional training.

But most of the funding goes through the national governments, and that makes it difficult to have quick results on the ground in cities most affected by the influx.

“There are specific funds for integration, handled through the member states, and sometimes we don’t even have information on those funds,” Ada Colau Ballano, Barcelona’s mayor said after the meeting.

“We have to be part of the solution,” the mayor said.

“Governments have to listen to local governments,” EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a former mayor of Athens, said at the event, adding: “As a former mayor I can tell you, it is difficult to convince them.”

The current mayor of Athens called for solidarity among cities. Giorgos Kaminis said for instance that Barcelona hosted 100 refugees from Athens, and there was “no echo from the Spanish government”.

Avramopoulos acknowledged that the crisis has pushed many cities to their limits, and that local authorities are the first to provide shelter, food and clothing.

Of the over 1 million migrants who have come to Europe, 40 percent are women, and there are 10,000 unaccompanied children, Cretu said.

The commissioners urged member states to direct some of the cohesion funds to urban areas where it helps the integration of asylum seekers.

Cretu also said the EU commission will come up with an action plan on integration in May or June, which will focus on how best to avoid segregation, ghettos, and second class citizenship.

Bigger say

A report published on Monday also highlighted the need for cities to receive more funding and play a bigger role in policy-making in the migration crisis.

A survey of 34 cities in 17 EU countries and Norway by the EuroCities network, which represents 130 European cities, suggests “funding for integration must reach the local level without filters or barriers”.

“Cities must be able to determine their priorities and target groups, as they know exactly what is needed in terms of integration,” the report argues.

The report highlights that slow reactions from national authorities to the massive influx of people have left cities at the forefront, without adequate budget and policies

Cities had to step in where national authorities failed to provide facilities and assistance for the asylum seekers.

The report notes that Helsinki, for instance, did not benefit from an €8 million EU emergency assistance to Finland. Yet the city had hired 100 extra staff to manage its seven reception centers, and allocated €10 million from its own budget to deal with the refugee crisis.

Another example is Athens, which had to apply for grants managed by the UN, which itself had received emergency assistance from the EU.

The report argues that integration must become a priority in Europe’s migration policy.

It recommends faster access to EU assistance. Member states governments are too slow in distributing funds it says. It adds that cities should benefit directly for emergency assistance, specifically from the EU’s Asylum Migration & Integration Fund.

It also argues that EU state aid limitations should be removed on affordable housing for asylum seekers.

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