Europe must empower its cities to respond to refugee crisis
By Laia Ortiz
The refugee crisis is one we must address in our cities. Many cities around Europe have become hubs for thousands of people seeking international protection.
Long before Germany opened its borders in September 2015, ahead of the height of the crisis, cities like Barcelona have been calling for a more constructive and humanitarian response.
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Through Eurocities we have a strong and united voice. Barcelona is among the 139 major European cities calling on the EU institutions for greater solidarity and a more humanitarian response to the crisis.
On World Refugee Day last year, we urged EU and national leaders to learn the lessons of the past and uphold European values of solidarity, tolerance and dignity. In October 2016 we launched Solidarity Cities, an initiative enabling cities to work together on refugee reception and integration.
We continually call for cities to be formally recognised as points of arrival, transit hubs and destinations for refugees in Europe.
As discussions were taking place on the EU-Turkey deal last spring and EU member states along the ‘Balkan road’ were attempting to seal off their borders to refugees, city leaders in Greece and the Balkans issued a stark warning: close the borders and cities will become open prisons.
Close them and refugees making their way to northern and western Europe will be stuck in dire and inhumane conditions with no infrastructure in place for their reception and integration.
They warned us and they were right. Families waiting for asylum claims to be processed at Europe’s borders are enduring freezing conditions.
Many of these are women and children, living in unfathomably harsh winter conditions on the Greek islands, in Serbia and on the Hungarian border.
Europe must settle more refugees
Meanwhile, the EU institutions tell us their deal has helped stem the arrival of migrants by sea from Turkey. Yet the reality is fewer than 9,000 of the 160,000 refugees have so far been relocated.
There simply is no excuse for this humanitarian disaster.
People are struggling for survival as we watch on. More than 10,000 people are currently seeking international protection in Europe.
If we fail to take real and effective measures now, the number of victims will continue to grow.
Europe needs to act urgently to ensure refugees’ basic human rights are being respected; we can’t ignore what is stated in every international and European convention.
As local politicians, we are under pressure from many of our citizens to deliver a response that is in line with European values of solidarity and responsibility.
I am continually overwhelmed by the actions in our local communities; the way civil society, volunteer organisations and local businesses have mobilised to do something about the crisis.
They are rightly outraged, and they are acting. We must act too.
Cities must be empowered
This is why the EU and member states need to empower European cities. We have shown we are ready for the challenge, but we need help to continue our good work.
As it is, cities cannot directly access EU funding for the reception and integration of refugees.
This needs to change: we can’t afford to wait for funding to trickle down through national authorities while refugees are desperately seeking shelter in our cities.
We also know from our colleagues across the Eurocities network that many more cities are willing and ready to welcome refugees.
Allowing us to set up a city-to-city relocation scheme would be a positive way to take the burden off Greek and Italian cities and distribute refugees to other cities that have the capacity to receive and integrate them.
We need less talk and more action.
Europe must mobilise the necessary resources to end the Mediterranean Sea crisis once and for all.
Barcelona, together with other european cities, is determined to help solving this crisis with no more delay.
We need Europe to give us the power to do so.
We are looking forward to express this message from the cities to Commissioners Cretu and Avramopoulos at a meeting in Amsterdam on 7 February.
Laia Ortiz is Barcelona deputy mayor for social rights and chair of the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum.