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The world is facing yet another humanitarian crisis in a turbulent six years following the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse of the Afghan government.
Often, discussions around supporting refugees are framed in the context of responsibility of host countries at national level, dealing with issues of borders, visa regimes, and immediate support. Yet refugees, asylum seekers and internationally displaced persons (IDPs) settle in specific places, and those places shoulder the burden at local, not a national level, with local government playing a much more crucial role in providing housing, education, employment, healthcare, language learning and general community integration and wellbeing. Despite being instrumental in resettlement, and with over 70% of all IDPs and refugees concentrating in larger cities and towns, host municipalities often end up with very little say over matters of immigration policy.
In our interview this week with Vera Dodic, Manager of the City of Toronto’s Newcomer Office, the global nature of this issue was highlighted:
“One of the things we’ve been advocating for here is to have a formal intergovernmental strategy in place for dealing with large-scale refugee resettlement. Although we currently don’t have it yet, we were able to establish some informal processes and approaches so we are implementing them, but a formal strategy with established roles and responsibilities would be extremely helpful. Local governments, I believe around the globe, do not have much influence over immigration policies – yet we are the ones that are welcoming newcomers and we are the ones helping them integrate, so we have to be at the table.”
Read the full interview here, where we hear in-depth about the Toronto Newcomer Office’s success in effectively resettling large numbers of migrants into the city despite a limited budget.
For urban municipalities, larger influxes of migrants can make the scale of delivering support to hugely varied and diverse populations the key challenge. For smaller or more rural communities, the disruption of previously homogenous populations can cause tensions, while being unaccustomed to swift demographic change may highlight cracks in service provision.
But often, local authorities – especially those of the same cities migrants are most likely to settle in – are happy to try stepping up to the challenges that larger waves of immigration bring. The Mayors Migration Council, representing mayors across the world, issued a statement to say they stood ready to ‘immediately welcome Afghan refugees’, calling on national governments to ‘urgently work with the global network of city leaders’ to expand pathways and provide humanitarian support.
In the USA, ‘sanctuary cities’ are a well-established form of local immigration policy whereby municipalities create a set of policy conditions to improve the precarious situation of irregular migrants. Over 100 US cities have declared themselves as sanctuary cities, and are particularly effective at doing so thanks to US local governments not being obliged to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Yet in other governance structures municipalities can still deploy a range of policies and services to support migrants, in some cases challenging or countering the national stance on immigration. In Vienna, for example, the city council has gone to lengths to counter Austria’s recent hardline approach to refugees, pulling in the opposite direction to expand service provision.
A new Viennese project, the Centre of Refugee Empowerment (CoRE), sought to address two challenges unique to integrating asylum seekers. One was that various areas of responsibility for helping refugees were splintered among public agencies, often working in incompatible ways – bringing partners together, with maximum communication, was key here. The other was to adapt the services available to the individual circumstances of migrants. Language classes, for example, would need to be more intensive but also free, while skills training has to be tailored to restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to work. In one initiative, a competence check usually used to place people in work was instead used to identify a group of primarily Syrian teachers. Instead of being given a job where they would be underemployed, they were given specific training on the Austrian school system and then given places in schools as supporting teachers – more greatly benefiting the city as well as the individuals.
Cities have much greater autonomy in establishing service policies versus status policies, so service-oriented initiatives can be more pragmatic. They can also be expensive, but faster access to support and integration into the economic system of a local area can certainly pay off.
Four Spanish cities have taken an inclusive approach to recognising the status and needs of irregular migrants with the Padrón Municipal, an administrative municipal record. The initiative creates a local census without excluding irregular migrants, and once registered that person becomes eligible for public services, including opening a bank account or, gaining a library card – and even facilitates regularisation by counting for proof of residence. The Padrón Municipal effectively simplifies access to city services in the short term, while aiding cases for permanent settlement in the longer term.
Starting with Sheffield City Council and partners in the UK in 2005, City of Sanctuary UK is an umbrella organisation that provides a focus for coordination and development of a network contributing to building a sanctuary movement across the UK and Ireland, using action to target services rather than status. More than 100 areas, towns or cities have already signed up – useful information on their website gives points on what councils or community groups can do to work towards becoming a City of Sanctuary.
One of the largest difficulties with integration is something local government does not possess the power to fix – uncertainty about whether asylum seekers will be allowed to stay or not, and for how long. But whether it’s through service provision, coordination, partnership, networks, lobbying, or finding loopholes to support asylum seekers and create a culture of sanctuary, local government can undoubtedly have a massive impact on supporting effective and empathetic resettlement – even in the face of national hostility.