A Europe of solidarity between local authorities

28 July 2021 - Article by Liza Pflaum, Giulia Fellin and Hannah-Milena Elias published on Local history - Migration policy portal of the Heinrich Böll Foundation


70 years after the adoption of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, European asylum and migration policy is at an impasse. Yet the cities and municipalities in Europe are very willing to take in refugees. At the end of June, mayors from various European cities and municipalities met in Palermo at the "From the Sea to the City" conference to look for solidarity-based solutions to the humanitarian crisis at the edges of Europe.

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Mayors in Palermo at the "From the Sea to the City" conference (Image: ©Bahar Kaygusuz)

While the EU heads of state met at the end of June within the EU Council in Brussels and discussed migration policy, among other things, without any results, a meeting took place in Palermo at the same time that epitomised a completely different Europe. Mayors from various European cities and representatives of civil society came together at the conference "From the Sea to the City: a conference of cities for a Welcoming Europe" to campaign for an open Europe at local level and send a strong signal to Brussels. Cities and civil society in solidarity showed their willingness to contribute to solving the crisis at Europe's borders and formulated concrete and pragmatic demands and proposals for solutions.

Invited by the civil society alliance "From the Sea to the City" and the cities of Palermo and Potsdam, many other cities in addition to Athens, Bergamo, Flensburg, Lampedusa, Marseille, Munich and Tirana travelled to the Sicilian capital to discuss solutions that focus on the fundamental human rights of every single person seeking refuge in Europe. All of the guests who travelled to the event were united by the conviction that the current catastrophe at Europe's borders has long been unacceptable.

The deadliest border in Europe

The situation at Europe's external borders continues to be catastrophic: according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 1146 people died while fleeing in the Mediterranean in the first half of 2021. The Mediterranean thus remains the deadliest border in the world. Those who do make it across the Mediterranean are held in overcrowded camps at Europe's external borders like prisons. Despite this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, the EU continues to rely on border protection and deterrence. The "New Pact on Migration and Asylum" presented by the EU Commission last autumn also continues to focus on the militarisation of external borders and the sealing off of Europe. An update of the Dublin procedure and the so-called "return sponsorship"1 are at the heart of the pact, alongside the extended use of border procedures (including stricter detention). The prospects of a humane European solution are slim. On the contrary, it appears that European migration policy is at an impasse.

Developing bottom-up solidarity-based solutions

For those who reject the status quo and want to push for change, the consortium wants to From the Sea to the City and aims to bring together mayors, city representatives, civil society initiatives, social movements and organisations from across Europe to stand up together for radical change in the shaping of European migration policy.

The initiative emerged from two parallel processes: on the one hand from the Palermo Charter process2a platform of European civil society organisations that has been campaigning for the fulfilment of the right to stay and freedom of movement since 2018. On the other hand, from the conference "Relaunching Europe Bottom Up", which brought together around 200 stakeholders from European municipalities and civil society in Gdansk in 2017 to discuss municipal solutions to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean region.

Building on these two processes, From the Sea to the City launched a campaign on World Refugee Day last year, calling on governments, cities and civic organisations to address the human and political tragedy that is unfolding every single minute at Europe's borders. In addition to protecting the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees, especially during the pandemic, the campaign called for closer cooperation between civil society and institutional structures and an active role for cities and civil society organisations in the management of EU funds for migration policy. In addition, voluntary admission programmes by municipalities should complement the European distribution mechanism. With these measures, responsibility could be shared across several shoulders on the one hand, and solidarity-based distribution and development within Europe could be achieved on the other. "With this campaign, we don't just want to imagine a different Europe, we want to make it possible. A Europe that can be a better place for everyone," says Davide Carnemolla from the Welcome to Europe Network, explaining the network's political vision.

In addition to the campaign, dialogue and contact with cities and municipalities was specifically sought with the aim of establishing a European city network and jointly developing alternative political solutions. Anabel Montes, from the sea rescue organisation Open Arms, sees the creation of such a network "as the way to get the European Union to implement a safer and more humane migration policy". This idea of European solidarity and a common solution is shared by civilian sea rescue organisations, movements such as Seebrücke, as well as other organisations such as the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform, Emergency and the International Network for Urban Research and Action, which are all part of the consortium.

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Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo, Mike Schubert, Mayor of Potsdam and moderator Maria Cuffaro at the "From the Sea to the City" conference (Image: ©Bahar Kaygusuz)

"Where nations fail, cities create solutions"

Fundamental decisions on asylum and migration policy have so far not been part of the traditional municipal tasks. Both the issuing of visas and residence permits and the control of who can cross which borders are closely linked to the idea of state power and are the responsibility of the nation state. But while the European Union and national governments are unwilling or unable to prevent deaths in the Mediterranean or end the situation in the inhumane camps at Europe's external borders, municipalities and civil society are taking action and expressing their solidarity with people on the move. "Where nations fail, cities create solutions," summarises Mike Schubert, Mayor of Potsdam.

In fact, a counter-movement is becoming increasingly apparent at local and regional level, calling for safe escape routes, offering to take in refugees and wanting to enable greater social participation. It is remarkable how municipalities are going beyond the actual tasks of local politics in their demands - by wanting to take responsibility where they no longer expect solutions from the EU or their respective nation state and do not want to remain inactive in the face of humanitarian disasters, such as the deaths in the Mediterranean. At this point, it becomes clear that asylum and migration policy is also a central municipal task and can be better assessed at municipal level: The actual reception of refugees, their care, access to their own living space, integration through education, work, social and cultural participation ultimately takes place in the municipalities. So who better to judge that reception capacities and willingness are available?

From Palermo to Amsterdam: there is a great deal of municipal willingness in Europe

More and more municipalities have recognised this: Since summer 2018, over 200 municipalities in Germany have become "Safe Havens" and have declared their willingness to take in more people seeking protection - in addition to those allocated to them according to the distribution key. Together with Seebrücke and many other civil society initiatives, they are now exerting pressure on the German government as "safe havens" to bring about a change in European asylum and migration policy.

In Germany, this led to the founding of the municipal alliance "Cities of Safe Harbours" in summer 2019, which, initiated by Seebrücke and the cities of Berlin and Potsdam, brought 13 cities together in a congress. Since then, 100 municipalities in this alliance have campaigned for the right to decide for themselves on the additional admission of people - which they are not allowed to do under the current legal situation. Kiel and its mayor Ulf Kämpfer are part of this alliance and have been involved in the From the Sea to the City campaign from the very beginning: "We have offered to take in refugees from the Mediterranean and from the Greek camps. That is a small sign of solidarity. But it would be much more important if European countries could agree on a fair distribution of refugees. We need a humanitarian refugee policy based on solidarity, not a Fortress Europe."

This municipal willingness is by no means limited to Germany alone: throughout Europe - from Palermo to Barcelona to Amsterdam - mayors are declaring their municipalities to be cities of solidarity for refugees and organising themselves into alliances. In France, the ANVITA network was founded in 2018 and was able to mobilise 48 municipalities and regions under the slogan "unconditional reception". Similar networks have developed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK, among others.

The vision of a European network of municipalities in solidarity

From the Sea to the City wanted to go one step further and create a European network of municipalities in solidarity. The consortium found two important allies for this: Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo and long-time advocate for the rights of migrants, and Mike Schubert, Mayor of the City of Potsdam, which coordinates the Safe Harbours Alliance in Germany. The common goal: a European conference of cities for a Europe of solidarity. The aim was to lay the foundations for a European network of municipalities in solidarity.

More than 33 cities from different European countries and various civil society initiatives accepted the invitation to the conference and met in Palermo and online to discuss alternatives and possibilities for pragmatic and human rights-based solutions and thus contribute to the protection of the rights of people on the move. "The current strategy is not working today and will not work in the future, so we need to develop a new strategy. Europe has to do it, we are ready to give our help," said the Mayor of Flensburg, who was also present in Palermo. The conference offered cities the opportunity to reaffirm their active role in European migration policy, to increase the visibility of their willingness to receive migrants and their interests at EU level, to encourage other cities to take action and to form stronger alliances with civil society actors.

During the conference, the mayors presented a joint declaration entitled "Humanity, Solidarity and Voluntariness" (here in various languages). This can be read as a direct response to European migration policy. It states: "As cities, we are following the plans of the EU Commission and the EU states for a new 'migration pact' with great concern. The proposed measures will not prevent 'another Moria'". Clear demands were made to the European institutions and nation states. An individual right to asylum and an end to the camp policy at the EU's external borders are central to this. Once again, cities also declared their willingness to take in additional and direct refugees and spoke out in favour of separate and individual reception quotas at local level. In addition, the signatories insist on direct EU funding that allows host municipalities to implement a pragmatic immigration policy without disregarding the rights of refugees. The willingness to work closely with civil society groups and organisations remains important.

In order to continue to demand participation in political processes in the future, the "International Alliance of Safe Havens" was founded during the conference, in which cities want to work together for a migration policy at European level that is more strongly orientated towards human rights. The city of Potsdam is once again enthusiastically involved and offered to take on the coordination of the new network.

A welcoming and human rights-based migration and refugee policy is long overdue. The establishment of a European alliance of mayors, municipalities and civil society organisations that are willing to work together and cooperate is a first step towards sending a strong signal to the upcoming EU Council Presidency and fulfilling Europe's human rights and humanitarian obligations. These new alliances of cities and municipalities reveal progressive political constellations in which protest structures, established civil society organisations and municipalities not only engage side by side in political negotiation processes, but actually attempt to break new ground in asylum and migration policy - also in clear opposition to the plans of the European nation states.

In favour of a paradigm shift in European migration policy

It is now up to the cities and municipalities to realise their demands step by step and to work together with civil society groups and movements, both locally and transnationally, on a new vision for Europe. The first step has been realised with the founding of the Cities Network. As key players, cities must be able to share best practice examples and register their willingness to take in refugees directly with the EU Commission. They must be given the opportunity to apply individually for participation in a relocation programme and to apply for corresponding funding from the EU. Active cooperation can advance and support these processes at an institutional level and place the discourse on an open Europe at the centre of the political debate.

The broad civil society protest and diverse municipal involvement, particularly at European level, have triggered a political dynamic throughout Europe that is making it increasingly difficult for political decision-makers to refuse municipal involvement, for example in the reception of refugees. Even though reception pledges remain far too low and the situation at Europe's external borders remains dramatic, sea rescues are being blocked and people are being held in camps, the German "safe harbours", the European "safe harbours" and the "communities of solidarity" in Europe serve more than ever as a reference when it comes to identifying and implementing alternatives to the European policy of isolation. In the 70th anniversary year of the Geneva Refugee Convention, it is time for the European Union to place greater emphasis on cities and municipalities that stand up for fundamental and human rights and are willing to accept refugees.


1 Instead of taking in people itself, an EU country should take on the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers on behalf of another country.

2 The Palermo Charter was presented by the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, in 2015. In it, he advocates unrestricted freedom of movement. No one has chosen the place where they are born," it says. "Everyone has the right to freely choose the place where they want to live, live better and not die." https://www.comune.palermo.it/js/server/uploads/iosonopersona/charta_vo...