Refuge cities Despite urban centres having to receive and integrate huge number of refugees, cities lack crucial input when it comes to policy, says a new European report

European cities struggling to deal with the ongoing impact of the migration crisis should have greater policy input – at both EU and national level – and more direct access to funding, according to a report released in Brussels today.

The EuroCities report, based on a survey of 34 of cities in 17 EU states plus Norway, finds that, although there has been a strong urban dimension to the refugee crisis since last summer, cities continue to lack a seat at the table when it comes to policy.

“The role of cities as first points of arrival, transit hubs and ultimate destinations is well established and widely acknowledged by institutions and stakeholders at national and European level,” the report states.

“Funding for integration must reach the local level without filters or barriers,” it suggests. “Cities must be able to determine their priorities and target groups, as they know exactly what is needed in terms of integration.”

The EuroCities network, whose members are the elected governments of more than 130 of Europe’s largest cities, aims to connect cities directly with EU-level decision-making to develop more joined-up policies.

The report recommends cities be included alongside national governments and NGOs in the list of bodies that are eligible for EU emergency financial assistance.

The scale of the challenge facing cities varies widely across the continent, of course. Berlin is estimated to have received 69,000 asylum seekers between January 2014 and December 2015, whereas most EU member states didn’t come close to that number.

The report identifies a range of challenges. As well as housing, education and the labour market, it points to more specific issues, such as access to specialist care for unaccompanied minors (a particular emphasis in Swedish cities, which have received the bulk of such people). All this, the report notes, is happening in the context of municipal budget cuts and recruitment freezes – and often with little financial support from national or regional governments.

In Helsinki, for instance, even though 100 extra staff were needed to manage seven refugee centres, the entirety of the €8m EU emergency assistance was given by central government to northern Finnish cities, where there were many fewer refugees, meaning the Helsinki council had to provide €10m from its own budget.

According to the report’s author, Thomas Jézéquel, cities are better placed to respond flexibly, and creatively, to the refugee influx than national governments – possessing “the right agile structure” to be able to act quickly, coordinating volunteers, civil society, charities and the municipality.

Men wait to be registered in Berlin, which received around 69,000 asylum seekers in the last two years.

Men wait to be registered in Berlin, which received around 69,000 asylum seekers in the last two years. Photograph: Gregor Fischer/EPA

Dusseldorf, the report notes, was the first German city to appoint a “refugee commissioner”; others have assembled refugee task forces in a matter of days.

There are also widespread efforts to avoid “ghettoisation”: cities such as Gdansk, Leipzig, Dusseldorf, Chemnitz and Riga are all found to have gone to great lengths to provide individual housing units distributed throughout the city. To avoid marginalisation through housing, the report recommends socially mixed communities – but says that will require a change to the EU State Aid Package, which currently limits the provision of affordable housing to certain specific groups.

The report emphasises the need to allow new arrivals full access to the labour market, and to provide fast and effective access to language training. It calls for dedicated financial support for cities to enable this labour response.

The response of civil society across Europe has been “large-scale and reactive since September 2015”. There are 2,000 volunteers working in refugee camps across Hamburg, for instance, while “eat and meet” events are being run by residents in Utrecht where new arrivals are invited to dinner in their homes.

Cities are also taking measures to quickly accommodate children into educational infrastructures, seeing it as important for medium and long-term integration. In Utrecht, “children must be schooled within three days of their arrival”.

According to the report’s recommendations: “Integration is the next step for Europe, and needs to be the main priority for action under the European Agenda on Migration.”

Such integration efforts are, however, taking place amid a growing tide of anti-refugee feeling, with many cities reporting concerns about the rise of anti-migrant groups and threatening behaviour towards refugees and the volunteers working with them.

These hostile attitudes are, in some instances, also reflected in the stance of certain central governments: Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary, for instance, last week claimed that EU cities such as London, Paris, Stockholm and Berlin “contain 900 no-go, out of control neighbourhoods”.

In some countries, national governments are closing borders even as their cities are still expressing welcome for refugees. In the wake of the Brussels terror attacks, Poland began to say it would not accept any more refugees. In the Polish city of Gdansk, however, the mayor and residents are working to integrate more arrivals.

Jézéquel identifies strong political leadership from city mayors as an important factor in helping them meet daily challenges: “You see that in Rotterdam, Berlin, Amsterdam … but you have also seen it in cities in Poland in a very different context, where you have mayors saying we’re open, we’re a city of solidarity.”

Mayors have used neighbourhood information sessions to defuse tensions or call residents to action, such as in Athens or Barcelona – where, last September, mayor Ada Colau put out a call to European cities inviting them to become “cities of refuge”, stating: “It may be that states grant asylum, but it is cities that provide shelter.”