EUKN interview with Ms Anna Lisa Boni

7 October 2015

In the EUKN interview, Ms Anna Lisa Boni, a Secretary General of EUROCITIES noted: “The biggest challenge for cities and for the European Union will be the successful integration of hundreds of thousands of newcomers in our societies.” The ongoing crisis of the refugees has presented challenging tasks for European cities. The integration process of refugees into cities can be problematic but also effective depending on how the cities tackle it. Find out Ms. Boni’s opinion in her response to the current refugee crisis.

 

EUKN: Are there similar problems as well as differences in regards to the challenges cites face with the refugees crisis?

ALB: As it is the case with member states, cities are not all exposed in the same way to the refugee crisis. Within our membership at EUROCITIES, we have cities of arrival, cities of transit, and cities of destination. The asylum statement  that we published in May this year reflects this diversity as well as the common challenges and recommendations of major European cities. They all have a particular role to play in the guarantee of basic protection to asylum claimants and in the reception and integration of newcomers in our society.


EUKN: What are good practices that cities implement pertaining to the shortage of housing or dealing with social tensions? And are they reproducible in other contexts?

ALB: With our ‘cities welcome refugees’  series of articles, we are looking to demonstrate that cities often have to come up with solutions within a very short space of time, sometimes as quickly as overnight, as was the case in Munich and Vienna. Individual practices depend on the local context, resources, and competences. They could involve, among other activities, ensuring collaboration with NGOs and volunteers, setting up coordination teams across city departments on this issue, identifying and acquiring available public buildings, collaborating with private landlords, or setting up basic services in temporary camps. But beyond this, what we see is that cities are the best places to react quickly and efficiently, and that mayors are able to show political leadership in these difficult times.


EUKN: How can cities benefit from the refugees and ensure that they contribute to the local society and economy?

ALB: One of our key messages is that beyond the current emergency, beyond the crisis, the biggest challenge for cities and for the European Union (EU) will be the successful integration of hundreds of thousands of newcomers in our societies. We published our ‘Integrating Cities Charter’  in 2010. It lists the commitments taken by cities as policy makers, employers, service providers and contractors towards the integration of migrants and the promotion of well-managed migration in increasingly diverse cities. In the preamble it states:

 “We, the undersigned mayors, recognise and value the contribution immigration and migrants have made to European cities. They play a leading role in creating the diversity and vibrancy we experience in our cities today.”

Integration happens at city level and cities see migration as an opportunity. But they need to be supported in this task. Failing to integrate refugees in our societies impedes the respect of fundamental rights as well as the full realisation of the benefits immigration can bring; it inhibits asylum seekers from making a contribution to host societies and can prove costly in the long term for local as well as for national authorities.

As cities, we have a lot to lose from policies that consign asylum seekers to deprivation and exclusion or that put them at risk of becoming victims of abusive employers and landlords, smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime. This is why we asked, for example, that all asylum seekers are allowed to work immediately after registration, as is now the case in Germany.


EUKN: How do you think cities should be more involved to make the process of (temporary) reception and/or integration of refugees more efficient?  

ALB: Cities are very much involved already, as we have seen across Europe. When thousands of asylum seekers and refugees left Hungary and went to Germany through Austria, or when they were transiting through Italy, cities were at the frontline to organise their transit and reception. Cities do not have a mandate to act and are not recognised as an official actor in the refugee crisis, but without them on board, temporary reception does not work. Very often the emergency measures put in place by cities are financed at their own cost, without support from the national or the European level.

In our asylum statement, we therefore request that cities should be included, alongside national governments and NGOs, in the list of bodies that are eligible for emergency financial assistance in responding to migratory pressure.

Beyond the emergency, cities are a primary actor in the field of integration of newcomers. This has been well recognised by the European institutions. But city authorities should also be much more involved in decision making regarding the design, implementation and use of integration funding within the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). This cannot only be consultation, there is a need for a true partnership principle.

We also ask for a better balance of European and national funding between border protection and security and structural support for reception, and integration at the local level. City budgets have been heavily affected by severe budgetary cuts, and resources allocated to social services are often the first to be cut.


EUKN: How can national and European authorities support cities in addressing the challenges of reception and inclusion of refugees? For instance, by considering the skills and education of refugees (needs of the local labour market) when distributing the refugees within a country or in the EU?

ALB: Firstly, we make a point in our asylum statement on the mutual recognition of refugees across the EU. We believe that recognised refugees should benefit from the right of free movement and establishment in Europe as soon as they are granted refugee status, not only once they have received permanent resident status or the nationality of a member state.

Secondly, beyond any distribution mechanism, we have requested that the recognition of refugees’ qualifications and entrepreneurial potential should also be facilitated. This would enhance their long term ability to contribute to local economies and society, before and after refugee status is granted, furthering their chances of better and faster integration in our society.

 

EUKN: How can cities be prepared so that they are not overwhelmed by the entry, reception, housing and integration of refugees?

ALB: By doing what they do already: by being open, inclusive, pragmatic and taking a longer term perspective. Within our network, we have seen cities which are as yet unaffected by the refugee crisis taking the necessary steps to prepare. Take Gdansk in Poland, as an example, which has come out strongly in favour of welcoming and integrating migrants and asylum seekers. Local politicians discussed the need to ensure access for refugees to housing, language courses, healthcare and psychological support where necessary. Vacant public housing could be renovated to host refugees. Mediators would be hired to act as intermediaries between private landlords and refugees, a practice that is already in place in other European cities. Gdansk also became the first city in Poland to adopt a system and multi-sectoral approach to migration and integration processes. A team of around 100 representatives from 50 public institutions and NGOs is responsible for the process, co-chaired by representatives from the city council and from a civil society organisation.