Cities and asylum seeker integration

Written by Jasper Chalcraft on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions, Uncategorised

‘Asylum is a fundamental right; granting it is an international obligation, first recognised in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. In the EU… countries share the same fundamental values and States need to have a joint approach to guarantee high standards of protection for refugees. Procedures must at the same time be fair and effective throughout the EU and impervious to abuse.’

In such statements, the European Commission seems very serious about establishing its Common European Asylum System based on solidarity with asylum seekers and recognition of their rights. But for those actually seeking asylum the experience can be extremely varied, with reception centres like Sicily’s Cara di Mineo feeling and operating very differently from Berlin’s Tempelhof Arrival Centre. Exploring such differences, and highlighting innovative approaches to asylum seeker integration is the aim of our panel of experts and key figures at this year’s The State of the Union.

Jasper Chalcraft, a Jean Monnet Fellow at the EUI, chairs a panel on how cities are trying to integrate asylum seekers at The State of the Union 2018.

Most national governments give lip service to upholding their international obligations, and every member of the current EU28 is a signatory to the Geneva Convention. But national and regional differences, infiltration by the illegal economy, labour exploitation, human trafficking and other factors has made seeking asylum within the EU a challenging and varied landscape. Not quite a lottery perhaps, but certainly not a game to be taken lightly by anyone fleeing political, sexual, ethnic or religious persecution.

In 2018 the increased number of recognised asylum requests follows recent trends for the EU28, whilst overall numbers of arrivals are down. Nevertheless, too many of these individuals still remain caught in legal limbo, awaiting determination of their status. How the EU28 meet this need is certainly crucial, but migrants and refugees arrive in cities and municipalities, and it is these local administrations and their civil society actors who must meet their needs directly.

They face a range of challenges in doing so. Take just one, financing: most EU funds earmarked for migrant and refugee integration – the European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund, and Asylum Migration and Integration Fund to name a few – are administered by national governments, making it complicated for cities to access much needed resources. Yet it may be precisely at this level, local municipal government, that the most effective action can be taken, as networks like Solidarity Cities (part of EUROCITIES), formed to let local governments protect the human rights of refugees, demonstrate.

More generally, EU initiatives and implementation agencies seem unable to guarantee a consistent humanitarian response. It is hard for EU institutions to talk about solidarity when recognition rates (being granted refugee status) for some third-country nationals vary widely. As a rapporteur for the European Parliament on developing standards for third-country nationals or stateless persons, and on a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, MEP Brando Benifei will be able to help the panel understand how European institutions can support cities in their attempts to offer meaningful help to those seeking refugee status.

This all comes at a time when public attitudes to immigration across most of the EU28 remain somewhat enigmatic. Despite representations in the popular media, attitudes have remained stable and in a significant number of member states appear increasingly favourable to immigration. A special Eurobarometer survey published in April showed that 69% of Europeans believe that ‘integration of immigrants is a necessary investment for their country in the long run’.

Procedures vary across Europe, something that the Dublin III Regulation has not improved. Many asylum seekers – particularly in Italy – suffer from complicated bureaucratic procedures and then lengthy waits for a decision to determine their status. France has timetabled a proposed new immigration bill, which seeks to shorten waiting times and red tape. However, critics believe it may actually result in poorer outcomes for asylum seekers. For example expedited appeal procedures may act against complex cases which need to gather evidence; national statistics on waiting times will improve, but individual lives may suffer. Policies always have unintended consequences,  as the Italian experience with ‘Hotspots’ shows, and advocating for one-size fits all solutions may worsen rather than improve the situation.

Perhaps a rights-based approach can help states and city authorities navigate these dangers? Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, will give the panel a deeper understanding of how exactly rights can be leveraged to help create a fairer asylum system. Can rights discourse make a difference, acting not just as a legal lever against the infringements of these rights, but also as a powerful tool to uncover – and possibly address – the inequities that sometimes emerge between how EU institutions act on the ground?

These are complicated and nuanced scenarios, but issues of national sovereignty challenged by the transnational norms of rights discourse are only part of how the refugee sector tries to help the ongoing cases and problems faced by asylum seekers. As Mayor of Prato and president of ANCI Toscana, the National Association of Italian Municipalities, Matteo Biffoni will highlight how an Italian city with a long history of migration – Prato is famous for its long established Chinese population, which some estimates put at above 50,000 – meets the challenges of the migration ‘crisis’ in Italy.

As a researcher and activist within the EUI’s own Refugee Initiative, Virginia Passalacqua will take a critical stance on the current situation. Do solutions lie in the kinds of grassroots solidarity represented by the Refugee Initiative, a small but pragmatic humanitarian response to immediate need, or in the larger policy framework, where EU institutions often appear constrained by political sensitivities and compromises?  

This panel aims to cut-through some of the political posturing, and give us a greater understanding of how contemporary asylum processes can work better. The panellists will take us beyond the rhetorical solidarity of initiatives like the UNHCR-led draft Global Compact on Migration, and the EU’s still evolving Common European Asylum System, and into the everyday solidarity of finding solutions that work in the best interests of asylum seekers across Europe.

Jasper Chalcraft is a Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He will chair a panel at The State of the Union 2018 dealing with ‘Cities and Asylum Seeker Integration: Innovative Practices and (Trans)national Approaches’.