Cities address refugee situation at EUROCITIES Social Affairs Forum in Athens


The refugee situation and integration policies in cities were top of the agenda at our social affairs forum meeting in Athens last week, 'Welcoming refugees: a city challenge’.

Around 200 delegates from 45 cities, including city officers and experts from across Europe, as well as 23 politicians attended the forum.
"We cannot import kiwis but turn away refugees", said Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig, during his opening speech; drawing attention to the global scale of refugee and migration flows to Europe. In the two high-level panel debates, local politicians discussed the challenges and opportunities of refugee reception and integration, and addressed the European dimension together with Belinda Pyke, director for migration and mobility at European Commission DG Home.
The crucial role that local authorities play in the reception and integration of refugees was acknowledged by all panellists and keynote speakers. “Let European cities take the lead in this controversial issue and give them direct access to European funds”, said Kees Diepeveen, deputy mayor of Tilburg.
“Inclusion in the receiving society needs to start on the first day, not after being granted residency”, said keynote speaker Hala Akari from the Swedish Syrian Association and Mariestad’s Cultural Alliance, pointing out what is already common practice in many major European cities. Several EUROCITIES members presented their integration efforts, which start right after arrival, despite barriers such as legal uncertainty and lack of finances.
Participants also had the opportunity to see first hand how Athens has been dealing with refugee reception and integration in the city. They discussed housing, education, engaging with civil society, access to culture as a tool for migrant integration and using the Urban Agenda for the EU partnership on migration as part of interactive workshops. “Athens has recognised the role of civil society and has dynamically embraced citizens’ initiatives in its decision making process. In times of austerity, we wanted to create a systematic mechanism that collects the available capacity of public spirited citizens to co-create new solutions for a better life in the city.”, said Georgios Kaminis, mayor of Athens.
Politicians met during a private political session to discuss how cities can work together in the field of refugee reception and integration. They also had the opportunity to visit the Eleonas refugee camp, which has been operational since September 2015.
Following the political discussion, the Solidarity Cities initiative was launched, generating significant media interest. The proposal for the initiative came from the city of Athens and has been developed in the framework of the EUROCITIES network. “In the same way that civil society is getting organised to act in the face of the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, we local governments also want to act in defence of human rights”, explained Laia Ortiz, deputy mayor of Barcelona and chair of the EUROCITIES Social Affairs Forum.
Cities active under the Solidarity Cities initiative will work with the European Commission and member states to manage the refugee situation, but also with each other to promote city-to-city assistance, capacity building and transfer of knowledge Solidarity Cities embodies a humanitarian response to the refugee situation, advocating a fair sharing of responsibilities among the different levels of governance.
As part of the two day programme the cities of Vienna and Nicosia also became signatories of the Integrating Cities Charter.
On day two of the forum Barcelona was elected the new chair of the forum and Malmo vice chair.
The next social affairs forum will take place in Lisbon in spring 2017.
Photos of the event can be found here.