#FearlessCities Notes: Sanctuary and Refuge Cities

Notes from a panel discussion at the Fearless Cities conference, June 11th. See introduction post here.


  • Ignasi Calvó, Coordinator of the Refuge City Plan, Barcelona, Spain
  • Liora Danan, Chief Of Staff at NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, New York City
  • Daniel Gutierrez, Interventionistische Linke, Berlin
  • Xristina Moschovidou, Omnes voluntary association, Kilkis, Greece
  • Amélie Canonne, Emmaus International, Paris

Limits of municipal law, and contradictions with national, state, federal, EU law? Hack or disobey? Change administrative priorities?

Calvó: When you have a competence [power to administrate a policy area], you cannot do less, but you can do more. If you do more, you must be open. If you’re going to use civil disobedience, you have to ensure the consequence will be on the city, not on the migrant. E.g. if we go with a boat to Lesvos and bring them here, the consequence would be on the migrant.

Danan: Public safety, preventing federal over-reach. E.g. we can provide protocol to education department about how to respond to ICE. We can’t prevent ICE from conducting enforcement raids. So we don’t call ourselves a ‘sanctuary’ because it is misleading. Then there’s the in-between space, where we’re discovering the boundaries of our legal rights. 7 jurisdictions have been threatened with federal defunding as a result of their sanctuary status.

How do you ensure newcomers can receive services without fear of deportation?

Calvó: In BCN we have a kind of municipal ID card, which gives you access to health and education. You can get it if you are undocumented. It’s a municipal (not national) register of citizens, but it has state validity, so it gives you automatic rights anywhere you go abroad.

Gutierrez: we try to copy things happening in other spaces, e.g. in France they were supplying healthcare to migrants, but their context is different, the German healthcare is privatised so we can’t do the same things. Instead, we decided to create an anonymous government health pass. Distributed autonomously by civil society groups who can allocate these health passes out. They can give it out to anyone, so it is not just migrants carrying these cards.

Danan: Advocacy. E.g Citizens Immigration Services has a backlog of 600k ‘pending’ citizens. So we’re telling people to apply for citizenship, and in the background, advocating for CIS to pick up the pace. Unglamorous bureaucratic work.

Moschovidou: 60k people stranded, 5k in our region. We made a plan for the whole of Greece. If we split the population among all cities over 20k citizens (excluding some touristic and high-minority areas), that’s around 6–9 newcomers per 1000 local residents, then we don’t have a problem. That’s not such a big load. We have lawyers and accountants to teach them how the systems work.

How can city governments challenge national governments or the EU?

Calvó: Networks are crucial for lobbying influence. There are so many opportunities, you have to pick one and focus. We’re trying to build a new conception of multilevel governance.

Danan: During the January airport protests. City officials joined to share information and keep things moving as smoothly as possible. We have a refugee advocacy group which focusses on the upcoming federal budget and how it will affect refugees. For cities that own their airports, we can post information in the airport hallways so people know their rights as soon as they arrive.

How can local government support social movements to change attitudes to migrants? to develop long term relationships between new and old residents?

Danan: e.g. the temporary protected status for Haitians. We worked with community leaders, council members, labour leaders, etc, held a press conference, day of action, achieved a 6 month extension.

Narrative is one of our biggest struggles. We are combatting an image of criminals and terrorists, sanctuary cities are harbouring criminals and wasting resources. In NYC, we combat that with a “all New Yorkers” or “one New York” message.

How do we avoid reinforcing the distinction between deserving refugee and underserving migrant?

Calvó: important to put everyone into one system, not to set up a separate system for migrants. Make one that works for everyone. The same rights for everyone ensures people are not excluded.

Moschovidou: absolutely, take care of your language. Simply don’t say migrants and refugees.

How do we stop talking about migrants and start talking with them?

Gutierrez: We have a monthly general assembly with delegates from many organisations who interface directly with migrants. Monthly meetings were not enough, so we had to create social events to create a shared experience, grow human relationships.

Introducing Emmaus International

Canonne: We are not an org focussed on migration. We’ve been working to fight exclusion since immediately after WWII. Supporting the creation of communities of excluded people: jobless, homeless, stateless. We came to migration based on that experience. Categories create exclusion. In France, around 70 groups, in EU, 200 self-organising groups who live together, develop economic activities together and in the wider community. They ensure access to rights.

Migrant profiles have changed since the 90s, and the numbers have greatly increased. About half our people are undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who were denied the right to stay.

We reiterate: same rights for all.

We address the migration policies in government, while also addressing the grassroots emergency.

Created a campaign proposing universal citizenship. During a Sao Paulo gathering, launched a global call for universal freedom of movement and migration.

  • Welcoming migrants based on access to rights, not emergency response.
  • Migrants must be included in municipal choices.
  • Migration must be included in the municipal services, cultural, school programs, to decrease radicalisation.
  • Repression creates radicalisation, both within migrant communities and activists working in solidarity with them. In EU, food distribution is banned, activists are arrested, trialled, radicalised. State policies are killing solidarity.

Comments from the audience

Refugee + migration lawyer based in Valencia: Concerned about the distinction between refugees and migrants, created by the Geneva Convention in 1951. We need to change the discourse, e.g. someone coming from Senegal, there’s no clear way to distinguish if they are refugee and migrant.

Representing EU network of people of African descent: I was concerned by the elephant in the room, not addressed: the question of race. This has been a colourblind discourse, forgetting the racial aspect, treating migrants as “foreigners” rather than “people of colour”. In the US, white nationalism is one of the main drivers working against migrants. How do you counter the discourse and the concrete policies? E.g. visas are allocated based on a racial world order established by European imperialism. Are there statistics based on acceptance of different racial groups becoming residents? E.g. in Sweden, Africans are deported more frequently than other groups.

Community organiser from France: In many places, we have nothing, or repression. Creates a nasty situation for migrants, and for neighbours. At the same time, many local tiny initiatives from citizens who can’t stand living in that world. Refuse to normalise cruelty and violence. Can we create a strong network in EU based on what’s happening? We are being crushed, depressed, we need hope, strength, and support from other people.

Philadelphia city councillor: Reiterating that racism is the core issue for us. Not just white nationalism, which is motivating politics in the US, but also poverty. The marginalisation of low income and PoC people creates a storm. We need to train police, and our municipal courts, to undo the bias against PoC, poor, and migrants, which all reinforce each other. School went from 10–33% Asian in 3 years time, many people left, as racial violence increased. Had to train teachers to create spaces for children to collaborate safely.

Another US commenter: US has had so much focus on Trump, but we need to remember that there are 100’s of 1000’s of little Trumps across the country. Some of the states have the worst anti-immigration policies. E.g. Texas is moving to remove people from office for establishing sanctuary cities. Resistance is coming from grassroots orgs. Focus on getting migrants into office.

Lebanese activist: We have been receiving refugees for 60 years, maybe 2M of them. We have a lot to say about the experience. Let’s look at the global issue as well as the local municipal stories. Are these European cities connecting with the history of refugees in Lebanon? We have made so many failures, and success stories too. Many European cities are coming at this for the first time, learn from us!

US organiser: Our organisation is pushing all religious groups to declare themselves as sanctuaries for migrants. What is our leverage? How do we stop losing families from the country? Welcoming and integrating: is that the right frame? The race frame might be more strategic. How do we use all the cities power, capital, leverage, to influence state and federal, international policy? Are we pushing the envelope of what a city could do if it were truly fearless?

 by the author.




I write about working together. Me: richdecibels.com My work: thehum.org

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Richard D. Bartlett

Richard D. Bartlett

I write about working together. Me: richdecibels.com My work: thehum.org

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