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Centre for European Research

The Rise of Sanctuary Cities During the European “Refugee Crisis”

On 10 May 2022, the Centre for European Research of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) hosted the webinar The Rise of Sanctuary Cities During the European “Refugee Crisis”, chaired by Dr. Raffaele Bazurli (postdoctoral researcher at QMUL). The event, now available on YouTube, has brought together leading scholars, policy-makers, and migrant rights activists directly involved in sanctuary initiatives in Europe.


Since February 2023, Dr. Bazurli is carrying out the research project Sanctuary Policies for Irregular Migrants in European Cities (SPIMEC) at QMUL School of Politics and International Relations, with the supervision of Dr. Rachel Humphris and the mentorship of Prof Sarah Wolff. The webinar was the ideal forum to kickstart the impact dimension of this research project, which was awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship and is funded through the UKRI Horizon Europe Guarantee Scheme (grant reference EP/X03674X/1).


Following the political upheavals that erupted in Northern Africa and the Middle East in late 2010, millions of migrants reached Europe or lost their lives trying. As the European Union and its member states failed in sharing the responsibilities of humanitarian protection, numerous municipalities have been on the frontlines of defending and expanding the rights of migrants residing in, or traveling through, their jurisdictions. 

Sanctuary cities, also referred to as refuge or solidarity cities, support migrants in a precarious situation—most notably asylum-seekers, refugees, and the undocumented—in reaction to national policies and practices that produce exclusion in the first place. These cities may include inhabitants in public service provision regardless of legal status, obstruct the efforts of national authorities to detain and deport migrants with irregular status, and propagate “welcoming” discourses in contrast to rampant xenophobic rhetoric.


The first guest speaker taking the floor at the webinar was Prof Harald Bauder (Toronto Metropolitan University), who provided a far-reaching overview of sanctuary policies across the world. He uncovered different legal, discursive, identity-formative, and scalar aspects of sanctuary policies, suggesting they notably differ depending on the specific national context in which they are implemented. In the United States and Canada, for instance, cities have capitalised on their state-delegated powers to enact “don’t ask, don’t tell policies” (DADT), which put an effective firewall between local police and national immigration authorities. As a result, migrants with irregular status who are witnesses or victims of crimes feel safer in seeking support. British local governments are instead less autonomous vis-à-vis national authorities, explaining why their sanctuary initiatives are less controversial, mainly aimed at promoting a culture of hospitality. Prof Bauder also shed light on the peculiarities of sanctuary cities in other regions, including Africa, Asia, continental Europe, and Latin America.


The next guest speaker was Dr. Sarah Spencer (University of Oxford). Based on her long-standing research and impact activities on local policies in support of migrants with irregular status, Dr. Spencer made five observations that challenge conventional understandings of sanctuary policies. First, local governments do not always pursuit social inclusion. On the contrary, they often craft exclusionary policies as a way to secure political rewards, even serving as laboratories for experiments later scaled up to higher tiers of government. Second, scholars tend to project a juxtaposition between “local inclusions” and “national exclusion.” In reality, however, national laws might provide some basic rights for undocumented immigrants, with municipalities subsequently enacting sanctuary policies conforming to these national provisions. Third, sanctuary policies pose crucial dilemmas for their advocates. For instance, local inclusionary efforts carry the risk of validating, and ultimately reproducing, the forms of exclusion enshrined in national laws. Fourth, digital citizenship is a basic right often overlooked in the sanctuary literature, although access to the Internet is nowadays crucial to make social integration real. Fifth, sanctuary policies pose broader questions on the meanings and boundaries of community belonging. How can we practically promote forms of urban citizenship based on residency that complement national citizenship regimes?


The third guest speaker was Ramon Sanahuja (Barcelona’s City Council and C-MISE). The city of Barcelona is internationally renowned for its inclusive approach to migrants, including those with irregular status. Based on his experience as top public official in the city government, Sanahuja believes that political leadership is crucial to enact these local responses, because it can galvanise crucial stakeholders around shared policy objectives, overcoming fears and scepticisms. He also highlighted the differences between the 2010s “refugee crisis”, which reached its peak in 2015-16, and the present situation, with millions of Ukrainians fleeing war. In both conjectures, Barcelona extended a warm welcome to migrants seeking protection in the city, regardless of their origins or legal status, notably through the Barcelona Refuge City policy plan. What has changed, however, is the approach of EU authorities and member states. In the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, they have swiftly activated temporary protection procedures and suspended the Dublin Regulation—something they have never done during the 2010s “refugee crisis.” In Sanahuja’s view, this “double standard” reveals how national governments are always in the position to enact humane, inclusive, and even efficient asylum policies, as long as they have enough political will to do so. 


Hera Lorandos (Bourough of Sanctuary of Lewisham and Bourough of Sanctuary of Greenwich) was the last guest speaker taking the floor. She recounted the achievements and challenges of immigrant rights activism in these London’s boroughs. In her inspirational account, grassroots mobilisation and community-building can push local authorities to enact meaningful responses to the needs of immigrant communities, in spite of their limited authority. She also highlighted the crucial lessons learned along the way, such as the need of developing a “national thinking” even in local approaches to immigrant integration, as well as the importance for sanctuary activists of forging alliances with other actors, such as anti-raid campaigners, faith-based associations, and local councillors.


In all, the webinar was an important occasions to shine a light on the rise of sanctuary cities across and beyond Europe. The persistence of the root causes of international migration, together with the shortcomings of border policies, make irregular migration an ever more pressing issue. Sanctuary policies vary significantly depending on national, local, and temporal contexts. But aside from their differences, some common traits can be identified. These policies emerge as a backlash to, and seek to subvert, the various forms of immigrant exclusion perpetrated at the scale of the nation-state. Municipalities serve as the platforms on which to experiment with alternative discourses on the meanings of belonging, but also as the legal entities where fully fledged policy programs in support of immigrants are enacted. Having such far-reaching aspirations, sanctuary policies generally come up against important contradictions, limitations, and dilemmas. After all, their responses are stopgap policy measures that mitigate institutional failures descending “from above.” Only comprehensive reforms at national and international levels can ensure the protection and emancipation of all people on the move.


By Dr. Raffaele Bazurli, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions—UK Research & Innovation Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London




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