Cities from across Europe are rethinking migration policy


The launch of the “Moving Cities" website on 21 October 2021 is a clear indication of how much dynamic power cities and communes are generating in the hosting and integration of refugees.

Cities from across Europe are rethinking migration policy
Teaser Image Caption
A banner with the words "Refugees welcome" hangs on Madrid City Hall.

The chapter of migration policy is one of the toughest the European Union has to deal with. Its member states have been failing for years to agree on a solidarity-based EU asylum policy. The consequences of their reluctance to act are currently reflected in the dramatic scenes being played out on the EU’s external borders in Poland and Lithuania. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the EU, serious breaches of human rights and unlawful pushbacks take place almost every day.

The reactions from the European capitals, for instance to the nightmarish scenes on the EU’s external borders or the situation in Afghanistan since this summer, are extremely disheartening. Locked in stalemate, they frequently overlook the fact that there are places in Europe which advocate for the rights of refugees and operate an active policy of welcome: cities and communities!

In recent years, hundreds of cities and communities have come together in networks such as “Sichere Häfen” (safe havens) and “Solidarity Cities” to fight for a progressive, inclusive asylum and migration policy and to help those seeking protection to find sanctuary in Europe.

With Moving Cities, there is now a platform to make civil-society initiatives for a different kind of migration policy more visible 

A different kind of migration policy in Europe is possible

The platform “Moving Cities” was launched as a joint project of Seebrücke, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, with the aim of making this progressive engagement of local initiatives more visible. 

The website “Moving Cities”, which went live at the end of October, provides a comprehensive overview of the pioneering role being played by European cities and communities. The platform, which is soon to increase the number of languages in which it is available to seven, offers comprehensive mapping of communities and their migration philosophies throughout Europe. Thousands of cities support a migration policy that is based on solidarity, would like to take in more refugees or have initiated projects to support arrivals of refugees. The drivers of the project have already identified 700 of these and there are more to follow, as cities with the right profile are being invited to come on board. The website also showcases more than 50 inspirational local inclusion projects and provides advice on what can be learnt from the “good practice” examples set by the cities at the forefront of the initiative.

To mark the launch of the website, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation and Seebrücke held an online event on 21 October. As well as presenting the platform and giving a few examples of successful projects carried out by selected cities, mayors and experts from civil society and the world of science discussed the importance of cities and communities in breathing new life into EU migration policy.

Moving Cities shows that European communities feel solidarity with refugees seeking safety in Europe.

Solidarity with people seeking safety in Europe

In her welcome note at the beginning of the launch event, Ellen Ueberschär, Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, described the website “Moving Cities” as clear proof that “European communities feel solidarity, firstly with each other, and, secondly, with migrants seeking protection and a livelihood in Europe”. An example of such a community is Gdansk, Poland, which has taken position against the Polish government and its blocking policy in Brussels. Daniela Trochowski, Executive Director of the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, stressed that the website comes at exactly the right time, as German Home Affairs Minister Horst Seehofer is currently making fresh attempts to keep refugees away from the border between Germany and Poland and is putting pressure on other states not to let migrants into the EU. “Refugees are not yet in a position of being able to rely on international law in Europe”. They need help, she added, from people bringing pressure to bear from below – like the crowds demonstrating against the pushbacks in Warsaw and Kraków on 17 October.

The founder of the “Seebrücke” initiative, Liza Pflaum, added that “Moving Cities” now provides a platform to make civil-society initiatives in favour of a different kind of migration policy more visible. Regrettably, “help is actively blocked at European level”. This, she explains, is political – and the consequence is that refugee routes are becoming increasingly dangerous. Ten thousand people so far have lost their lives in the attempt to find protection in Europe. “The Mediterranean continues to be the world’s deadliest border”. This, she went on to say, is a deliberate policy, with the aim of sending a message to people fleeing their lives: “don’t even try to come to the EU, there’s nothing for you here but an abysmal life in a refugee camp”. Yet for more than two years, a counter movement has been emerging at local level. “Communities are going over and above their local duties, because they are saying: we have a responsibility to protect the human rights of the people already living among us and those stuck on the external borders”. Pflaum went on to point out that communities are also in a much better position to calculate accurately what help is available locally, how people could be supported into training and work and how cultural participation can be made possible for them.

Bonn: a shining example of an integrative city policy

In her address, Katja Dörner, Mayor of Bonn since November 2020, presented the example currently being set by her city. She explained that Bonn has had decades of experience of labour migration, is the German headquarters of the United nation and has welcomed refugees since the 1980s. Almost a third of the city’s 330,000 residents have an immigration background. The City Hall has had an integration department since 2008, working on concepts and projects, but also supporting measures developed by the migrants themselves. This has led to support within the local community for taking more people in. Bonn is also a member of the Cities of Safe Haven Alliance, which was set up in 2019 in support of sea rescue missions in the Mediterranean. The women of Bonn’s city council have advocated interfractionally to help women arriving from Afghanistan to find support with language-learning and childcare.

In spite of the current climate, we can remain hopeful because our cities are making their voices heard, channelling their policies towards humanity and taking responsibility.

Following the discussions, participants were given the opportunity to take part in two workshops being held in parallel, featuring experts, activists and civil society actors debating and sharing examples of best practice, from the fields of housing, language learning, support, education and other progressive concepts of the “Welcoming Cities” movement, with specific examples from the Greek city of Livadia and the Dutch city of Utrecht.

In a statement summing up the event, Ana Lisa Boni, secretary general of the network Eurocities, described the climate in the European debate around migration policy as being bogged down with stalemates and negativity. The human rights of refugees, she said, are being disregarded. “But in spite of this climate, we can remain hopeful, because cities are making their voices heard, channelling their policies towards humanity and taking responsibility”. The “Moving Cities” website is a very important and welcome support in this work, she added.

The new platform is targeted in particular at local government employees and politicians as well as civil society activists in the field of cities of solidarity, which are looking for incentives, inspiration and solutions to challenges. “Moving Cities” has been explicitly designed as a work-in-progress platform. Other cities and communities that have already declared themselves “Welcoming Cities” are being urged to join the platform, so that it can grow into a comprehensive compendium of communities of solidarity in Europe over the coming months.


This article was first published in German on