European Union

Shelter Cities: a growing desire among the citizenship

We spoke with Marc Serra from the City Council of Barcelona about ‘Shelter Cities’, a program initiated by the city to manage the arrival of asylum seekers at a local level.  

*The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted for European Alternatives’ forthcoming documentary Demos: Solidarity in Europe.

In February 2017 thousands of citizens marched in the city of Barcelona following the mayor’s call to challenge the national government over its failure to accept the country’s quota of refugees set by the EU. Like many other EU members, Spain has not fulfilled this quota, with only 1,279 people entering the country in 2018, while its citizens demand more migrants are welcomed. If cities are ready to house these people, and citizens are willing to cooperate with local institutions, what is stopping the process?

European Alternatives: What is the Shelter Cities program and how does it work?

Marc Serra: The Shelter Cities program started around the summer of 2015, when we witnessed the states’ failure to manage the human rights crisis, the refugee crisis. When the cities verified that the states were auctioning off the cities that could accommodate less refugees, we said that’s enough. It started as a cry of anger. Barcelona said “We are actually willing to take in people looking for shelter, fleeing war (in this case it was above all the conflict in Syria) in our cities.” Then, little by little, other cities joined the cry started in Barcelona. Today, almost three years later, a program called Shelter Cities exists, it combines the initial advocacy –– we have been to the United Nations, the European Commission, the Spanish government, even to the Vatican, to demand safe and legal channels to receive refugees–– with local policies, providing housing, translators, human resources teams (social workers, social educators…) to accommodate the refugees who, despite the difficulties created by the states and the EU, are arriving in our cities and, for whom, therefore, we must provide decent living conditions to – it is our duty and obligation.

European Alternatives: What would you say has been, up until today, the greatest success of the program?

Marc Serra: I believe the greatest success of the Shelter Cities program has been to manage to channel the desire to show solidarity, a growing desire among the citizenship. It has been difficult, but I believe we have been able to seize this opportunity. We must take into account that Barcelona has a very long history of solidarity; that the city had already invested a great deal in welcoming East European refugees fifteen years ago, that there had been protests against the war in Iraq, and that here the biggest protests in Europe and perhaps in the entire world took place in favour of the refugees.

The city has opened up and since the beginning of the term the number of asylum seekers it assists has grown threefold. We took care of 4,400 people applying for asylum in 2017, through our service providing counselling for immigrants and refugees, obviously for free, offering free legal assistance, hosting those in need of emergency housing, and developing a local shelter program for vulnerable families.

I believe that, above all, the program has been able to channel this desire to help despite the institutions, so also counteracting the declarations expressed in the public debate, which treat the issues of migration and refugees in a populist manner, therefore allowing us to take a stand against fascism and extremism.

European Alternatives: You talk about institutions, and right now we are in a situation where, on the one hand, Barcelona is an example of wanting to welcome people coming from countries at war, and on the other, despite the EU has imposed national refugee quotas on member states, in order to try to manage this arrival of people, the nation states are blocking that arrival. How does Barcelona cope with this “duality”, this double policy of these two institutions, at the national level and the European one?

Marc Serra: In light of the Spanish government’s reiterated refusal to fulfil the quotas, we went to Brussels to ask the European Commission to take action, as it has already done with some states that have neglected the quota issue in an even more evident way. The fact is that the deals signed in 2015 are still in force, even though they have expired, because they are agreements made not only with the EU, but also with the entire citizenship. Therefore the European Commission can, and must, initiate disciplinary procedures against the states that have failed to comply with the quota system. We want the Spanish government to actually take in the 17,000 people it has committed to take in. We want it because the citizenship wants it, and we will do everything we can to remind both the Spanish state and the European Commission of this.

AntonioLitov: Volem Acollir. The protest «We want to welcome you» was celebrated the 18th of February 2017 in Barcelona. Some Rights Reserved

European Alternatives: Do you think it would be easier, on a operational level, if it were the city of Barcelona to talk and deal directly with the European Commission institutions, bypassing that nation state?

Marc Serra: It’s been a long time since we demanded to treat management of migration politics as a multilevel operation. This means that the different administrations need to be able to interact with one another from a position of equality. What cannot be tolerated is a situation in which we, as the city of Barcelona, are ready to welcome refugees, we want to welcome refugees, the resources are ready, and yet we are limited by the state’s unreasonably centralised and bureaucratised plan. We have reported this to the EU, and we have met with EU commissioners, regional politics officials and migration politics officials.

Barcelona is not the only city that believes in decentralization and in multilevel refugee politics; more and more cities are speaking out and demanding the same. To be able to do this, it is essential that the EU funds the receptions of refugees arriving in the cities. In the case of Spain, we have a problem. The management of the 330 million euros that the Spanish state will receive from the EU between 2014 and 2020, allocated for the reception of immigrants and refugees, is not transparent. We ask the Spanish government to submit the information regarding the accounts so we can see that the money is in fact being used to receive immigrants and refugees, and not to strengthen borders, which is what we are afraid is happening now (borders being strengthened and militarized, with new security engineering being used in border controls). Until we know exactly how much money the Spanish state is actually using for refugees, we will continue to demand that that money arrives to the cities, because the cities should be managing those funds directly. After all, the people seeking asylum and the immigrants are residents of the city and, obviously, the first administration they come to is the local administration. The Citizens’ Affairs Office, the Social Services, the Housing Office… these are all local offices that try to meet their housing needs, their social needs, all the basic needs of these neighbours of ours, the best they can. Therefore we insist on having access to these funds because their handling is now terribly unclear.

European Alternatives: What part does solidarity play in the city of Barcelona?

Marc Serra: I believe that solidarity is a very strong value for Barcelona’s citizenship, and we could somehow say it has permeated the very identity of the city.

Now that we are in the government, every time we go to Europe we proudly say that Barcelona is honoured to be an open city, a shelter city. And the citizens remind us of this in every protest, every gesture; they remind us of this when they fight against fascism, against racism, against xenophobia.

They made this evident last August 17th 2018, in the terrible attack in Las Ramblas de Barcelona, the neuralgic centre of the city, with their response, an unanimous call for diversity and against any kind of xenophobia, islamophobia, etc. I therefore think that Barcelona’s citizenship sees solidarity as a core value in its history, and I believe Europe’s history is about that too. The fundamental values of the EU are based on human rights, not only on free trade. And sometimes we need to bring back those fundamental values, because if we don’t, fear, hate, intolerance, and fascism will take over.


Leading photo: Tono Carbajo Volem Acollir. Some Rights Reserved. The protest «We want to welcome you» was celebrated the 18th of February 2017 in Barcelona.


European Alternatives
European Alternatives is a non-profit, non-state organisation working with the conviction that a transnational renovation of our political imaginations, institutions and actions needs to take place to adequately understand and address the crises Europe is facing.