Cities, Civil Society, and Universities: Essential Actors for the Welcoming of Refugees



The Ukrainian crisis has led more than four million people1 into exile. Until mid-May, 10,000 people were still arriving in Berlin every day. In France, according to national authorities, 100,000 were expected to arrive. To date, 18,000 individuals have received temporary protection status (TPS) cards2 issued by the French Government; these cards have benefited a total of 35,000 people. Unlike the national asylum procedures, the TPS programme does not have national provisions for accommodation. What is more, the emergency character of the Ukrainian response has required new approaches to circumvent the legal rigidity and slow administrative procedures of the national asylum system. As a result, the national authorities have had no choice but to rely on local actors, both public (municipalities and sub-regional authorities, ‘préfectures’), and non-governmental actors as well. The result is a transformed refugee protection landscape in which such local actors are beginning to play a central role. This article briefly outlines three such actors’ growing influence; these are: municipalities, civil society, and universities.

In March 2022, the City of Lille in the Northern of France, a city twinned with Kharkiv in Ukraine, opened 250 accommodation units and identified 800 others among its local communities. The City of Metz in Northeastern France took in 250 Ukrainians. These are two amongst multiplying initiatives across France: in Dijon, Lyon, and Nancy, as well as in rural areas. The municipality is often the first point of contact for people who wish to welcome refugees into their home. Along with the préfecture and civil society organisations, municipalities have become a key player for the welcoming of Ukrainians , and the national government increasingly relies on them to help welcome newcomers. Over the years, French cities have developed the know-how for welcoming newcomers, be these refugees, asylum-seekers, undocumented migrants, or other migrants. In 2018, the National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories (Association nationale des villes et territoires accueillants —ANVITA) was created by the former mayor of Grande Synthe, Damien Carême, to develop a national model of unconditional hospitality for migrants at the local level. The national government’s outreach to ANVITA for support in identifying accommodation and supporting welcoming efforts began with the arrival of Afghan refugees following the Talibans’ return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021. As it declared its support to Afghan refugees, ANVITA was approached by the Inter-ministerial Delegation for the Reception and Integration of Refugees ( Délégation interministérielle à l’accueil et à l’intégration des réfugiés —DIAIR) to help identify available accommodation capacity. Once again in 2022, the national government requested ANVITA to coordinate in preparation for the anticipated arrival of Ukrainians. It is important to note that these requests were made of local authorities without corresponding increases in financial support. The national government's undeclared objective is to expand its hosting capacity at a lower cost, by turning to cities and towns and their inhabitants to host refugees and shoulder associated costs.

Indeed, the reception of refugees depends to a large extent on the goodwill of private citizens and on the mobilisation of non-profit organisations (NGOs). These NGOs provide the essential services and care for welcoming people who are often traumatised by their displacement experience. The reception infrastructure in France has been built up over time. Introduced in 2019, the contracts for the reception and integration of refugees (Contrats territoriaux d’accueil et d’intégration des réfugiés —CTAIR ) ensure better coordination (of service delivery and other actions) between the actions of the State/national government, the préfectures, and the signatory cities. The State has thus supported the establishment of a local infrastructure for welcoming refugees; however, this infrastructure has primarily been built “bottom up” driven in large measure by the mobilization of private citizens. Over the last decade, and more particularly since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ beginning in 2015, there has been an increase in the number of private and local accommodation or ‘private sponsorship3 initiatives. In some cases, these have been created with the support of long-established organisations, e.g. the Welcome Programme, supported by the Jesuit Relief Service; the SINGA platform's J'accueille programme. Long stigmatised and often criticised by national authorities (particularly when applied to welcoming undocumented migrants), this type of commitment is becoming more commonplace. For instance, insurance companies like France Assurance, have decided to extend coverage to refugees being accommodated by families through private accommodation/sponsorship arrangements.

In addition to municipalities, and to civil society, universities are the third category of actor to have become more involved in refugee welcome in the last years. The PAUSE programme, created in 2017, brings exiled artists and scientists into a university setting. The programme benefits from a variety of public (e.g. State/national, European Union) and private (e.g. Michelin Foundation, Open Society Foundations) funding, which ensures its sustainability. Over the past five years, PAUSE has facilitated the hosting of 300 scholars (mainly PhD students, often accompanied by their families). In March 2022 alone, it received 135 applications of Ukrainian academics, the highest number on record. PAUSE normally prepares two calls for applications each year, to which volunteer universities must respond in order to obtain co-funding. In view of the emergency in Ukraine, this modus operandi has been changed: PAUSE has set up an emergency fund of 500,000 euros for Ukrainian scholars to be hosted for an initial period of three months without the need for co-funding by the hosting academic institution. As of 2 March, around 100 applications had been processed, 4/5 of them from Ukrainian women. PAUSE has since initiated a fundraising campaign for private sector contributions in order to increase its budget for Ukrainian support.

Refugees Welcome - photo by Aitor Serra Martin for Shutterstock

Castellon, Spain. Refugees Welcome - photo by Aitor Serra Martin for Shutterstock

As is evident, the Ukrainian crisis has led to the creation of a new welcoming alliance. Will this momentum fade or, on the contrary, will it have a lasting impact on the welcoming of refugees in France, and crucially, will it also apply to non-European refugees? The current situation offers an unprecedented mobilization of local actors, who are all calling for an unconditional intake of asylum-seekers, without discrimination on grounds of origin country. However, there is a risk of hospitality fatigue, accelerated by the heavy burden on public services and the shortage of housing accommodation. In a context of growing tension, a single event could quickly reverse public opinion. This has been observed in the Middle East (i.e. Turkey, Lebanon), in countries that have received the majority of Syrian refugees. In the case of Ukraine, it is possible that the war will be resolved quickly and that Ukrainian exiles will return home. It is nevertheless regrettable that the current wave of solidarity towards Ukrainians will most likely fall short from reversing attitudes towards non-European refugees seeking asylum in the EU.

Notwithstanding, there are important indications that the year 2022 will be a turning point in the governance of refugee protection. First, a look at the past teaches us that the development of welcoming infrastructures is an incremental process that accelerates in times of crisis. These crises are periods of public awareness, of acquiring know-how, of creating structures, of setting up administrative procedures, which, even if they disappear post-crisis, can be reactivated during a subsequent one. The profile of private citizens who become champions of welcoming refugees is evolving, and further suggests that the publics’ perceptions of refugee sponsorship/accommodation support are changing. This is also noticeable at the institutional level, as the French Government is establishing a platform for private citizens to communicate their desire to host individuals or families seeking asylum. The burgeoning dialogue between State/national authorities, municipalities, universities, and NGOs underpins the growing role of local actors in the administrative processes that facilitate the welcome of newcomers. With their involvement, a responsibility which was previously solely the regalian mandate of the Ministry of the Interior, could well take on a more pragmatic and less security-oriented approach.

No doubt, the extent to which local actors continue their involvement will be affected by changes in public perceptions and in the political climate. Nevertheless, we might expect that the building blocks of this welcoming infrastructure will endure for two reasons. First, there is a growing movement of mutual support amongst these varying actors, one that is increasingly funded through both public and private sources and which relies on a growing web of volunteers to sustain their efforts. The City of Paris has recently contributed to the budget of the PAUSE programme. NGOs such as Welcoming International support municipalities in setting up local facilities for accommodating refugees. The City of Strasbourg relies on a partnership with associations and academics to support migrants throughout their integration process, from the first day of their arrival to their long-term resettlement. Second, these local actors are part of a wider, transnational movement, whose actions and know-how are fed by the circulation of innovations, connections and resources coming from outside France as well. The PAUSE programme is largely inspired by the American Scholar Rescue Fund.4 It was set up at a time when the former Trump administration had considerably reduced the annual quota of refugees, which as a result fell from 125,000 to 15,000 per year during his presidency. PAUSE was one of the programmes that ‘picked up’ refugee students/scholars who might otherwise have gone to the United States during this period. Another example of this transnational activism is the on-going discussions for a relocation programme such that Ukrainian refugees who wish to, can be transferred from overwhelmed Polish cities to cities in France that are ready to receive them under the new TPS programme. Whether such a relocation programme, designed by municipalities across national borders, with the support of civil society and national governments, will be of benefit for Ukrainians (who are since returning home) is only part of the story. The more important part of this story is that such innovation led by local actors could usher in a new approach to asylum in Europe. Already tested by the Sant Egidio community in Italy, such humanitarian corridors are able to help transfer refugees, while relying on local support. We might be getting closer to a refugee relocation programme between local communities, one which has not succeeded at the inter-state level within the EU.

Of course, while these developments are hopeful they are nevertheless modest when considering the numbers and varied needs of refugees fleeing war in their home country. Be that as it may, it is clear today that nation states can no longer ignore the role of local actors in refugee welcome. Their role will become all the more important as climate change exacerbates forcible displacement. It is thus urgent to rethink the governance of refugee reception and welcome. There is no doubt that associations, cities, and universities will play an essential role.

Cover Photo: Lviv, Ukraine, 2 March 2022. @ Bumble Dee pour Shutterstock

  • 1. This article is based on the discussions that took place during the roundtable “Ukraine : vers un changement par le bas des pratiques de l’asile en Europe et aux États-Unis ?”, organised at CERI on 22 March 2022 and jointly supported by PACE (CERI), Localacc (IC Migrations) and MiDi (Sciences Po). It was attended by David Lubell (Welcoming International), Léa Enon Baron (ANVITA) and Laura Lohéac (PAUSE). The round table was co-organised by Thomas Lacroix and Colleen Thouez.
  • 2. Temporary protection status was created by an EU directive following the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in 2001, but this is the first time this directive has been activated. It is intended to respond to the influx of refugees from Ukraine. Valid for a period of one to three years, it gives access, in addition to the rights granted to statutory refugees, to an immediate right to work and to free movement within the Schengen area. More info here:
  • 3. There are 3 types of private sponsorship: associational, spontaneous, and a third in which the national government has a role. This new model has emerged due to the greater involvement of public authorities and the structural lack of provisions for housing.
  • 4. ;
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