As hundreds of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere make the risky journey across the Aegean Sea each day to reach Europe, the Greek island of Lesbos faces the problem of what to do with the discarded dinghies piling up on its shores.
Help may be at hand, thanks to an agreement signed this week between the Lesbos municipality and Barcelona. Environmental technicians from the Spanish city will advise on how to deal with the waste piling up on the island, which lies just a few miles from the Turkish coast.
Under the deal, Barcelona city council will also share environmental and logistical expertise with the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, which has seen a huge influx of migrants crossing from North Africa.
The agreement is just one example of cooperation between city and town halls across Europe to try to cope with the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
These efforts are a response to a lack of support from national governments and the European Union, experts told a conference on resilient cities in Barcelona this week.
“The debate is taking place very remotely from the people who are ultimately going to be charged with the responsibility of housing, servicing, supporting and integrating refugees,” said Dan Lewis, head of UN-Habitat’s urban risk reduction unit. “(Cities) don’t have a voice in this.”
Eighty to 90 percent of refugees coming to Europe are likely to settle in cities, and many will stay for years, Lewis said.
Those cities will have to try and create dignified lives for refugees – yet there are limited resources and policy measures to help them deal with migration pressures, he added.
“The question of resources and the distribution of resources hasn’t been resolved at state level yet,” he said. “The only other option is for the cities to generate their own.”
That is why cities are setting up solidarity networks, such as that launched by Barcelona this week. Some are also committing their own financial resources to tackle the crisis.
Barcelona city council said on Tuesday it would triple financial aid for refugees in transit to 300,000 euros ($340,000), responding to the “humanitarian consequences of the decision by European states to close the Balkans route”.
The one thing Barcelona cannot do for now is take in more refugees, as it is blocked by bureaucracy at national level.
On Wednesday, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau sent a letter to the Spanish prime minister asking for official permission for the Catalan capital to accept 100 refugees now in Athens.
“Barcelona could be hosting and welcoming some of these people – why couldn’t we have an agreement between two cities to relocate (refugees)?” Colau asked, sitting beside Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis.
Colau told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she could not say how many asylum seekers Barcelona could resettle, nor when they might arrive, as Spain struggles to form a new government.
“(Madrid) has not responded to the cities and autonomous communities that have said we want to help and are prepared to help,” she told the conference.
Kaminis said the Greek capital – through which some 80 percent of the more than 900,000 refugees to arrive from Turkey since the start of 2015 have passed – is receiving support from the United Nations to house 50,000 people in apartments and camps.
“Many of these people are going to stay in Greece – some for the coming years, and many forever – and we need to be ready for the challenge of integrating them into our society,” he said.
The mayors said it was important to find ways to ease tensions between newcomers and city locals, such as making clear that rules to protect people’s rights apply to all.
Colau called for European countries to allow asylum seekers to work, so they can integrate into society and start a regular life.
A well-considered, inclusive approach to migration would help overcome fears about its potential negative impacts – which are generally unfounded, experts told the Barcelona conference.
Immigration has always helped meet demand for labor and spurred economic and scientific development, innovation and culture, said Josep Roig, head of United Cities and Local Governments, a global network.
“Migration and mobility are often portrayed and perceived as a threat, and a burden for local communities rather than an opportunity and benefit – this is a contradiction of reality,” he said.