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COVID-19, Barcelona, and immigrants: The city as a refuge in times of uncertainty?

26 June 2020
Juan Carlos Triviño-Salazar 

Article published in "Open Democracy" in English on June 24, 2020

Barcelona's actions in the field of immigration in the midst of the pandemic are the product of a long history that have sought to open spaces for the city to have a voice in the protection of immigrants.

The restrictions on mobility during the COVID-19 crisis have revealed two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, confinement as a privilege of urban classes that can isolate themselves from the outside world; on the other hand, the deepening of the labor, housing and legal vulnerability experienced by immigrants —especially those with insufficient income—, elderly without support networks, care workers, newcomers, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

Amid this crisis Barcelona has become a visible face by asking its national government and the European Union to act so that immigrants and refugees are not left behind during the pandemic. Examples of these actions are the decision to sign, together with nine other cities belonging to the Solidarity Cities initiative, a letter expressing to the institutions of the European Union their willingness to welcome unaccompanied refugee minors who live in camps in the Greek islands.

At the local level, the City Council, together with entities belonging to the Municipal Immigration Council (CMIB), asked the Government of Spain for an extraordinary regularization of immigrants. It also started a campaign that asks municipalities not to hinder the registration of foreigners under the slogan 'Padrò són drets' (‘Registration equals rights’). Likewise, the City Council revealed, together with local immigrant and social entities, the different actions aimed at offering aid and services without discrimination on the basis of immigration status.

While the situation is far from ideal —the city harbored important social inequalities in the pre-COVID era, as well as tangible problems related to the presence of unaccompanied foreign minors and street vendors of immigrant origin with an irregular status—, it is still relevant to ask why Barcelona has assumed such an active and visible role in the defense of the above-mentioned immigrant groups amidst the pandemic?

Cities have assumed leadership in the field of city diplomacy in relation to an agenda on immigrants and refugees

A possible answer refers to the growing role of cities in managing migration as a political phenomenon. In a context where the management of immigration has traditionally been within the domain of state sovereignty, cities have pioneered discourses and practices that seek to complement, oppose, or react to national governments. In the case of Barcelona, the city has demanded greater powers in matters reserved to the national sphere, such as the reception of asylum seekers or assistance to people in an irregular situation.

In fact, the constant claims of the city for greater powers in the field of reception during the so-called 2015 Refugee Crisis or its recent request —approved by the Government of Spain— to automatically grant temporary residence permits to immigrants with pending applications in the current crisis are examples of this. On the other hand, the municipalist trajectory of the city, represented by Mayor Ada Colau since 2015, reinforces the notion of cities as arenas where different social forces come together in the search for solutions to local problems such as vulnerabilities derived from the migratory phenomenon.

Another possible response refers to the leadership that cities have assumed in the field of city diplomacy in relation to an agenda on immigrants and refugees. In this context, we can see how Barcelona has exercised a visible role through political declarations in international forums or through city networks or bilateral agreements. The idea that European cities are relevant actors in the reception of refugees, the emergence of initiatives such as Solidarity Cities under the umbrella of Eurocities (a network of large European cities) in 2015, or the inclusion of this topic in international forums such as the UN Habitat III Preparatory Conference in 2016 illustrate this leadership.

The crisis generated by the pandemic is a window of opportunity that can reaffirm cities not as administrative entities that follow a hierarchical logic but as fully-fledged actors who can determine how we understand inclusion and equity from close proximity

However, this leadership has been built on the foundations of an international strategy that the city has followed since the late 1980s, when Barcelona played a prominent role in the creation of Eurocities. Such a strategy facilitated the creation in the 2000s of the United Cities and Local Governments organization (UCLG) —headquartered in the city— or the Spanish Network of Intercultural Cities (RECI), which is linked to the Council of Europe.

A third and final answer refers to the construction of a local governance model around immigration and integration based on innovative policies, enhancing technical capacities and a strong climate of cooperation with local civic actors through time. In the case of Barcelona, ​​the city has invested in transversal policies under the umbrella of welcoming immigrants and refugees, as well as in the normalization of the cultural diversity that their presence brings. This is how we see a declaration of intent in the adoption of an intercultural framework to guide municipal actions in the field of integration since the 1990s or in the creation in 1989 of the Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER), the first of its kind in Spain. These technical capacities are also manifested in the 2015 Refuge City Plan where Barcelona offered to host refugees escaping the Syrian conflict, as well as those who may come to the city in the future.

However, these technical capacities would not be especially useful were they not rooted in the dense network of neighborhood, immigrant and social entities that work every day to ensure the inclusion of immigrants and their families in the city. The commitment to developing synergies with different actors has permeated local governance, where a climate of dialogue and collaboration has prevailed —not without disagreements. An example of this is the existence since 1997 of the CMIB, which advises the City Council on issues related to immigration and brings together representatives of immigrants, social entities, the Municipal Council and policy officers.

The crisis generated by the pandemic is a window of opportunity that can reaffirm cities not as administrative entities that follow a hierarchical logic but as fully-fledged actors who can determine how we understand inclusion and equity from close proximity. The actions that Barcelona has taken in the field of immigration in the midst of the pandemic are the product of a long history that have sought to open spaces for the city to have a voice in the protection of immigrants. The model proposed in this field shows more than ever the role that cities have as spokespersons for the rights of immigrants, refugees, and their families. Cities as actors, but also as arenas where different groups converge, can act as innovative entities that advance common positions in favor of those that a crisis of these dimensions has left behind.