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The preliminaries: 'Call for affection' and not 'call-effect'.

It was a very hot day in Barcelona on 28 August 2015. Many people were on the beach, others were discovering the city for the first time as tourists, and still others were arriving in search of refuge. The newspapers of that day declared that the war in Syria had driven four million people from the country. 

In this context, on her personal blog, the Mayor of Barcelona published a reflection on the need for a 'call for affection' which laid the foundations for what would later be consolidated as the 'Barcelona, Refuge City' plan:


‘Governments need to stop threatening with the 'call-effect'. What Europe urgently needs is a 'call for affection', a call for empathy. They could be children, brothers or mothers. It could be us, just as many of our grandparents were also exiled (...). Even though this is a matter for state and European competences, in Barcelona we will do all that we can to be part of a network of refuge cities. We want cities that are committed to human rights and life, cities we can be proud of’. 

Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona
August 28th, 2015

How did it start?

Cities and towns are the places refugees are received and integrated, but in Spain they have no say in asylum policies and do not receive any funding to implement them adequately. Despite this, faced with the international humanitarian crisis and the Spanish State's inaction, in September 2015 the City Council, the city's social organisations and its citizens decided to mobilise one more time. 

The plan 'Barcelona, Refuge City' was approved on 2 October 2015 at the first ordinary full meeting of the city government, to prepare Barcelona to receive and guarantee the rights of refugees. The plan, which has had to adapt to a changing context, the lack of coordination and the informative opacity of the central Government (which at this time has not yet published a strategy or arrival schedule for the reception of the refugees who it has promised to relocate and settle), offers welcome, assistance and provision of the necessary services to refugees arriving in the city, and guarantees their rights. Moreover, the plan demands that states comply with the most basic human rights standards.


How have we been welcoming?

Ever since Barcelona was declared a Refuge City, the arrival of refugees in the city has increased fivefold. This has led to an effort to improve the reception services for asylum seekers and immigrants, by reinforcing the Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER) and promoting the Nausica Programme. Spaces for citizen participation have also been opened to improve the challenge of welcoming, channels for volunteering have been established and a specific line of grants has been created to raise awareness about the subject of refuge. There is transparent information on all of these activities on the website ciutatrefugi.barcelona. Finally, external action is encouraged, collaboration between cities is promoted and organisations that work on the ground are helped.



– Barcelona, safe harbour

In the last few months, many states and cities have closed their ports to rescue NGOs, with the complicity of the European Union. Organisations such as Proactiva Open Arms, Doctors without Borders and Save the Children have on various occasions reported that this threatens the marine rescue activity they carry out in the coastal areas of Libya, because it is impossible to guarantee the safety of the crew against the hostility of the Libyan coastguards. In addition, they have hit out at the Italian minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini’s veto, which has launched an offensive against NGOs dedicated to saving lives on the high seas.

Barcelona has declared itself a safe port and has established a precedent that other Spanish refuge cities, such as Valencia, have followed. The ship Open Arms arrived in Barcelona with over sixty people rescued off the coast of Libya after Malta and Italy refused to open their ports to them. Barcelona was offered as a safe harbour in the face of the refusal of other countries to allow the ship to disembark.


‘All human lives matter, no matter where they come from, whether it is through the Mediterranean, if they arrive through Italy or through the southern border’. 

Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona
July 4th, 2018


In addition, the Municipal Government has collaborated with Proactive Open Arms and Save the Children to provide support in the humanitarian work of marine lifesaving that they are carrying out in the Mediterranean, and they have also offered economic and institutional support. Thus, they are helping those who help, which is one of the essential maxims of the 'Barcelona, Refuge City' plan.



SAIER is the Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees who arrive in the city. It is a municipal service that offers information and advice on immigration, refuge, emigration and voluntary return for anyone living in Barcelona. SAIER offers personalised, confidential guidance, and legal and social assistance for international protection applicants. The service was launched in 1989 and has had to adapt in the face of changing migratory flows.



– Nausica Programme

Nausica was launched at the end of 2016 as a pilot test. The programme comprehensively attends to refugees who have been excluded from State coverage to improve the processes of social integration and autonomy and guarantee that, once their time in the programme is over, people are ready to join the labour market and begin a life on their own. To achieve this, the programme includes an individualised work plan with a whole range of services, from professional, social and psychological support and language teaching to legal, formative and labour guidance and schooling for children, as well as covering basic needs by setting up temporary accommodation.


'Promoting this programme is not just a way to offer comprehensive help suitable for the most vulnerable refugees. It is also a way to point out the insufficiencies and inflexibility of the State Reception Programme and to show that with political will, more people can be hosted better'.

Jaume Asens, Deputy Mayor's Office for Citizens' Rights, Culture, Participation and Transparency
September 2016


– The civic space

In the past few years, the 'Barcelona, Refuge City' plan has developed a civic space for coordinating the city’s groups and organisations and passing on the offers of resources and services received. The space offers activities, training and teaching resources for people who want to be actively involved in reception, and also redirects the forces of volunteers towards organisations and spaces that are already working on support tasks that help newcomers to become involved in the city and everyday social life. 

In the same way, it has contributed to public initiatives like Refugiats Benvinguts (Welcome Refugees), a platform that puts refugees in need of a home in contact with residents who want to rent out a room and mentors who want to support them in the reception process. With municipal support, this project has been consolidated in Barcelona and has introduced over forty sets of people living together in private homes.


The Office for Non-Discrimination

Last May, the new Office for Non-Discrimination was launched. This office acts against discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, sexual orientation, origin, religion, language, nationality, health, disability or socio-economic situation, and offers information, psychosocial support and free legal advice. The instigation of the new office has enabled the provision of more resources to offer a more complete service, both of help for victims of discrimination and information and education for the general public.


The memorial

The memorial 'Som i serem citutat refugi' (We are and will be a Refuge City) is a way of remembering and reporting the victims in search of refuge who were killed in the Mediterranean. It is a monolith situated on the beach of La Barceloneta that includes the 'meter of shame', which can also be consulted on the Refuge City website. This figure reflects the number of people dead or missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year. This count is carried out by the “Missing Migrants Projects”, by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM obtains this data from various sources: officials, NGOs, press and interviews with survivors. The meter is updated regularly.


Three years of the Refuge City in figures.

In the last three years, the reinforcement of SAIER has been key to adequately responding to the increase in users. It has gone from attending to 11,370 people in 2015 to 19,264 in 2018 (estimated provisional figure, taking into account the 16,517 people attended to until October). Regarding the refugee families attended to this year by SAIER, there are 1,445 minors, a figure that already exceeds the 846 of the whole of 2017.

Today work is being carried out on a new facility to extend the service’s help area by more than 300 m2


Nausica has approximate capacity for 80 people. During the first 20 months of the programme, there were 124 users, 98 of whom accessed the residential service. The programme has helped to make it possible for 43% of the people who used it to find work, although only 5% have work with a permanent contract. The programme reorients the professional profile with training courses in work sectors with the most employment availability, and language learning: 90% improve their level of Spanish, but 7% begin the programme without understanding any Spanish, and within eight months they are writing it. The data also reveals that the beneficiaries increase their personal autonomy by 18% and their social autonomy by 48%.

There is a huge diversity in the origin of the users. Venezuela is still the country of origin of the majority of people requesting international protection, and, along with those from Colombia, Honduras and Georgia, they account for 60% of the total. On the other hand, since March 2018 there has been a fall in the number of refugees of Ukrainian origin. 


Challenges for the future: for a humane, comprehensive and empathetic welcome

The structural phenomenon of migration has increased in recent years in all the cities and countries that surround us. In the last few months, the number of arrivals to the Spanish State via the coast has increased because of the closure of migratory routes through Eastern Europe. Far from being a new phenomenon, the indicators are at similar levels to 2006. 


– The future of reception: a multi-level challenge

It is the exclusive competence of the State not only to grant asylum status, offering legal and safe means, but also to provide adequate help to those who request it. Despite Spain’s non-compliance with quotas for relocation and resettlement, thousands of people have managed to reach Barcelona. The majority have done this with their own means and, despite all the difficulties they have encountered, they have made Barcelona their city. The city faces the challenge of receiving them with the dignity they deserve. The resources allocated to reception must be reinforced: increase the number of places of accommodation, strengthen guidance and information services and promote their autonomy so that they can rebuild their lives. The involvement of all the administrations is key to providing effective reception.


‘We hit two clear limits that remind us that we cannot be self-satisfied and that there is still a long way to go. First of all, the lack of competences in asylum and immigration stops us from being able to give a dignified response to the hundreds of people who arrive in the city and who cannot legally work because they do not have permission to work. If we do not have tools for legalising these people, it is very difficult to work on their adaptation to the city. Secondly, the lack of sufficient resources to be able to help the people who seek refuge in Barcelona in the best conditions’. 

Jaume Asens, Deputy Mayor's Office for Citizens' Rights, Culture, Participation and Transparency
November 2018


– A network of cities for reception

Collaboration with other cities is fundamental. Since it was put into operation, Barcelona has shared this plan with various municipalities. Cities such as Madrid, Valencia, La Coruña, Zaragoza, Sabadell, Sant Boi de Llobregat and El Prat de Llobregat are launching firm initiatives to receive refugees. At the same time, at a European level, the Solidarity Cities network has been promoted, which also includes Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Naples and others. We must continue sharing the knowledge generated in each city to see the feasibility and change we can achieve at home. 


'The Spanish State must open a space for cooperation with cities to guarantee a dignified welcome to the thousands of people who risk their life in the Mediterranean'. 

Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona
March 2017


This is the main principle of the challenges for the future: beyond welcoming, we must improve how we welcome and do so with dignity. This is why in November, the fourth meeting of Spanish Refuge Cities took place in the Congress of Deputies, where all the specific demands for improving and dignifying the reception of migrants and refugees were demonstrated: to expand and reinforce reception protocols at the points of arrival; to create a communication protocol between the Secretary of State for Migration and the cities; to create a space for coordination between the State Government, the autonomous communities and the municipalities; to end the waiting lists to enter the state asylum programme, and make access to residence and work permits more flexible. 


And what can I do?

Administrations are key to channelling help and providing immediate assistance. But the involvement of the neighbourhood is needed to make Barcelona the open city we want. Barcelona has been able to channel the concern of thousands of citizens who were frustrated by the leaders of the European Union’s disastrous response to the refugee crisis, and has been able to convert this concern into proposals for action and mobilisation. At the institutional level, this plan and a network of cities has been promoted, which has given global weight to demands for compliance with the right to asylum. With regard to the public, one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of Europe was launched in Barcelona, with the slogan 'Volem acollir' (We Want to Welcome). 

We need to continue with this collective effort to keep building a welcoming society and improve how people live together in a diverse, inter-cultural city. We must attend to new arrivals, but it is also necessary to include newcomers to the city in areas of work, school and socially. We also need to create the conditions for them to feel part of Barcelona and counteract the prejudices and racist discourse against refugees and immigrants. The first step, therefore, is to understand that behind the unfortunately named 'refugee crisis' is hidden a profound crisis of values in Europe, which instead of solidarity and respect for human rights, blames refugees for having to flee from their homes.

We have to welcome each other, respecting each other, understanding each other and expressing the empathy that will make us one single city. Welcome!


'The challenge is not just for newcomers to learn our culture, but also for us to learn their languages, their traditions and their ways of understanding the world, and in the process to be enriched as a city. As an ever more diverse city, we face the challenge of including them in the debates and reflections that make up our society, in an exchange between equals'. 

Jaume Asens, Deputy Mayor's Office for Citizens' Rights, Culture, Participation and Transparency
November 2018