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Refugees: Municipalities at the Frontline

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Mar 31, 2016 / 0 Comments
Al Jazeera America / D. Khamissy

Report from a “Moving” Mission in the Mediterranean (1)


Refugees, migration and mobility of persons have never been alien to the Mediterranean region; on the contrary history proves that the movement of individuals - for its different purposes - has always been an integral characteristic and reality in the region. Due to the protracted conflict in Syria, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries hosting Syrian refugees are overstretched and the crisis demonstrates significant spillover effects in Southern Europe. The once-familiar-and-accepted mobility of persons is turning into an enormous challenge for both rims of the Mediterranean. Today calls for a better coordinated response are rising in Europe as well as in MENA, and the need for stronger support to host countries is settling and, most importantly more solidarity among people.


In March 2016, I took part in a National Congress of Italian Cities and Town Association near Pescara at the Adriatic Coast in Italy. I participated as a panelist in an international South-North Dialogue on the Migration crisis. It focused on lessons learnt by local authorities from Italy, Greece, Lebanon and our international perspective at the Center for Mediterranean Integration. If I could highlight few of the main messages in this meeting one would certainly be the extent to which Southern European countries, and their respective municipalities, are overstretched with this unprecedented influx of refugees.  Panelists explained how Southern European municipalities felt left alone from Europe and their respective central Government. A closer look into facts and figures might help us understand their position.


In Europe, the Southern states Greece and Italy are facing the biggest burden because of their geographic location: In fact during 2015, Greece turned into the most important “transit country” in the European Union for refugees and migrants to get to Northern destinations. According to IOM, over 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe in 2015- the overwhelming majority crossed through Greece: A country in midst of an economic crisis, has now to struggle with a humanitarian crisis and managing the impacts of the new EU-Turkey deal: a deal considered as a “turning point” by the EU, and “overwhelming” by the Greek authorities. The story is far from ending here: As of March 2016, more than 164,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since January 2016. This figure is more than eight times higher than last year. The overwhelming majority -150,000 people- have come through Greece, 14,000 of them through Italy. To further complicate the situation, the Western Balkan route from Greece to Northern Europe has been blocked since early March 2016 and around 48,000 refugees are currently stranded in Greece. The closure of this transit will only create new routes with new problems: alternative transits through Libya, Albania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and possibly Spain can be expected.


Mediterranean municipalities are at the forefront in providing urgent assistance to migrants and refugees.  In the absence of a national response plan, Greek towns have developed their own response plans. They have engaged in volunteering, doing their best to respond to the humanitarian emergency. To date, they have received little support from their central governments and Europe. The Italian community of Pozzallo, a small Sicilian port city with 19,000 inhabitants, has faced the most “landings” of boats on its shores. Since January 2015, it has received about 12,500 people. It became Italy’s third “operative” hotspot in January 2016; three more are to come.  The European hotspot approach was developed to assist frontline member states facing disproportionate migratory pressures in the European Union. According to the mayor, little support has followed to date. He humbly stated that the city and its people need to be re-assured – they feel left to fend for themselves. Asked to share an example for solidarity he reflected for a long moment. He then cited the story of the “boat” that carried 35 human corpses and how the small town of Pozallo did not have sufficient space in their graveyard for this human tragedy. He then mentioned that neighboring municipalities offered their spaces to bury the travelers after their long journey with dignity. Silence filled the room.


Local authorities are key actors in managing the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Cities are a primary destination for migrants as they provide for housing, livelihoods and key basic services. But the urban nature of refugee influx poses a number of significant challenges to municipalities, and places great strain on the carrying capacity of host communities. 60% of all refugees in the world live in cities. In the MENA region, this figure amounts to 85%. During our meeting the mayors confirmed that they are at the forefront of the hosting and integration task for refugees and economic migrants. They highlighted their struggle to assure the welfare of their own citizens, while taking care of an overwhelming amount of new additional arrivals- with dignity. They called for a fair distribution of responsibilities, practical guidance and support from Europe, and stressed on the needs for funding, capacity building, training, and the exchange of good practices.


Cross-regional exchanges on refugee hosting support learning and capacity building for recent host communities: With its long-standing experience of hosting refugees and the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, Lebanon shared many experiences to the Southern European host municipalities for refugees and migrants and thereby demonstrated the benefits of engaging in a South-South discussion. The Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) offers support on specific need for South-North learning need through its Mediterranean Refugees and Host Communities Program by addressing the current refugee crisis in MENA and its spillover effects in Europe. The program targets Mediterranean refugee host communities by offering knowledge exchange and targeted technical assistance. Peer-to-Peer learning exchanges among MENA communities as well as affected European host communities are under preparation.  It targets Mediterranean refugee host communities by offering knowledge exchange and targeted technical assistance. Peer-to-Peer learning exchanges among MENA communities as well as affected European host communities are under preparation. 

Janette Uhlmann

Janette Uhlmann is the Senior Operations Officer of the Center for Mediterranean Integration since December 2013. She currently leads the Mediterranean Refugees and Host Communities Knowledge Action Program and works on fragility questions. Prior this assignment, Janette worked as Senior Country Officer in the Middle East Department, and Central Africa Department at the World Bank for 6 years. Janette started her career with the German Technical Cooperation on a regional program promoting good governance in North Africa. Janette holds an M.A. in International Relations and completed a Postgraduate Program in International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East. Her Ph.D. in International Comparative Politics discussed tradeoffs for European donors in Algeria’s democratic transition process. 


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