Madrid’s city hall. (Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

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Now What?

As national governments argue over which countries will take how many of the thousands of refugees streaming into the continent, Europe’s cities are left to manage their arrival.
Oct 2, 2015· 16 MIN READ
Marc Herman is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado and a cofounder of Deca, a longform journalists' co-op. He lives in Barcelona.

BARCELONA, Spain—No one had expected candles. The rally, at a former train depot on the edge of Barcelona’s downtown, was planned as a campaign event for supporters of Spain’s insurgent leftist political party, Podemos. Eight mayors associated with the movement were in town to coordinate strategies, and they planned to meet supporters that evening at the old station, chosen for a wide concourse that could hold the expected audience of a few thousand.

In the two years since Podemos burst on the scene, its rallies have settled into a routine. The same people tend to show up at all the events, which are impressive but redundant. The capacity crowd would hear Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, a rising political celebrity who came out of Spain’s Occupy-like Indignados movement, make full-throated attacks on the country’s conservative national government. It would be an evening’s entertainment, for those who are into that sort of thing.

But then, outside, people from refugee relief organizations started showing up. A few days earlier, the photo of a Kurdish toddler, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a beach in Turkey after drowning in a failed sea crossing, had appeared on the home page of virtually every news site from London to Istanbul. The refugee supporters laid mourners’ candles on the sidewalk beside the station. A crowd of a few hundred soon amassed in the parking lot, and some of them began scrawling slogans on the station’s exterior walls: “RIP Aylan.” “Shame on EU.” On the station’s doors, someone meticulously transcribed statistics from Spain’s civil war of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands fled into exile, and Barcelona’s train stations looked like Budapest’s did last month.

While Colau, days earlier, had announced the creation of a registry whereby Barcelona families could sign up to temporarily house newly arriving refugees, Europe’s national governments were slow to respond, and the grief and anger the Aylan Kurdi picture provoked caught them flat-footed. In Germany and Austria, people began to gather in train stations with food and signs of welcome, greeting exhausted refugee families debarking after harrowing journeys from as far away as Afghanistan. The response by regular Europeans became international news and a massive embarrassment for EU governments, whose lack of preparedness for a crisis that had been building for months—years, actually—was laid bare.

City halls were galvanized. Colau, a former housing activist, announced she would set aside 10 million euros to bolster her city’s refugee services, including housing, food, and legal assistance, and bump its regular budget by another 200,000 euros. The other mayors onstage with Colau at the station had announced similar programs, and during that day’s meetings they set up an intercity network to share resources and information. If Europe’s national governments wouldn’t face this crisis, they said, then its cities would.

Suddenly, the Podemos rally became a welcome for refugees.

“While the [national governments] are making excuses, the cities are already organized,” Colau said to applause from the overflow crowd. “In a few days we’ve generated a network of hundreds and hundreds of towns…while they are building walls and stringing concertina wire. Refugees: Our home is your home!”

Signs outside a rally for Spain's left-wing party, Podemos, in Barcelona on Sept. 5. (Photo: Marc Herman)

An estimated 25,000 have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean since the late 1980s—about 2,500 this year alone. Migrants and refugees started arriving in Barcelona in large numbers as far back as 2005. A crackdown by Europe’s border patrol, Frontex, effectively closed off a Senegal-Spain route by 2009, but with the fall of Libya's government in 2011, Tripoli became a place of embarkation, and the migration shifted east. In 2013, around 75,000 entered Europe illegally from Africa alone. Steady arrivals from places such as Senegal and Eritrea are now accompanied by people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries recently broken by conflict.

Spain has faced far less pressure—this year—than its Mediterranean neighbors Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Lebanon. But as European governments’ negotiations over their response have stalled, Spanish city officials have been among the most vocal critics of their own national politicians. Beginning in late August, dozens announced plans to offer new refugee services.

We’ve seen refugees sleeping in public parks, in train stations. One would hope there would have been some contingency plans.

Itayi Viriri, International Organization for Migration

Now, the idealism and generosity behind those plans is running up against financial, logistical, and political reality. Barcelona, capital of the wealthy Catalonia region, a port and a major transit hub where previous refugees have often arrived first, is expected to be a prime point of entry for refugees sent to Spain under a relief deal struck Sept. 23 by EU leaders under which Spain agreed to accept more than 15,000 refugees. City halls and local NGOs here and elsewhere are suddenly grappling with a problem that isn’t in their charters to handle but no one else has yet stepped up to address. They provide much of the street-level services for newcomers and find themselves stuck between the people arriving in their cities and the federal governments that hold the key to the necessary resources. (The amount of funding allocated by Spain's federal government to handle refugees, at press time, was zero.) As water cannons and tear gas appear at border crossings 800 miles away, in Barcelona a patchwork of usually underfunded agencies and local charities are handling much of the day-to-day care for the people who have managed to get through, and will soon be swamped by new arrivals, many of them in states of great distress and trauma.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

“We’ve been warning about this for years, especially after the onset of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, that people would be coming,” said Itayi Viriri, media & communications officer for the International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-affiliated agency in Geneva.

Yet a lack of planning has translated into a lack of the most basic preparedness. The main refugee aid group in Barcelona has two lawyers—the Red Cross has a few more—and zero translators. A lack of communication with national and EU officials concerning such simple facts as how many people will arrive, when, and what they are likely to need is frustrating municipal officials; Colau complained on Sept. 29, at a press conference to announce a hastily drawn-up refugee assistance system, that she had not been told how many people were likely to arrive in Barcelona or when. “It’s been very difficult to get official information,” she said. It was less than four weeks after her shouted promise at the Podemos rally. “Lamentably,” she said, “jurisdiction [over refugee matters] isn’t in the hands of cities.”

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, before a Sept. 29 press conference at

which she announced a new system of assistance for refugees

arriving to the city. (Photo: Ben Evans)

The chief of the “ciutat refugi” (“city of refuge”) response program Colau announced that day, Ignasi Calbó, only started work two weeks ago. “We think 1,200 will come in November, but this is only based on what I hear from friends I have—in an EU office here and an NGO there,” he told TakePart. (The Spanish prime minister’s office and the press office of the Spanish embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to several requests for comment.) In October, Colau will travel to Germany and Austria to tour refugee services efforts in Vienna, Munich, and Leipzig “to prepare ourselves as well as we can.”

The Spanish government will host more than 18,000 refugees, counting a current commitment of more than 2,700 and the 15,000 new asylum seekers announced Sept. 23. Calbó, who was working with Doctors Without Borders in Turkey and Syrian Kurdistan before returning to Barcelona in the spring, believed most of the people arriving in Spain were likely to stay only briefly, using Barcelona as a waypoint en route to more prosperous Northern Europe. “But this is it: We don’t know,” he said. Those who stay will be seeking entry into a stagnant jobs market: Spain’s unemployment rate has been above 20 percent for nearly five years, and Barcelona’s tourist areas are crowded with manteros, migrants selling counterfeit luxury handbags in between raids by police. The city estimates a maximum cost to provide services to refugees to be 50 euros per person per day—which, for only the 1,200 people Calbó is expecting immediately, amounts to 420,000 euros a week. Even with Colau’s 10-million-euro commitment, at that rate the city will run out of money in five months—and Calbó expects more people to come after three months. Two dozen units of public housing are designated for refugees in all of Catalonia; Madrid has 40 more. Colau estimates that 300 to 400 of the first group to arrive will be sent to smaller towns after initial processing in Barcelona; efforts to coordinate with suburbs and nearby cities, with smaller tax bases and smaller budgets, have only just begun, said Calbó. Barcelona is officially planning to house some of the new arrivals at children's summer camps outside town. Even sunny Barcelona freezes in winter.

It’s not just Spain: The German Press Agency and Reuters have reported that German city halls are complaining that the funds they were allocated are inadequate to the task and that a plan for housing and health care promised in June has yet to arrive.

“We’ve seen refugees sleeping in public parks, in train stations. One would hope there would have been some contingency plans,” said IOM’s Viriri.

“Nine years.”

Near a notorious heroin market in the red-light district, outside the Barcelona office of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, an NGO that helps foreigners apply for European political asylum, L. told how long ago he applied for asylum in Spain. (For fear of prejudicing his case, he asked that his name not be given.) He was here for a meeting with his immigration lawyer.

L. lives off irregular odd jobs, under the table, and NGO services. “There are many different agencies you have to use” to get work, he said, speaking in Spanish he picked up after arriving. “Some help you with work, but there isn’t any. And also you have to wait for your legal process, and much is confidential—so, work, that’s not so easy.”

In the lobby, volunteers for CEAR (the commission’s Spanish acronym) were calling people in for a Spanish class, and another volunteer (who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to reporters) said a job-placement website was usually a disappointment. “You know how the labor situation is in the country. You can help someone look on, but realistically there are maybe four bad jobs and 400 applicants.”

Inside, CEAR’s office is a shabby place. The walls are stained from water leaks, their baseboards dusted with chipped plaster. Cheap shelves sag under the weight of binders stuffed with paperwork for pending cases. Along with the Red Cross, CEAR is the main refugee assistance resource in a city of 2 million yet relies on volunteers for most of its work, said Pascale Coissard, who runs special projects for the organization.

“What’s clear is that the city halls, by talking about money and about refugees in the media, are putting a certain internal pressure on [Europe’s] central governments,” she said. As for bankable assistance from Madrid to handle the influx, Coissard, a French national who previously worked in Egypt handling asylum cases related to Sudan’s Darfur conflict, said, “we’ve seen nothing.”

Mowafak Kanfach, who said he is a former political prisoner of the Assad regime, lets fellow Syrians arriving in Spain stay in the basement of his bookstore in Barcelona. (Photo: Ben Evans)

CEAR’s caseload is up 300 percent since 2013; its two lawyers carry almost 200 active political asylum petitions for people fleeing war, torture, political persecution, sexual violence, and other threats to their lives and those of their families. Besides asylum claims, CEAR also helps arrange schooling, medical assistance, and housing for refugee families. None of its staff is trained for any of these activities, most of which are done patchwork.

Coissard spoke in the office’s conference room, which is not quite big enough for its wobbly conference table. The sense of being in a used-furniture store, rather than at the front line of a humanitarian response agency, is something Coissard is aware of.

“It’s clear there aren’t resources yet, and asylum is a [federal] jurisdiction,” she said. “[The capital] sets the calendars and the quotas. So it’s a delicate thing.”

CEAR’s budget, part of which comes from the city and national governments, has remained essentially level despite the threefold increase in asylum cases, a trend she expects to continue. About half of her asylum applications, which can take two years or more to wend through the various bureaucracies, were filed in the first six months of 2015. The new funding from Colau’s office is so far dedicated to an emergency response to the arrivals anticipated over the next several months, including medical and psychological evaluation, food, and temporary shelter. But Coissard isn’t likely to see any of that money soon, if at all.

Food, lodgings, the kids have to go to school—there is money for this. Why are people having to open their doors?

Mowafak Kanfach, a Syrian émigré living in Spain

“Why, in Germany, do they support you, give you a place to live temporarily, some money—and in Spain not a bowl of soup?” said Mowafak Kanfach, a former political prisoner from Homs, Syria, and now the unofficial mayor of Barcelona’s Syrian community. The EU’s member states have drastically different programs for refugees, and city governments in countries that are less generous or less organized haven’t been able to address sometimes stark differences in the level of care.

Accused of membership in the anti-regime Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, Kanfach was imprisoned as a young man, he said, before fleeing Syria and finishing his studies in Egypt. Spain was the only country to grant him a visa on graduation; he’s a communications engineer by training. He’s been in Barcelona since 1986.

Ostensibly a bookseller, Kanfach has spent most of his time since the onset of Syria’s protests as an offshore anti-regime agitator and refugee assistance operator, filling requests for transportation, housing, and food from new arrivals, as Barcelona’s still-under-construction response isn’t in place to help. Through a loose association of friends, he said, he helps arrange travel to Germany and Sweden for people who have managed to get as far as his bookstore, which is near the marina.

Refugees debark at the train station in Freilassing, Germany, on Sept. 15. (Photo: Kerstin Joensson/AP Photo)

While less observed than the sea routes from Libya into Italy or overland from Turkey, the crossing from North Africa to the dangling Iberian Peninsula has long functioned as Europe’s backdoor. In late September, the heavily fenced enclave of Melilla, a Spanish territory in Morocco, closed access to at least 1,000 people—the majority Syrian nationals—waiting to present passports at the Morocco-Spain border crossing after Moroccan police claimed they could no longer maintain order. Inside Melilla, a Red Cross center is hosting at least 2,000 people awaiting permission to cross to continental Europe by ferry. From Barcelona, they can catch a plane or an overnight train north to France and onward. On the way, some end up at a safe house in the basement of Kanfach’s bookshop, which is furnished with two pullout sofas.

“Maximum 10 days,” he said. “Usually they come on weekends. They don’t want to stay, just pass through and go to Germany. I don’t ask where they’re from.”

EU-wide immigration conventions don’t limit member nations from making many of their own visa rules. “Spain is corrupt toward refugees. They don’t give visas to Syrians, not even to visit as tourists,” he said, shrugging his broad shoulders. That’s not precisely true; about 5,000 Syrians live legally in Spain, including him. Some receive a small stipend for a maximum of three months. But the process does appear to have become more fraught since Kanfach arrived: The Spanish government stopped accepting asylum petitions at its foreign embassies in 2009, about a year before the first Arab Spring demonstrations broke out. As peaceful protests were violently repressed, to flee to nearby Spain—Damascus to Barcelona is a three-hour flight—suddenly required waiting out a years-long visa process before even being able to make an asylum claim from Spanish soil.

The other option is entering illegally, to get there sometimes years faster—if you make it.

Kanfach, who is working on his brother’s immigration case, said the vagueness over the travel logistics particularly frustrated him. Even after Europe implements agreements on which countries will accept what number of refugees, the problem of dangerous sea and land crossings will still need to be addressed. “They say, ‘This many can come.’ But how do these people get here? In a boat? Hidden on container ships? We’re continuing with the same thing—paying traffickers,” he said.

No one was staying there any of several times I visited the shop, but a stream of friends and associates on business came and went, and not one ever seemed to be shopping for books. Kanfach’s store, with his children’s strollers on one side and stacks of papers and a laptop on the other, looks more like a badly kept private library than like a business and doesn’t have a cash register. His bookselling, he said, is mainly to universities, though he spends most of his time as an immigration fixer, the shop acting as a hub for the local Syrian diaspora.

Among the visitors one day was an eye doctor from Terrassa, a Barcelona suburb, who needed Kanfach’s help with a shipping container he said held 30 tonnes of humanitarian supplies he was hoping to send to a refugee camp in Lebanon.

“Every month we send one or two containers, both medical aid and other kinds of aid,” said the doctor, who said his name was also Mowafak. The two men discussed logistics for a few moments in a mix of Arabic and Spanish.

Media images of open-armed European citizens, including whole neighborhoods turning out to plug the gaps in city government assistance, haven’t warmed Kanfach’s heart much. “Food, lodgings, the kids have to go to school. It’s a lot. There is money for this—EU, international. Why are people having to open their doors? In reality, Europe hasn’t done anything,” he said.

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Though it’s Syrians making headlines around the world, the refugees showing up at Kanfach’s shop betray a much broader crisis. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported in June that the number of people displaced from their homes around the world reached an all-time high this year—59.5 million, up from 37.5 million in 2005. “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a statement. It’s a problem not likely to ebb soon if, as Guterres asserted, “there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace.”

Asylum cases at CEAR recently have mostly come from francophone West Africa, where unrest in Mali and the Ivory Coast, and a dictatorship in Guinea, has made life unbearable for many. A recent coup in Burkina Faso is likely to add to the number of people needing safer surroundings for at least awhile. Half of CEAR’s cases are Ukrainian citizens fleeing that country’s ongoing turmoil, which has paralleled Syria’s. Another uptick comes from Russia, where recently enacted antigay laws have driven some couples from their homes in fear. Despite the thousands of people waiting on the border hours away in North Africa, only four of its asylum applications are from Syrians, most of whom, as Kanfach’s experience confirms, have preferred to pass through Spain fast and continue on, often without being counted or even noticed.

Pascale Coissard, special projects coordinator for the Barcelona

office of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, a

nongovernmental organization. (Photo: Ben Evans)

Colau’s plan for Barcelona, outlined for reporters Sept. 29, designates a former conference center on the city’s north side as an intake area, where refugees will be given medical and psychological evaluations within 12 hours. Barcelona’s largest newspaper, La Vanguardia, ran a headline the next day calling the area the city’s “Ellis Island.” There will be food and water and disbursement of a temporary identity paper before assignment to short-term housing for the next 10 to 12 days while longer-term arrangements are made. The expectation—or hope—seems to be that many will be able to finance their own progress north or into housing; financial assistance for food and shelter is still being cobbled together. Calbó, citing “unofficial rumors,” said most of those expected will be from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea and that the city’s emergency services department—unlike CEAR—has translators available for the intake period. “Women in the final stages of pregnancy, unaccompanied minors, and other extraordinary cases” will be moved from temporary housing first, said Colau, but she could not say how many housing units would be available. The city government is surveying vacant housing and is in contact with halfway houses, churches—virtually any institution with an empty bed.

While it’s a good start, much remains to be done in little time. Calbó said he had begun meetings with city medical and education officials. But although “the will is there,” he said he wasn’t able to help them begin planning, again citing a lack of data from Madrid.

Cases of Europe’s refugee crisis outpacing local governments’ ability to plan a response, even when they want to, are common across the continent. In August, Germany’s federal government announced it would expedite asylum claims and earmarked 1 billion euros for its municipalities, which typically pay for refugee support services from local budgets. Yet in September, a day after 13,000 refugees arrived in Munich, a police spokesman told France 24 “it is very clear that we have reached the upper limit of our capacity.”

Part of the explanation for the haphazard response, argued IOM’s Viriri, whose agency often advises EU national governments, is that no one expected the crisis to spread throughout the continent. “The expectation was, OK, people will come, but they’ll come to Italy and Greece, maybe Malta, and they’ll stay there. Which in and of itself was not true,” he said.

The lack of foresight is especially glaring in Spain, an EU border nation where an earlier European refugee crisis was most acute. In the mid-aughts, attempts to enter Europe from Senegal and Morocco in small fishing boats led to the deaths of as many as 25,000 people off Spanish waters, with local governments and citizens of Spanish towns in the nearby Canary Islands responding similarly to the way Greek volunteers have this year. Yet the experience wasn’t enough to spur planning for the current crisis.

A study first published in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post showed the Spanish national government to date had, until the Sept. 23 agreement to take in 15,000 more, granted the second-lowest number of refugee visas per capita in Europe—just shy of 2,800—despite ranking among the wealthier half of the EU’s 28 member states. Figures from the EU’s statistical service, Eurostat, and the UNHCR showed Spain let in only 44 refugees for every 100,000 of its own citizens in recent years. By comparison, the EU nation most likely to grant asylum, Sweden, with one-and-a-half times Spain’s per capita GDP, settled 65 times as many refugees per capita.

IOM’s Viriri hailed EU leaders’ Sept. 23 agreement to settle at least 160,000 people throughout the continent. Still, he pointed out, the figure was between a half and a third of the total number seeking asylum in Europe and barely 5 percent of the number of people currently displaced in just three non-EU nations—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—whose own systems long ago reached capacity.

“A lot of talk has been made about the EU making resources available, and a lot of those resources should be shared with municipalities where people are passing through,” said Viriri. But that discussion only began, he said, “after the realization that the local authorities are not coping.”

While she awaits news of how Barcelona will handle the increase in asylum cases, Pascale Coissard keeps seeking creative solutions. The occasional lucky break helps: Barcelona’s recent popularity as a vacation destination among upper-class Russian families has made it easier for the agency to find jobs for the Russian and Ukrainian refugees, their Slavic language skills suddenly in demand by the city’s booming tourism industry. For the people expected from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, however, solutions don’t appear so easily.

Less than a month after Colau and a crowd of supporters holding candles for a drowned child promised to care for anyone who could make it to their city, the real work has only just started. “These people who are going to arrive are going to come to us from very complicated situations, of extreme vulnerability. They will need tranquillity and that we respect their need for privacy,” said Colau. The people arriving often will have lost family and loved ones in the war and, for some, on the journey.

Ignasi Calbó has only a month—he thinks—to get Colau’s ambitious emergency planning running for these people. The only thing he knows about them is where they are coming from. However vague the details, they’re coming.

“We see people going where they already have a family member and also where they believe they will have opportunities. But the weather is warm now,” Viriri said. “When it gets cold, that means building emergency shelters. That turns a refugee crisis into a humanitarian relief crisis—which a lot of people would say this already is.”