Barcelona against the state: Defending the rights of people to seek refuge

Case description

In 2015, Europe confronted a major immigration-related crisis. War in Syria and political and economic instability in the vicinity of the European Union (EU) prompted the arrival of the highest number of immigrants and refugees since the Second World War (Trauner, 2016). EU member states discussed what should be done. In the end, the EU took a security-based approach that reinforced border control, opened refugee camps (i.e., on the Greek islands), and externalised border control operations to Turkey. This was combined with an EU relocation system where asylum-seekers and refugees would be distributed across member states according to national quotas. Many European cities took a strong stance and criticised such approaches, as they went against international humanitarian law. These cities asked for a model that respected human rights. Barcelona, one of the most active cities for this cause, joined forces with Athens, Milan and Zurich, among others, to denounce these EU actions. Despite not initially being a primary refugee-reception location, the City Council became deeply involved in defending those fleeing conflict. In September 2015, Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau drafted a letter with mayors from other major cities entitled ‘We, the cities of Europe’. It asked for a more humane European response to people fleeing war-torn territories and economic deprivation. The letter also declared the will of cities to become places of refuge while urging a coordinated response where they were included. The City Council’s position produced important political and administrative tensions with the Spanish central government. The latter defended its restrictive approach to welcoming refugees in the context of a rigid and centralised asylum system that, on the one hand, prevented asylum-seekers from obtaining the refugee status and on the other, prevented cities from having any administrative role in reception.

Through this case, we shall look into how Barcelona City Council overcame opposition to its call for a multi-level approach to refugee reception while successfully leading international voices in defence of migrants’ and refugees’ human rights. In this context, we shall discuss how cities can lead change amid political-administrative conflicts with other levels of government in response to glocal challenges.

Learning objectives

Through this case, participants will learn about the following:

  • How cities’ entrepreneurship in solving glocal problems (i.e., the interconnectedness of global problems that affect cities) emerges when conflicting and competing framings exist with other administrative levels.
  • How cities can build a narrative to present themselves as human rights defenders vis-à-vis restrictive and security-based migration framings. How political and social local leaders are key actors in the process of offering solutions to glocal problems.
  • How building human rights capacities over time can create resilient cities whose administrations can rapidly respond to emerging challenges.