It all started with a Facebook post.
As August rolled to a close, Barcelona’s new left-wing mayor Ada Colau posted an emotional plea on her Facebook feed. Decrying the hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and the 71 people found dead in a refrigerator truck in Austria, she called on European citizens to put aside their fear of the “other” and for governments to offer aid and empathy instead of warnings about how helping refugees would inspire more to come.
“Europe, Europeans: open your eyes,” she wrote. “Either we deal with a human drama using the capacity to love that makes us human, or we will end up dehumanized.”
And, in what almost seemed like an afterthought, Colau said that Barcelona would do what it could to participate in a network of refugee cities.
The reaction was swift. Within days, the Spanish capital of Madrid (which in May also elected a leftist mayor, Manuela Carmena) said it would join the network and set aside €10 million (about $11 million) in refugee aid; Valencia and many other municipalities also signed up.
And in the first 24 hours after Barcelona’s city hall published an email address for citizens who want to help—firstname.lastname@example.org—it received 1,200 offers of everything from housing to language lessons, says mayoral spokesperson Susana Suárez.
Separately, citizens and local politicians in other parts of Europe have also been taking steps to address the refugee crisis. People in both France and Germany have set up housing sites known as “Airbnb for refugees” whereby private citizens can offer bedrooms or complete apartments and crowdfund rent for the migrants they take in. And in the UK, 40 cities and towns have joined the City of Sanctuary network to help refugees.
The question now is how much private citizens and local governments will be able to accomplish until there is a commitment at the national and EU levels.
Some EU nations have already taken significant steps to ease the crisis, most notably Germany, which received 18,000 refugees over the weekend and has put aside €6 billion to handle the 800,000 asylum requests it expects this year (up from 200,000 in 2014). But in much of Europe, the primary welcome being extended to refugees has come from private and municipal sources, and these organizations do not have the power to offer asylum nor the resources to care for large numbers of traumatized war refugees.
“The first issue is that the state has to do its job,says Miguel Pajares, president of the Catalan Commission for Aid to Refugees (CCAR), in Barcelona. “This won’t work at all unless the state opens pathways for the asylum seekers.”
Refugee care is complicated and expensive, notes Pascale Coissard, a CCAR worker and spokesperson for Asil.cat, an umbrella group of refugee organizations in Spain’s Catalonia region, which includes Barcelona.
“These people arrive with traumatic experiences, they don’t speak the language. There must be professionals involved in their reception,” she says. “That local people are being supportive is a great thing and we’re very happy about that. But the first step has to be done with specialized services in mind. In the second step, the refugees could be with local families.”
The issue of taking in refugees is especially thorny in Spain, where the unemployment rate is north of 22% and the center-right government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says it does not have the resources for a large relief program. In July, Spain said it could only accept 2,749 refugees of the 5,849 the EU had asked it to take, and last week Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría reiterated that the country was “very saturated” with immigrants.
But after the recent flood of refugees across Hungary and Austria and the publication of images of the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, Rajoy said that Spain was willing to consider increasing its commitment. The EU is reportedly planning to ask Spain to take in 15,000 refugees. So far this year, Spain’s government has received over 6,000 asylum claims, more than in all of 2014, and it expects 17,000 for the year.
“[The network of refugee cities] is a way for the citizenry, the cities, and the regional governments to apply pressure to the national government to change its asylum policies,” says Àgata Sol, director of Amb Drets (With Rights), a Barcelona NGO that works with refugees.
In some ways, the current clash between local and national governments in Spain parallels the undocumented migrant situation in the U.S., where in response to tight federal immigration restrictions almost 300 localities (or “Sanctuary Cities”) have limited the way in which local law enforcement can aid national immigration authorities by detaining “illegal” immigrants. And, as in Spain, discussions about immigration end up focusing on the scarcity of available resources.
“Immigrants don’t go to all localities equally,”says Rubén Rumbaut, a professor of sociology who specializes in immigration and refugees at the University of California, Irvine. “Some localities have to bear the brunt of educating kids in public schools. These are public costs.”
But, Rumbaut says, taking them in pays off in the long term.
“There are 7 billion people in the world today and only 3% are immigrants; 97% are stayers,” he says. “The ones who immigrate tend to be intrepid souls who are ambitious. It takes a lot of resourcefulness to engage in international migrations. That is a very harsh experience.”
As Europe’s leaders debate asylum policies over the next few days, it will become clear if Spain, and the rest of the continent, agree.