Amid refugee crisis, European cities seek clout and money

The shift comes as municipal governments and local authorities find themselves frustrated without legal mandates and enough funds

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With throngs of migrants journeying to Europe, the continent’s city governments are defying tradition and seeking major roles in shaping national policy to reap more resources, a new survey has found.

The shift comes as municipal governments and local authorities find themselves frustrated without legal mandates and enough funds to cope with the influx, according to the study conducted by EuroCities, a network of major European cities.

In Austria, for instance, the Vienna Social Fund funded by the capital city set up a registration and identification card system to provide health services to migrants, the report said.

In Germany’s city of Dusseldorf, local authorities appointed a refugee commissioner, it said.

“The scale of arrivals and slow reactions from national authorities ... (is) forcing” municipalities to play a role, the study said.

More than one million first-time asylum seekers arrived in the European Union last year, according to European Union data.

“Many cities have ... taken over from national authorities to set up reception measures,” said the study of 34 major European cities, published this week.

However, despite their efforts to fill the gap, local authorities seeking to expand their traditional roles still are left with “little room to maneuver,” it said.

Athens, Munich, Berlin and Vienna are among major cities that have born the brunt of the refugee crisis, according to EuroCities data.

The Greek capital has seen 500,000 asylum seekers from January 2014 to December 2015, and Munich ranked second with 80,000 such transients.

Berlin and Vienna hosted 69,000 and 40,000 such migrants, respectively, during the same time period, it said.

“Cities are on the front line,” said Anna Lisa Boni, EuroCities’ secretary general. “They deserve the political and financial recognition at European and national level to reflect this.”

City administrations responding to the survey cited what they saw as missteps in Barcelona, Spain and Nantes, France where they said they had not been consulted or were told too late how many migrants to expect.

Being kept from direct access to EU emergency assistance funding creates a further hindrance to cities’ efficiency, the report said.

Athens, for example, had to apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to get money from European Commission coffers, said Thomas Jézéquel, the report’s author.

Supporting such cities can help ease the social and economic problems that have accompanied the migrant crisis, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“That’s where economic opportunities are. That’s where migrant communities are co-existing,” he said. “It’s also where networks of social care and welfare are more developed.”

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