On this year’s World Refugee Day, Barbara Oomen shares thoughts on the human rights city of Ghent, the role of cities in providing a safe haven, and the importance of local authorities in implementing norms of international law.

There are words that go straight to the heart. On the eve of World Refugee Day 2018, in the Belgian city of Ghent, they came from a Kurdish musician. “We were all refugees once. We were together, we all drifted apart, and in a town like this we come back together again”. His words, his sounds full of yearning, his story about starting from zero so far away from home were part of an evening dedicated to the idea of Ghent as a human rights city. The city is the only one in Belgium to offer shelter to undocumented migrants, it allows refugees to start working long before they’ve received asylum, and has a university that opens its doors to newcomers – but the politicians, activists, civil servants presented debated on how to label this. Warm city? Frontier city? Just city?

What is clear is that Ghent forms part of a much wider trend – that of cities taking the lead in refugee welcoming and integration. When the Aquarius, with its 629 people seeking refuge on board, was turned away from Italian shores by the Italian Lega Nord minister Salvini, it was the mayors of Palermo and Naples who stated that their ports were open. In the case of Leoluca Orlando, the Palermo mayor, this statement builds upon years of advocacy for recognition of a right to migration, and for making the Sicilian city one that truly opens its doors to migrants.

When the boat of refugees was barred from Italy it was, again, two cities who came to their rescue. Barcelona and Madrid did not only offer to take the people in, but also managed to pressurize their national government into letting them land. For the Barcelona mayor, again, this fits into a long history of urban activism. Barcelona is the founder of city networks like Cities of Refuge and Solidarity Cities and has been a human rights city for over two decades. The city has a “shame counter”, which keeps track of the number of deaths on the Mediterranean, but at the same time has policies that go far beyond symbolism. In the words of mayor Ada Colau: “Where states give asylum, cities provide shelter”.

In a field marred by pessimism, polarization, and cynicism, in which people are reduced to numbers and stories to soundbites, this urban engagement gives rise to optimism. This is also related to the promise that cities hold. Cities, after all, are the places where people live, love, learn, work and grow. They are also sites of pragmatic politics, which often transgress party politics. Their explicit support of human rights and engagement with the plight of people rendered deeply vulnerable by the laws, institutions and borders, can therefore have a true impact.

In this sense it was interesting to see the differences in the debate in Ghent. The elderman and civil society members felt that the city still had quite a way to go before being able to call itself a human rights city. Two recent newcomers, in contrast, indicated how the city did feel like a human rights city to them. Their words, together with the Kurdish music, echoed a promising paradox of our times – how it’s our local authorities that are becoming forerunners in international law.

by Barbara Oomen