The Quest for a Transnational Network of Sanctuary Cities

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The Quest for a Transnational Network of Sanctuary Cities

  • February 27, 2020
  • By Admin: Osman
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By Martin Bak Jørgensen, DEMOS, Department of Culture and Learning Aalborg University.


Across the globe national governments have chosen not to take responsibility for the ‘refugee crisis’ and forced displacement of people not able to find protection for themselves and their families. States in different regions of the world have, instead of offering protection, entered a race to the bottom where the individual countries develop preventive measures, close their borders or seek to externalize their obligations of protection. In Europe, the ‘refugee crisis’ demonstrated a complete lack of internal solidarity between member-states, which developed into both a humanitarian crisis and a political crisis.

Sanctuary for whom?

Forced migration is not only a concept and condition that describes refugees. Forced migration is intrinsic to most modalities of human mobility under neoliberalism. As argued by Harald Bauder, the political economy of neoliberal globalisation creates a condition where the excluded are unsafe and vulnerable, but not superfluous – they are indeed valuable due to their vulnerable position and thus particularly exploitable[2]. Global migration functions as a privileged tool in the creation of a political economy merging new forms of globalised labour-force management with a fragmentation, depreciation, and profound remoulding of established frameworks of citizenship. When we speak about people in need of sanctuary, we need to expand our understanding from that of refugees. Restricting the notion to refugees is too limited and does not capture the nature of the contemporary migration problematic or question. When we speak of a need for sanctuary, we include mobile populations broadly—such as forced and illegalized migrants. The migrant caravan—Viacrucis del Migrante—which took place in Central America and Mexico with the aim of reaching the US is a good example of what is at stake. The migrants were not fleeing from war but felt forced to leave their countries due to crime, gang violence, poverty, and political repression. Not traditional refugees but people, individuals and families forced to move, placing themselves in a situation of need for protection and sanctuary.

The Sanctuary City and sanctuary spaces 

In the US, Canada and the UK, ‘Sanctuary City’ has been the preferred label to capture the local-level responses to exclusionary national policies. In the US, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont are all Sanctuary States and the number of cities and counties identifying themselves as Sanctuary spaces in May, 2018, included 166 cities and counties.[3] In Canada, Toronto, Hamilton, London and Montreal have sanctuary city designations. Vancouver has adopted a policy, Access to City Services Without Fear for Residents With Uncertain or No Immigration Status, taking their action to support non-status migrants beyond the standard designation.[4] In the UK and Ireland, more than a 100 cities identify as being a City of Sanctuary.[5] The scope of protection and commitment differs quite significantly, however. Basically, being a sanctuary city designates how these cities (here covering both municipal authorities, public services, corporate organisations and civil society) are defending those under imminent threat of exclusion by the State through various initiatives; moreover, it designates how these cities are operationalising the demand that municipal rights and services be extended to all through tools such as the ‘city card’ and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policies. Although Sanctuary Cities do not offer absolute protection from federal immigration authorities, in the sense that they can nullify federal laws— illegalized migrants are still subject to possible detention and deportation in sanctuary cities— they are committed to include all inhabitants regardless of status in the local community and strive for improving the lives of these inhabitants.[6] The crucial point here is to understand and identify the practices constituting local-level protection and the allocating of rights. Vicki Squire sums up the aim of the Sanctuary City as a ‘dispersed “bottom-up” approach to political change, which is based on fostering a culture of hospitality and sanctuary at a local level through coalition building and through the creation of opportunities for building personal relationships between local people and those seeking sanctuary’.[7]

Principles of Sanctuary Cities – what are they and what do they entail

What do sanctuary policies and practices look like from the perspective of these cities themselves. Here we find different approaches: One example is the Solidarity Cities, an initiative on the management of the refugee crisis proposed by the Mayor of Athens and launched in the framework of the EUROCITIES network. Solidarity Cities is structured around four pillars: (1) information and knowledge exchange on the refugee situation in cities; (2) advocating for better involvement and direct funding for cities on the reception and integration of refugees; (3) city-to-city technical and financial assistance and capacity building; and (4) pledges by European cities to receive relocated asylum seekers.[8] The last point has been a real obstacle as cities (as for instance Gdansk) that have tried to commit themselves fully have been restricted in doing so by national governments. We also can find Cities of Solidarity in Latin America. Here the Ciudades Solidarias[9] has developed a programme under the Mexico Plan of Action from 2004.[10] The programme provides concrete mechanisms for providing not only protection but full local integration.

When we call for protection and rights for illegalized migrants, the starting point is not labour market integration, to which many national integration policy frameworks tend to restrict integration. When we speak of integration within the framework, we need to include the transitional aspect. Mobile populations, such as the illegalized migrants discussed here, may still be on the move for different reasons. The framework of the sanctuary city should somehow be able to deal with this challenge

A progressive agenda – what’s needed

Developing sanctuary cities requires different agendas.

(1) The research agenda – we still need systematic knowledge on the practices already developed and implemented. We need a common research language to describe the aims and practices. We need to develop knowledge sharing.

(2) The research agenda links to both a political agenda and a network agenda. Regarding the latter, we also need here, a systematic overview of the already many different networks with somewhat similar aims, e.g., networks of intercultural cities, of sustainable cities, of solidarity cities, Fearless cities etc. – we need to clarify how these might be different—or not—and most importantly a plan for how these can become connected in one progressive agenda working for the protection of and development of rights for mobile populations. Although our focus here has been on the local level, cities stand stronger if they do not operate in isolation. We should both learn from other examples as well as develop trans-local solidarities at the city level. The political realities are different in, for instance, Europe, Latin America and the US but there are experiences and good practices to be shared between sanctuary cities and spaces in all these places. Alliances and coalitions can be built to put pressure on both national authorities as well as international bodies. It is important that we acknowledge that local and national conditions matter but at the same time we should use our strength and resources to move forward united and spend it on developing everything from scratch every single time or repeat the same mistakes other allies have done in the past.  

(3) The political agenda – we need to make this happen. We need people: academics, activists, migrant organisations, progressive municipalists and others to work for developing local areas, cities, into sanctuary spaces. We should not only focus on big cities and metropoles but also put pressure on local authorities in smaller cities and develop trans-local and transnational alliances. We also need knowledge-sharing. A good example is how Canadian activists travelled through Germany to link up with like-minded activists and progressive politicians to inform them about Canadian sanctuary practices and nurture ideas and practices of solidarity cities. Finally, we need joint events like the Fearless City summit in Barcelona in 2017, where all these ideas can be shared and discussed. The World Social Forum in 2020 could be an important moment in this development.    

(4) If we acknowledge that sanctuary cities and spaces not only have to do with refugees but also is embedded in the deeper consequences from the political economy of neoliberal globalization we may start thinking about how to expand the concept – from sanctuary cities to rebel cities or intercultural cities. In Rebel Cities, David Harvey argues that cities are the central sites of revolutionary politics, where the deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface and further asks how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways—and how they can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance.[11] Sanctuary cities and spaces in this sense could be the first step towards a new radical model of organizing and developing cities.

[1] This article is a reflection paper based on the participation in the World Social Forum on Migration that took place in Mexico City, November 2018. The notions of sanctuary, sanctuary cities and transnational networks were important points of debate during the Forum. 

[2] Bauder, Harald. 2006. Labor movement: How migration regulates labor markets. New York: Oxford University Press.




[6] Bauder & Gonzales op. cit.

[7] Squire, Vicki. “From community cohesion to mobile solidarities: The City of Sanctuary network and the Strangers into Citizens campaign.” Political Studies 59, no. 2 (2011): 290–307.




[11] Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso (2012).