Nasar Meer, Emma Hill and Tim Peace ask why do migration policies fail?

Certainly they may be poorly designed and delivered, but amongst the reasons experts point to is that ‘success’ can be so politically unpalatable that few national level actors are willing to expend the political capital in pursuing them.

This is, of course, is assuming that such actors see and value the importance of migration as a fundamental good that is worth defending.

The opposite of this is presently true in many ‘transit’ and ‘end destination’ countries in contemporary Europe, where migration is straightforwardly racialized.

As the findings from the Prospects for International Migration Governance (MIGPROSP) project has shown, in national level migration policy ‘not only is change seen as difficult to deliver, but change itself is viewed as problematic because of the possibility of unforeseen consequences in an unstable and highly politicised policy field’.

These are useful findings when we seek to understand how and in what ways the Mediterranean ‘migration crisis’ has unfolded in recent years.

While reason dictates that the reference to a ‘crisis’ might better describe the circumstance of ‘those feeling devastation, or to those trapped in it’, at the national level the portrayal is that receiving EU countries are overwhelmed by those displaced.

What this risks overlooking are ways in which national level intransigence has been thrown into sharp relief by municipal, local or city level initiatives.

This has an older pedigree in the International Cities of Refuge Network, the Cities of Sanctuary, the Save Me campaign and the Eurocities network, each of which elevates the role of the local.

Inverting the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of a ‘State of Exception’, and so switching from how national level governments can respond to crises by diminishing rights, to how local level governments have responded to the migration crises by opening up, we might characterise one of the features in the responses as the rise of ‘Local States of Exception’.

Focusing on Germany, but in ways that has much broader implications, some observers highlight the ways in which city level ‘concern and support led to a novel form of activism around migrant rights: a sudden surge of non-traditional civic engagement that arose next to, and only partially out of, existing human rights, refugee, anti-racist and urban movements.’ 

For reasons of race and identity, as well as contingency, local innovation is therefore a profoundly important space.

This is not to overlook how cities are also sites in which global exclusions and inequalities are enacted.

We fully recognise that the city may provide a site for non-traditional civic engagement, it has also become a site where global movements (and their infrastructures) are realised locally.

It is in this context that we launch our new project, the Governance of Local Integration of Migrants and Europe’s Refugees (GLIMER).

Marking a collaboration between researchers in southern and northern Europe, it is supported by the JPI Urban Europe Horizon 2020 ERA-NET Cofund scheme, in partnership between the Universities of Calabria, Edinburgh Glasgow and Malmö as well as the Mediterranean Institute for Gender Studies (MIGS) in Cyprus.

Its purpose is to generate theoretically informed but empirically grounded data that is able, through best practice sharing and reporting, to imagine meaningful solutions to the governance and local integration of displaced migrants and refugees.

GLIMER will offer an analysis of the relationship between civil society and governance in our respective cases, including a focus on the development of new modes of governance that are characterised by two striking features.

The first is that local and city level migrant and refugee reception are sometimes diverging significantly from national level policy and rhetoric. Possibly an illustration of ‘decoupling’ across geographies of policy delivery, this variation is patterned by ground-level politics, local strategic incentives, and pre-existing economic resources in a manner that invites further scientific investigation through live cases.

The second is that local and city level approaches to reception are leading to patterns of successful early incorporation.  These include those cultivated by associations from the third sector which have assumed a key role in what has been termed ‘bottom up welfare’, responding to the ways that ‘the slow reaction of national authorities has often left cities at the forefront, forcing them to play a role without having either a legal mandate or any specific budget to do so’.

An emblematic example is the town of Riace in the southern Italian region of Calabria that has led pioneering schemes to welcome migrants. The ‘Riace model’ has been exported to other nearby towns that are successfully incorporating displaced migrants into the local labour market and allowing them to occupy and regenerate previously abandoned homes. While this is a very specific form of reception and integration, further examples of innovation can also be found in Glasgow, Malmö and Nicosia.

In this respect, the GLIMER project will examine emergent systems of co-responsibility between local and national agencies in their responses to managing the integration of displaced migrants and refugees, and which mark innovations in local governance more broadly at a time when 80% of the population of Europe are expected to reside in urban settings by 2020.

This will include thinking about ‘integration’ as something more than that which has animated the so called ‘muscular liberalism’ of a number of commentators perhaps best characterised as white supremacists, including by giving more emphasis to civic participation and perhaps other forms of ‘integration’ that are not picked up in narrow and exclusionary integration criteria (especially in the often overlooked terms of political mobilisation, cultural production and aesthetic engagement). In this respect, ‘whatever the national framework of immigrant incorporation policies, the urban level needs to be appreciated as a policy-making field in itself’.

Returning then to our opening question, it is also worth bearing in mind that not all migration policies are bound to ‘fail’.  Some are very successful, including those ensuring ‘vast amounts of state money are poured into mobility controls, technology and policing of borders, the maintenance and expansion of the detention estate, and the funding of in-country enforcement, checks and raids’.

These facilitate strategies of everyday bordering and the devolution of the politics of closure.  If local states of exception are to live up to their initial promise, they will need to counter and build outward a politics of openness, in a way that turns local states of exception into national norms.