Sanctuary Cities

Sanctuary Cities: a Global Perspective

Publication date:
Blanca Garcés Mascareñas, Senior Research Fellow and Kristin Eitel, Researcher, CIDOB

* "This article has been written under the auspices of the European projects NIEM (National Integration Evaluation System: Measuring and Improving Integration of Beneficiaries of International Protection) which is co-financed by the AMIF (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund)".

With a 97-day non-stop religious service an evangelical church in The Hague stopped an Armenian family being deported in the last months of 2018. Dutch law prohibits the police from entering a place of worship during a service. This strategy not only prevented their arrest and subsequent deportation: at the end of January 2019 the Dutch government announced that, along with 630 others whose asylum applications had been rejected, they would be allowed to stay. This is not a new strategy: the practice of sanctuary churches dates back to ancient Rome and continued through the Middle Ages. Back then churches protected murderers, thieves and other criminals, now they are safe havens for irregular migrants and refugees, who are criminalised and persecuted by the state only because of their legal status. 

Facing increasingly restrictive and exclusionary national policies, some cities have also responded by offering protection to refugees and immigrants with irregular status. The first was San Francisco in the mid-1980s, followed by a number of other cities in the United States and Canada, and later the United Kingdom and continental Europe. What do all these cities have in common? According to existing definitions, sanctuary cities provide an innovative response to exclusionary national policies (Bauder and González, 2018: 124). More concretely, they are all the local-level policies and practices that aim to accommodate refugees and undocumented migrants (Bauder, 2017). In the United States, sanctuary cities have also been defined as those adopting policies of non-cooperation or of confidentiality for undocumented residents (Villazor, 2010).

Because sanctuary cities primarily represent local responses to specific migration policies, they are by definition relational: they exist in opposition or reaction to national policies. Hence, their development is shaped by their contexts. In the United States, refuge cities were set up for the purpose of protecting the millions of undocumented workers who live and work in them. To do this they declare their “disobedience” of certain federal laws. In the United Kingdom, however, they emerged in response to the arrival of asylum seekers. In this case, the relationship with the government is one of collaboration and the main objective is to establish an inclusive discourse at local level. In continental Europe, a number of cities have long welcomed the undocumented. These are pragmatic answers to specific problems. Since 2015, however, many European cities have developed reception programmes or spaces for refugees neglected by state reception systems. Others presented themselves as “refuge cities” in order to denounce the policies of their respective governments and the European Union in the context of the so-called 2015 refugee crisis. 

From this more global perspective, sanctuary or refuge cities implement a range of measures that focus on different groups and different relationships with their respective national governments. Returning to the definition, if all these initiatives have something in common, it is a certain questioning or even in some cases challenging of the current state of the governance of migration. Cities that proclaim themselves sanctuary cities want to be present, they want to be able to speak and to act. They challenge the state monopoly on who can stay and under what conditions. They do this in their own territory, protecting those the state wants to deport, creating a more inclusive “us” or preparing to welcome those who, not being legally under their responsibility, find themselves on their streets. But they also do it internationally, forming alliances in city networks and demanding a larger role for cities in decision-making at a supranational level. 

In this article we review the various initiatives taken so far in order to understand what is new or unique and whether, from a global perspective, sanctuary or refuge cities have anything in common beyond the well-known experiences of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Sanctuary cities in the United States

The first sanctuary city was undoubtedly San Francisco. Two regulations approved in 1985 and 1989 prohibited the use of local funds and resources for collaboration with federal immigration control policies, including an explicit ban on requesting, recording or disseminating information about an individual’s legal status. The aim was to end the discrimination against Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees by the local administration itself. In 2007 the New Sanctuary Movement changed the focus of its activity from newly arrived Central American refugees to undocumented migrants who had been living in the cities for some time. (1) Since then they have defended the need to create safe spaces for all members of the community, with or without papers. It is estimated that over 500 US counties and cities have sanctuary policies. 

Two types of measure characterise the sanctuary cities in the United States. Following the policy in San Francisco, the first is of the “don't ask, don't tell” (DADT) type, and prohibits local government workers from gathering information about the legal status of people residing in the city and giving it to the federal authorities. The second type of measure includes different forms of local-level documentation. In some cases, this may involve recognising driving licences or cards issued by the consulates of countries of origin as identity documentation. In others, local administrations issue their own local identification cards, which also provide access to public services (transport, libraries, etc.). These cards are designed to be for every person residing in the city (and therefore do not replace the residence permit) and do not confer more rights than undocumented immigrants already have. 

It is interesting to note that, while DADT policies involve a significant degree of confrontation or disobedience with regard to federal laws, local identification cards - as they regulate access to local services - would fall within the framework of local administration competences in the US federal and multilevel structure. As De Graauw (2014) points out, with the argument of improving the provision of public services for the population as a whole, these cards facilitate the inclusion and recognition of those excluded and persecuted by the federal government without causing much friction. In both cases, these measures above all provide civil rather than social rights. And in no case do they serve to offset the exclusionary effects of federal immigration laws. In other words, although sanctuary cities are presented as safe havens, this is only true to a limited extent.

Sanctuary cities in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom’s sanctuary cities are different. Sheffield was the first, in 2005, and other cities soon followed, forming a network of 17 municipalities in 2011. Unlike in the United States, these cities organised themselves to welcome the asylum seekers the government had begun to distribute throughout the country. They did not constitute in opposition to national policies, but rather sought to better respond to the reception needs that derived from them. Rather than being characterised by a particular set of actions, a network of practices and organisations was created that also received support from the local administration. These thus are not local policies, but spaces where certain rights are recognised within the city. The aim is not to provide a specific kind of reception, above all they promote a culture of hospitality. Hence, more than physically accommodating asylum seekers, British sanctuary cities seek to transform the way the city thinks of itself and the world. 

In summary, they do not oppose government policies but result from them; they are not policies but practices enacted by certain groups in certain spaces within the city; they do not seek to provide physical accommodation but to rethink themselves as inclusive and cosmopolitan cities. By not questioning migration policies or their governance, it is difficult to frame them in the definitions of sanctuary city proposed by the academic literature. They also do not fit into the broader definition suggested in this article. Beyond the question of whether they are sanctuary cities or not, some authors mention how their discourse – at once inclusive and uncritical – runs the risk of eventually de facto normalising the long “waits” and exclusions that characterise the lives of asylum seekers (Bagelman, 2013; Darling and Squire, 2013). Stated more directly, they make waiting smoother and more bearable. From this perspective, beneath a formally inclusive discourse, British sanctuary cities may contribute to depoliticising the precariousness imposed by asylum laws, while positioning these cities as leaders of cosmopolitanism in the national and international “cool” city rankings. 

Refuge cities in continental Europe

In a setting of increasingly restrictive migration policies, many European cities have taken steps to include those that national immigration laws exclude. While cities such as Barcelona have alluded to political and moral issues, arguing that every resident in the city must have basic social rights, most have justified it for eminently pragmatic reasons relating to public health, public safety and social cohesion. For example, for public health reasons, cities such as Rotterdam have given health coverage (such as vaccines) to those without it; and to tackle substandard housing and irregular settlements, Rotterdam and Amsterdam have offered temporary accommodation to the most vulnerable. In some cases, these policies complement national policies. In others, they directly oppose them, either explicitly or by indirectly funding social organisations.

In 2015, with the arrival of over a million asylum seekers during the refugee crisis in Europe, many cities took a leading role. With asylum being an eminently national competency, the saturation of national reception systems led many local administrations to set up alternative services. A number of Italian cities, for example, developed local policies to respond to the presence of asylum seekers in their streets, whether in transit to other countries, waiting to make their asylum application or, having presented it, still not meeting the criteria of the state reception system. In other cases, citizen-led solidarity activities came before policies. In Berlin, for example, more than 150 initiatives were created for receiving newly arrived refugees. In these contexts, local administrations tended to take on the role of coordinating the various citizens’ initiatives. The relationship was not always easy: over time, citizens’ initiatives were displaced by public services and recognised social organisations, which often had a much more restrictive definition of who should be taken care of and to what extent (Mayer, 2018). 

2015 also meant a shift from policies to politics: whereas previously European cities had dedicated themselves to managing their own urban space, developing policies more or less within their areas of competence and more or less in line with national policies, in the context of the so-called refugee crisis, cities also began to confront their national governments in the political arena (Garcés-Mascareñas, 2018). For example, Barcelona City Council, led by the mayor, Ada Colau, condemned the European Union and its member states, saying its policies made her “ashamed” and repeatedly calling for cities to play a greater role in refugee reception policies. Throughout 2018 and 2019, Italian cities such as Palermo and Naples denounced the policy of Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, against maritime rescue NGOs, while others such as Barcelona and Valencia asked Spain’s PSOE government to open the ports. In recent years certain European cities have thus become political subjects on matters of border control and migration policy as well as in the international arena. 

Refuge in the Global South

The reason academic and political discussions on sanctuary cities are largely confined to North America and Europe is clear: this is where cities have proclaimed themselves as such. This does not mean that cities in other regions are not making efforts – in some cases they are making many more – to welcome newcomers. In fact, 85% of the world's displaced persons live in the Global South. The many examples of cities in these regions taking the lead on this issue should therefore come as no surprise: near the Syrian border, the Turkish city of Gaziantep has been celebrated for its integration model, as it gives access to health and education, organises language courses and facilitates access to work for newcomers. Since 2011, as a result of those fleeing the conflicts in neighbouring countries, the population of the Jordanian city of Amman has doubled, and it has, for example, increased the numbers of pupils per class and the number of classes. In other parts of the world, such as Indonesia, where refugees have no right to work, Jakarta gives access to education  and training in the official language and helps refugees join the labour market. 

What distinguishes all these initiatives from one another? Fundamentally, it is the context and, more specifically, the kind of state what frames local responses. In many of these countries, whether a person is documented or not is not the issue. As immigration control is very limited, the most pressing concern is not so much including those the state excludes but accommodating those who have just arrived and no one is taking responsibility for. Clearly, an important consideration is that certain states do not always guarantee social rights for nationals, let alone foreigners. In this context, cities provide solutions to emergency situations, but they do not do it alone. They couldn't. Their resources tend to be circumscribed by much more centralised state structures. Without their own budgets, they work in partnership with international organisations and, more recently, as part of city-to-city cooperation programmes. Otherwise, when external collaboration is lacking, they rely on initiatives set up by neighbourhood organisations or civil society. These efforts are not necessarily seen to be in conflict with national policies but as a humanitarian necessity given the lack of a strong state with the capacity to respond effectively to these needs. 

Networked cities for global refuge

Starting with the roll-out of regional networks for sharing experiences, exchanging ideas and mobilising efforts, city networks are playing larger roles in the governance and practice of sanctuary cities. In the United States, over 100 cities form part of the Welcoming Cities initiative and more than 175 mayors are part of the Cities for Actioncoalition. In the United Kingdom, over 80 municipalities are sanctuary cities. Continental Europe stands out for its multiple networks, from Solidarity Cities (within the EUROCITIES framework) and Intercultural Cities to the Cities for Local Integration Policies (CLIP) network and the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR). Although less numerous and less developed, city networks have also emerged in the Global South. One example of this is the Mediterranean Host Municipalities Learning Network, which includes cities in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. 

Originally created to share knowledge and best practices, city networks now increasingly function as a tool or channel for influencing political debate nationally and internationally. In the United States, for example, these networks have taken collective legal action to respond to Trump administration threats to cut the budgets of disobedient cities (Eitel, 2018). In Europe, city networks have been used to pressure national governments to comply with their asylum obligations, as well as to demand more skills and resources. Finally, cities have also raised their voices at global level. In the context of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) signed in Morocco in December 2018, the cities signed the Marrakech Mayoral Declaration, which calls for full and formal recognition of the role of local governments in implementing, monitoring and reviewing the pact. So far, however, their participation has been eminently ad hoc and their contribution to the final text is practically anecdotal. 


Do all these experiences have something in common? The first thing that unites them is the starting point: cities are the fundamental space for the reception of immigrants and refugees. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of the world's migrants live in urban spaces. Thus cities are where they live, work and interact. It is also in cities that the consequences are most directly felt of poor migration management, of borders mercilessly imposed against those already residing in them, and of xenophobic discourses that turn exclusion into social division and social division into conflict. That is why cities respond. In the Global South they do so because of the state's absence and often in the context of cooperation and humanitarian aid programmes. In the United Kingdom, the relationship with the state is complementary. In the United States and continental Europe there is an element of multilevel confrontation: facing increasingly exclusionary policies, cities organise themselves to include those already on their streets. While in the United States cities mostly provide these citizens with civil rights, in Europe some cities have mobilised to also provide them basic social rights. 

All of this has fundamental limitations but also a clear purpose. Cities do not have competences for migratory and asylum policies and their budgets are limited. This means they are not the ones who decide who can stay and who cannot, who has the right to work and who must work without a permit, who can access the state reception programmes and who is excluded from them. In this sense, any action taken by cities is merely to mitigate: it is limited in time and space in a context shaped by national policies. At the same time, many sanctuary cities clearly seek to go beyond relief to question the governance of migration itself, and it is here that the step from policy to politics is made. This step is indivisible from welfare states in retreat and migration policies that are ever more restrictive, also in the Global South. It should be read in the context of a broader municipalist movement demanding a louder voice and a larger role for cities in all global forums and spheres, and beyond their own territories. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that states exclude while cities include. Although cities often respond effectively to the exclusionary policies of their own states, not all cities are sanctuary cities. At the policy level, the exclusionary drifts of some local administrations should not be forgotten: in France and Italy, for example, many cities have begun to exclude foreigners and European citizens from certain social services. At the level of political debate, the politicisation of immigration has been greatest in Spain at local level. What is clear is that cities must respond and that their priorities do not always match those of their national governments. In this context, cities are asking to be heard, in the Global South too. They do so at national level but also at international level, banding together in city networks. For the time being, they have gained a voice and a degree of recognition. The paradox is that, thus far, having a voice has won them no greater capacity to influence international agreements, and achieving recognition has secured them no more competences or resources.   


The New Sanctuary Movement was created in 1982 in Tucson (Arizona) to offer shelter and support to undocumented people in the United States.  


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De Graauw, E. “Municipal ID cards for undocumented immigrants: Local bureaucratic membership in a federal system”. Politics & Society, 42 (3), 2014, pp. 309–330.

Eitel, K. “Welcoming local stances on migration in hostile national political environments: An analysis of Austin, United States and Barcelona, Spain”, IBEI Master Thesis, Barcelona, 2018.

Mayer, M. “Cities as sites of refuge and resistance”. European Urban and Regional Studies, 25(3), 2018, pp. 232–249.

Villazor, R.C. “Sanctuary cities and local citizenship”. Fordham Urb. LJ, 37, 573, 2010.

*We would like to thank Eva García Chueca and Agustí Fernández de Losada for their enlightening comments during the writing of this article.