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"Solidarity Cities" in Europe and North America are politically heterogeneous and pursue different interests: a comparitive study.

Solidarity City
Solidarity City: "Everyone shall be able to participate activly in the cultural and political city life – no matter what 'lega'” and financial status they have, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, religion…"»

While the heads of EU member-states and the US accelerate restrictions on migration, fortify their borders and accept the deaths of thousands of people fleeing out of sheer necessity, many municipal governments are declaring their cities “solidarity cities”, “cities of refuge” or “sanctuary cities”. When it comes to developing a left strategy on migration policy, it is worth taking a closer look at cities of refuge and solidarity as spaces where Global Social Rights are being asserted, and critically observing these various city networks more generally. 

In June of this year, the new right-wing Italian government denied multiple rescue ships operated by private NGOs permission to dock in Italian ports. This move marked the dramatic opening salvo of a further reinforcing of Fortress Europe. Since then, civil rescue missions in the central Mediterranean have been almost completely blocked, while captains and crews are threatened with legal proceedings for, among other things, “supporting illegal migration”. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), these moves caused at least 700 people to drown in the Mediterranean in June alone.

Urban civil society has risen up in protest across Europe. The statements issued in June by mayors of southern Italian coastal cities such as Palermo, Naples and Ravenna attracted international attention. All of them harshly criticized the national government’s refusal to allow the rescue ship “Aquarius”, carrying over 600 refugees, to anchor in an Italian port and declared their willingness to accept the refugees in their cities. The municipal governments of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Berlin, and Kiel also signalled their willingness to take in refugees shortly thereafter. Prior to that, the Berlin Senate had been involved in negotiations with the governments of Barcelona and Naples to collaborate on further refugee protection measures.

Many of the cities currently pushing for taking on more refugees belong to the network of administrations of major European cities established in 2016, “Solidarity Cities”. This alliance of cities, however, is no activist network, but rather a “circle of heavyweights” composed of the administrators of European metropolises, mostly port cities, pushing for a coordinated approach to what its founding document labels the “refugee crisis”. They call on the European Commission to increase social infrastructure funding in the European cities in which most refugees arrive or already live.

Political pressure also comes from the activist base, however. Last year, refugee councils, migrant organizations, welcoming initiatives, left-wing movements, urban policy NGOs, church groups and academics in cities like Berlin, Bern, Cologne, and Zurich as well as countless smaller cities founded the alternative city network with the almost identical name, “Solidarity City”. The coalition’s demands go far beyond the official European city network: they call for halting deportations and directly accepting refugees, but also for a fundamental democratization of urban life.

These examples show the growing significance of urban policy coalitions in the struggle against Europe’s rightward drift and the sharpening of European border and migration policies (Kron 2017). After all, it is not only the fortified borders on the Mediterranean, the question of national citizenship and foreign residency status — the policies of cities and municipalities also play an important role in the living conditions of migrants in the EU. It is thus central for developing a left-wing migration policy strategy to take a more critical look at the various city networks. More than anything, we must ask how local political measures can be developed which at least side-step or even disable national and European migration controls and exclusion mechanisms at the municipal level.

The Solidarity City: Global Freedom of Movement and Social Rights

What initially appear to be two separate topics — EU border policies and social rights in the city — turn out, upon closer inspection, to be closely related. Insofar as solidarity cities experiment with new ideas of delinking access to rights and resources from national citizenship, such as through municipal ID cards, they strengthen (at least implicitly) struggles for open borders. For although a growing number of people regard it as the precondition for access to social rights, the right to (global) freedom of movement and settlement is thus far not recognized as one of the catalogued social rights in the stricter sense. So-called “free movement” — i.e., the free choice of one’s place of residence — is by its nature more of an individual right and thus belongs to the category of civil rights. Paragraph 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives every person the right “to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state” and “the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return”. The human rights charter thus acknowledges the right to emigrate, but not to immigrate.

The UN Sustainability Goals agreed upon in 2015, which primarily humanitarian and development NGOs refer to either affirmatively or in a critical manner, also fails to identify global freedom of movement and settlement as a development goal. It is instead addressed only as a sub-point featuring a very vague formulation, that “orderly, safe, regular and responsible” forms of migration should be established, including through the “implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”. Further sub-points make indirect reference to migration. They contain issues such as reducing transaction fees for migrant remittances or the fight against human trafficking and forced labour. Yet the sustainability goals make no mention of a right to migration for everybody — a right that most people in Europe and North America take for granted.

This legal and developmental gap is the subject of intense controversy in the social sciences and humanities. Authors who attempt to adopt a global perspective in inequality research or political philosophy see the restricted right to global freedom of movement and settlement as one of the most important preconditions to accessing many further (social) rights and thus to the goal of global social justice (Cf. also Cassee 2016; Forschungsgruppe “Staatsprojekt Europa” 2014). Political scientist Joseph Carens writes that, in light of the restrictions on mobility in place for the majority of the world’s population, being a citizen of a wealthy country is comparable to a feudal privilege, as life chances are extremely unequally distributed. Anyone who takes individual freedom seriously cannot get around accepting a general right to international freedom of movement (Carens 1987).

The “visa politics” pushed by the EU and US in the northern hemisphere and the “global mobility divide” associated with it is described by sociologist Stephan Lessenich as a central pillar of the “externalization society”. It maintains the “imperial mode of living” and privileges people in the Global North at the expense of people in the Global South: “Mobility chances are a monopolized resource here, which one claims for oneself while denying it to others. Physical regulation of movement — some are mobile; others are demobilized — is a central element of the Western lifestyle” (Lessenich 2017: 137).

In the movements and networks for a solidarity city, the right to global freedom of movement and settlement is factually acknowledged and attempts are made to assert Global Social Rights in the local political space. This becomes particularly evident in the Charter of Palermo formulated by Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando in 2015, to which many European solidarity cities have since subscribed to. Orlando explicitly calls for the abolition of residency permits, the linking of civil rights with one’s place of residence, as well as the unconditional guarantee of the (human) right to global freedom of movement and settlement.

Urban Citizenship: Rights for All

These kinds of municipal citizenship policies are referred to as “urban citizenship” in the Anglo-American debate. Conceptually speaking, the debate refers to, among other things, sociologist T.H. Marshall’s 1950 essay “Citizenship and Social Class”. The concept of “citizenship”, however, is understood in markedly broader terms than the German term Staatsbürgerschaft, allowing for a nuanced and historically informed understanding of social, political and economic participation in social life  (Marshall 1950). The urban citizenship debate applies this perspective to the local level and to urban processes (Hess and Lebuhn 2014). Against this backdrop, notions of urban or regional forms of citizenship are discussed to denote the introduction of local political instruments which grant or extend social participation not only to (state) citizens, but also to urban inhabitants who have no formal citizenship status or rather cannot assert it due to their marginalized social position (García 2006).

In recent contributions to the debate, citizenship is understood as more than just a status which people either do or do not have. Instead, political and social struggles are also highlighted through which recognition, rights and access to resources can be won in the first place. Primarily with view to the situation of migrants and refugees, Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen have coined the term “acts of citizenship” to describe these struggles for rights (Isin and Neilsen 2008)

The Sanctuary City as a Model

A prominent model for the European network of solidarity cities is the “sanctuary city” movement (or “cities of refuge” movement), which started in Canadian and US cities and localities in the 1980s (Lippert and Rehaag 2013). Pushed forward by the mobilization of strong immigrants’ rights movements, progressive mayors and municipalities forbid local administrations and police departments from working directly with national immigration authorities. This goes a long way in preventing raids and deportations, as the federal authorities responsible for executing checks and deportations are generally dependent on the assistance of local authorities. Yet many of the US and Canadian municipalities are concerned with more than “just” stopping deportations and a more or less precarious “right to stay”.

Some, such as New York City or San Francisco, have issued municipal ID cards for years: so-called “City IDs” (Lebuhn 2016). These allow people without regular residency permits as well as other marginalized groups in the city to deal with local administrations more easily, and offer them more security in their everyday city life more generally. Although the reach of such policies of recognition is limited, the everyday alleviations that sanctuary city status or a municipal ID facilitate should not be underestimated: whether it be registering children for public schools, using public libraries, accessing city resources in the broadest sense, or opening a bank account or signing a rental contract.

Compared to the German-speaking world, it is also interesting that the topic of migration is not addressed exclusively through discourses of cultural difference such as the dispositif of integration, ethnic ascriptions or the alleged formation of parallel societies. Instead, it has to do with the tension between belonging to a political community on one hand and the possibilities of social participation this entails on the other (Holston and Appadurai 1999: 4). This, in turn, affects not only migrants, even if they are often excluded from (formal) citizenship, but rather all people pushed into social marginalization over the course of neoliberalization who have had their social as well as civil rights factually restricted.

An Example: Health for All!

Urban citizenship is not limited to stopping deportations. Rather, it is about strengthening social rights and social participation in their various dimensions: that includes the social rights to health, education, shelter, work, but also cultural and gender-specific rights. Contrary to the often repeated prejudice that fundamental change in these spheres can only be reached at the nation-state level, there are in fact spaces to manoeuvre at the regional and municipal level — that is, if activists, local politicians and administrations all work together (Fried 2017).

An exemplary case can be found in the field of health care policy. Although no area is more tightly regulated than access to the public health care system, it has been possible in multiple federal states to enable medical care for people without access to the public health insurance system through alternative public programs. This in turn helps not only migrants without regular residency permits, but also many other people who were pushed out of the standard insurance system due to social marginalization. In Berlin, for example, 1.5 million euro is to be spent on medical care with an anonymous medical certificate beginning in autumn 2018. Those in need receive the certificate through a non-state clinic without having to indicate their identity or legal status. Such programs are anything but perfect, as they continue to work as a kind of parallel system, but they relieve activist networks like the Medibüro which until now have provided medical care for disadvantaged groups in a volunteer capacity, and institutionalize it. More than anything, however, they represent the insight that the ensuring and public financing of the right to health for all people is a responsibility for the whole society.

Radical Democratization or Neoliberal “Diversity”?

It is precisely these socio-political and material components which distinguish urban policies asserting Global Social Rights from “diversity” programmes of the more neoliberal persuasion. Many states and municipalities have introduced these kinds of diversity programmes in recent years (cf., inter alia, Rodatz 2014). At the European level, the Intercultural Cities Programme (ICC) has functioned as a network of meanwhile over 100 European cities pursuing intercultural reforms since 2008 (Lebuhn 2018).

It is without a doubt positive that such programmes seek to normalize migration rather than depicting it as a “problem” for cities from the beginning. At the same time, the term “diversity” is often oriented towards concepts taken from corporate management. Migration is understood as an economic resource which can prove useful for cities in inter-urban competition. The World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, emphasized in a 2017 study on the effects of migration on large cities worldwide that inclusive urban migration policies have a positive influence on “economic development” in the urban space. To the extent that the notion of “citizen” is deployed, it tends to exhibit qualities like “self-responsibility” and “self-optimization”, combined with the utilization of neo-communitarian notions of a civil society-driven “responsibility for the community”. Unlike in the solidarity cities debate, which is inspired by the “Right to the City” approach and demands the “Right to Rights”, questions of distribution, justice or social security are secondary at best. Points of connection for left-wing movements and politics are thus hardly to be found.

Criticisms and Counter-Criticisms

Although the political approaches of the Solidarity City network and Sanctuary City policies differ significantly from urban “diversity management” programmes, they are also criticized from the left. Often described as problematic is the fact that urban citizenship policies only have “local” effects and generally remain focused on “pragmatic” aims. In practice, however, the urban movements grouped around the idea of the solidarity city are in fact highly important. On the one hand, they seek to mobilize broad political alliances. The Solidarity City network, for example, seeks to develop “a city for all” in which “everyone shall have the right to live and work”, “no matter what ‘legal’ and financial status they have”. This makes the campaign attractive for rent control, housing and trade union initiatives as well. On the other hand, opportunities are created — not only for migrants with insecure residency status — to access rights and resources, at least at the city level. For those affected who otherwise are deprived of fundamental rights to shelter, education, health and work through national laws, this has a very immediate utility, the significance of which cannot be emphasized enough.

A major problem is without a doubt the fact that municipal regulations, due to their local reach, cannot ensure access to social security systems which are generally established at the federal level. Moreover, Albert Scherr and Rebeccas Hofmann (2016) argue that no regular access to the labour market can be enabled and that Sanctuary City policies as we know them from North America also facilitate the emerge of “shadow economies”. Ultimately, no real protection from deportations occurs, which can perhaps give those affected a false sense of security.

This can be countered, however, with the fact that despite all limitations, there is no reason not to take action at the local level to make the everyday lives of refugees more secure. The criticism concerning the “shadow economy” is also not unproblematic, as it overlooks the fact that local protection from deportations also makes it easier to assert regular working standards for all. Especially for people without regular residency status, legal advice from the trade unions and social movements is made easier to access and legal action against manipulative employers is facilitated — that is to say, the emergence of the “shadow economy” is addressed on the capital side and migrants are supported in their labour struggles. Nevertheless, it remains clear: whether Solidarity City or Urban Citizenship, municipal citizenship policies are an important but nevertheless small step in the right direction.

Global Social Rights and Migration Struggles

The movements and coalitions of cities of solidarity, refuge and sanctuary in Europe and North America are politically heterogeneous, pursue different interests and raise diverse expectations from other political actors. We can distinguish between four dimensions of municipal interventions into migration policy: these include, firstly, protecting against legal prosecution and deportation of irregular migrants and rejected asylum applicants. This is the common denominator of the meanwhile 560 cities, districts and states participating in the US and Canadian sanctuary cities movement (Kron 2018). The second dimension is that of human rights interventions. The mayors of European cities like Berlin, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Barcelona, Palermo and Naples who declared their willingness to take in refugees in their cities directly in the summer of 2018 are primarily concerned with intervening in the humanitarian crisis on the basis of human rights. Third are the policies of municipal citizenship. With innovative experiments to strengthen urban citizenship such as municipal IDs in New York, San Francisco, Barcelona and Zurich as well as the planned anonymous health card in Berlin, city governments seek to assert Global Social Rights at the municipal level and thereby detach them from the residency status and nationality of city inhabitants. The fourth dimension is the “Right to the City”. The Solidarity City network, for example, pursues a fundamental democratization of urban life. It is a social movement that fights for a more solidary, socially just and participatory city for all. Thus, while neoliberal actors like the WEF highlight city policies of inclusion and diversity as motors for economic development, left-wing movement actors see in solidarity cities a “space for progressive politics in Europe”.

Irrespective of their differences, the coalitions and networks of solidarity cities and sanctuary cities articulate a deep political disagreement with the increasingly restrictive and exclusionary migration policies being enacted on the national and regional levels. Herein lies their political relevance and potential strength, although they still encounter inevitable limitations. It cannot be our long-term goal to transfer the question of social rights onto the municipal level and produce a patchwork quilt of local regulations. The municipal recognition of the right to global freedom of movement and settlement thus possesses a strongly appellative character, but will have little positive impact for most refugees as long as national and regional governments — such as in the current blockade on sea rescues in the Mediterranean — continue to pursue such demonstratively exclusionary policies.

For global freedom of movement to make its way into the catalogue of accepted human rights and Global Social Rights to be asserted beyond individual urban spaces, new or strengthened coalition politics are needed — with, for example, civil society actors working on development policy, open-minded government administrations, and progressive politicians at the national and regional levels. A growing number of politicians and activists in urban policy coalitions now know that migration struggles and urban citizenship policies are not sectoral issues, but rather emphasize the common interests of (allegedly) disparate groups, namely social justice. Particularly the linking of demands for a right to free movement and Global Social Rights in the city opens the possibility of posing a solidary answer to the neoliberal and far-right European elites currently succeeding in sewing divisions of “we Europeans” or “we Germans” against “the Others”.

Translation by Loren Balhorn

Stefanie Kron is a Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung fellow working on international politics and social movements.

Henrik Lebuhn is a researcher in city and regional sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, and serves on the editorial board of PROKLA.


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