Sanctuary cities – solidarity through defiance

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Harald Bauder is a professor and the director of the Graduate Program in Immigration and Settlement Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

Rejecting the exclusionary policies of some national and regional governments, sanctuary and solidarity cities around the world strive to cater to the needs of all their residents, regardless of immigration status.


City administrations often solve problems created by other levels of government; many might argue they are forced to. By doing so they may contest and resist wider policy directives or strategic, political, or ideological positions held by the national or state government. A key feature of the “Westphalian” system of national sovereignty that has held sway in the world since the mid-17th century is that national governments are empowered to grant or deny access to their territory, and to extend or withhold rights and services to those deemed to be non-citizens. In a direct challenge to the exclusivity of those powers, so-called “sanctuary” or “solidarity” cities seek to include and protect residents who lack formal status or are otherwise rendered vulnerable by national migration and refugee policies.

This dynamic especially applies to issues relating to mixed migration, where people reside or arrive in towns and cities irregularly, without documentation, or without official recognition as refugees. In North America, there are more than 200 sanctuary cities or jurisdictions. In Europe, where such welcoming conurbations are a more recent phenomenon, gaining momentum over the past five years, they tend (except in the UK), to be called solidarity cities. Both terms denote cities where municipal ordnances and policies strive to protect undocumented migrants from deportation or prosecution, often in defiance of federal or national immigration law. Many such cities also extend the right to live and work to new arrivals, regardless of their immigration status, and provide them with free basic services. Champions of solidarity cities describe them as:

A city no one is deported [from], in which everyone can move freely and without fear. A city where no one is asked for papers or status, a city where no one is illegal… In such a city, everyone shall have the right to live and work. Everyone shall have access to education and health care. Everyone shall be able to participate actively in the cultural and political city life—no matter what “legal” and financial status they have, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, religion…

Pragmatic rebellion

Sanctuary and solidarity cities can be seen as rebellious policy spaces that defy national migration and refugee laws and their enforcement, often on moral or ethical grounds. At the same time, such cities seek practical solutions to problems that arise at the city level because national migration and refugee policies create irregular status and other vulnerabilities. This contested space between national and local levels of government is a product of cities and nation states following different policy approach when it comes to deciding which people in mixed migration flows should be included in or excluded from national or local communities.

Cities that adopt sanctuary and solidarity approaches exist in many parts of the world. Those located in North America and Europe, such as Barcelona or New York, have received much of the public, political, and academic attention; but there are also cities that, while receiving far less attention, actually pursue similar policies and practices in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These cities are embedded in a wide variety of different regional, national, geopolitical, economic, and cultural contexts. Despite their greatly varying situations, sanctuary and solidarity cities share a vision of belonging and the need for local inclusion.

When local and national governments are drawn from rival political camps, their differing visions of belonging and politics of inclusion and exclusion may evolve into open conflict, as epitomised in the hostile exchanges between New York’s (Democratic) Mayor Bill de Blasio and (Republican) US President Donald Trump. Sometimes the local-national relationship is more constructive, allowing the vision and politics of sanctuary and solidarity to make important contributions to the design of effective migration and refugee policies at other levels of governance, including national and international levels. For example, as the main destinations of mixed migration movements, cities can play important roles in setting global norms, and thus help implement initiatives such as the global compacts for migration and refugees and related bodies such as the Mayors Migration Council.

The global Covid-19 health crisis has also highlighted other valuable aspects of the policies and practices of urban sanctuary and solidarity. Many migrants and refugees— especially those with a precarious residence status—lack proper access to health care, live in over-crowded conditions, and work in unsafe conditions that may have contributed to perpetuating the spread of the virus. Sanctuary and solidarity cities seek to address the circumstances that produce these vulnerabilities and, in this way, serve the larger public interest, especially during a global pandemic. For example, such cities have long argued that “non-status” (i.e. undocumented) migrants and refugees should receive the same access to local health services—including testing for infectious disease—as national citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic thus provides an opportunity to situate urban sanctuary and solidarity policies and practices in a new light.


The idea of urban centres providing sanctuary is not new. Throughout history, many cities have offered opportunities and safety to newcomers. The sanctuary city idea appears in various forms in sacred scriptures and the teaching of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. In medieval Europe, the saying “city air makes you free” reflected the practice in some cities of offering freedom from feudal bondage to new inhabitants after a year of residence. Modern urban sanctuary and solidarity movements can be seen as a continuation of these historical traditions. Today, urban sanctuary is mostly a secular concept, although faith-based institutions continue to be amongst its key actors and proponents.

These days, the label “sanctuary city” has attained particular prominence in the United States (US), where hundreds of municipalities have passed sanctuary regulations. It is a country almost entirely built on immigration—including the forced migration of slaves from Africa, and the forced displacement of indigenous populations—and the need for and existence of sanctuary cities highlight the contentious politics around issues of belonging. San Francisco was a US pioneer of urban sanctuary: in 1985, the city passed the largely symbolic “City of Refuge Resolution”, and then, in 1989, the more practical “City of Refuge Ordinance” seeking protection for Central American refugees and asylum seekers from federal immigration authorities. Over time, the focus of US sanctuary cities widened from protecting only newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers towards offering security to individuals and families who live in the city more or less permanently but who lack legal status.

Legitimacy and rights through a different lens

From the viewpoint of sanctuary cities, what makes a person a member of the urban community is that they live and work in the city, that their children go to school there, and that they are a part of the social and economic fabric of the city. A lack of legitimate immigration status does not make someone a less worthy inhabitant in the eyes of sanctuary cities. Many such inhabitants lack legal status because they overstayed the duration of their visas or work permits, crossed a border irregularly, or because their refugee or asylum claims were rejected; other residents may possess only temporary or precarious status, or experience discrimination or other forms of exclusion.

Today’s sanctuary cities in the US and Canada seek to protect the rights of such migrants and refugees who live within their boundaries by providing them with equal access to municipal services. In doing so, those supporting and implementing sanctuary principles privilege values and rights they identify in relation to these groups above the laws or immigration policies of the nation state. They refuse to implement or cooperate with the detention, deportation or exclusion from city services of those that fall foul of national immigration stipulations. As such they create a philosophical, ethical and political dilemma for democratic societies and challenge the pre-eminence of the central state over regional and local democratic levels of government.


Federal entities in the US have challenged municipal sanctuary policies on various occasions. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have denied federal emergency funds to sanctuary cities, although the bill did not get through the Senate onto the statute books. In early 2017, President Trump signed two executive orders on immigration and border security that would, among other stipulations, “strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants.” These orders have been successfully contested in the courts by several sanctuary cities and have elicited defiant responses from mayors across the country—including de Blasio, who pledged that New York would defend all the city’s inhabitants, “regardless of their immigration status.” In this increasingly polemical climate, some state-level authorities have banned all sanctuary cities, while others, such as those in California, Vermont, and Massachusetts have actively encouraged the movement, declaring themselves “sanctuary states”.

Taking root in Europe

While European Union (EU) immigration policies strive to restrict undocumented or irregular access to Europe by refugees and migrants, the reality is that there are millions of irregular migrants as well as precarious regular migrants and refugees in Europe, most of whom live in cities. Authorities in many of these cities act on the conviction that the newcomers, regardless of legal status, deserve protection and support, a view that is often at odds with national policies.

Recent years have seen the sanctuary movement gain considerable traction in the United Kingdom (UK), where more than 100 locations have embraced its philosophy since Sheffield became the first “city of sanctuary” in 2007, announcing it took “pride in the welcome it offers to people in need of safety.” They include the major conurbations of Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow, as well as towns, villages and rural locations all across the country. (In the Republic of Ireland, Belfast, Dublin, and Cork are among a dozen locations to embrace the movement.). According to the movement’s UK umbrella organisation, becoming a city of sanctuary typically entails engaging with local organisations and the local refugee community, adopting a strategy for including people seeking refuge, and the support of the municipal council. Unlike in the US, where sanctuary cities focus on local policing and non-cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities to offer tangible protections to non-status inhabitants, in the UK cities of sanctuary concentrate on creating a welcoming environment for asylum seekers and refugees, and on envisioning the city as a space of inclusion, rather than defying national laws.

In mainland Europe, the Catalonian city of Barcelona exemplifies the role cities can play in refugee and migrant protection. In September 2015, it launched the “Barcelona, Refuge City” plan “to gear the city up to receiving and assisting refugees and guaranteeing their rights”. The plan promotes the rights of all city inhabitants, including undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, has been a vocal international advocate for giving progressive cities a stronger voice in finding practical solutions to accommodate and support hundreds of thousands of irregular and regular migrants and refugees living in cities.

Other major cities throughout Europe, such as Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, Milan, Stockholm, and Zurich, have joined Barcelona in the pan-European Solidarity Cities network to exchange information and knowledge, build capacity, and advocate for the local inclusion of vulnerable migrants and refugees. Such progressive policies may run counter to those of central governments, especially when conservative parties are in power at the national level.

Latin America’s regional approach

In 2004, 20 countries in Latin America adopted a series of measures to identify durable and innovative solutions for the region’s refugees. The “Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action to Strengthen International Protection of Refugees in Latin America” created a framework to establish Cuidades Solidarias—solidarity cities—in order to accommodate refugees throughout the region. Under this framework, major cities such as Buenos Aires, Quito, and Montevideo collaborate with the UN Refugee Agency to protect vulnerable migrant and refugee populations. Research on the municipality of Quilicura in Chile illustrates that local solidarity initiatives seek to support people in both mixed migratory irregular flows and regular situations.

It’s a scheme that goes beyond just welcoming its beneficiaries to focus on many aspects of their full integration:

The [participating] municipality accepts responsibility for identifying the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, evaluating the conditions in which they find themselves in their territory and establishing plans of action to address their needs. The municipal authorities appoint staff specifically to support their local integration through social programmes such as family welfare payments, emergency housing plans, food policy plans, support for small businesses and integration into the education system.

De facto sanctuary in the global South

While some researchers have applied the language of urban sanctuary to cities such as the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and Makassar, in eastern Indonesia, the circumstances of many cities in the global South differs fundamentally from those in the global North. In countries in which states are weaker, national migration policies or individuals’ refugee status may have little relevance when it comes to respecting rights or accessing municipal services. Moreover, although some African cities serve more as transit hubs on routes to Europe, the majority serve as final destinations for continental south-south movement. For many, this means living continuously under the radar in irregularity with not channel for citizenship or formal recognition by the host government – for some an irregular status can even be used to their advantage.

In effect, therefore, many cities in the global South, such as Cairo, Tripoli, Nairobi, and Bangkok, offer de facto sanctuary by turning a blind eye to irregular residents, or by lacking the capacity to implement national immigration laws. Sanctuary at this level may not be the deliberate manifestation of policies embraced by civic authorities or municipal leaders, but, from the perspective of the irregular migrant or asylum seeker, even if they are denied many services (which in any case may not be free of charge or adequate for more regular residents) they benefit from being able to reside or settle in cities in countries with nominally unwelcoming immigration rules. In fact, millions of refugees and migrants are also hosted openly and willingly in thousands of cities and urban centres in the South that have shown far greater openness and “solidarity” with refugees and migrants without giving themselves labels or joining sanctuary-like movements. From three different regions examples are striking where millions of refugees from Venezuela are hosted by South American cities; Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have shouldered the vast majority of responsibility in welcoming Syrian refugees in the Middle East; and in Africa cities like Kampala and other towns in Uganda have opened access willingly to refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere. Whether motivated by practical necessity or ethics of solidarity, numerous cities in the South are making efforts to integrate refugees and migrants and allow their presence to influence urban planning and city management

Common principles

The experiences in North America, Europe, and Latin America have shown that an important commonality among urban sanctuary and solidarity is that top-down and bottom-up approaches converge at the city level. Grassroots organisers and activists in municipalities as diverse as Chicago, Berlin, and Quilicura collaborate with municipal authorities towards a common goal of local migrant and refugee accommodation. These local alliances can be a powerful political force.

The Anglo-American approach—which can be observed in Canada, the UK, and the US—has four basic dimensions: first, city councils typically make official commitments to support and enact sanctuary policies; second, local efforts seek to rescript narratives demonising migrants and refugees towards more inclusive and humane approaches; third, urban communities frame “belonging” in terms of mere residence rather than legal status; and, fourth, municipalities and local civic society actors mobilise urban institutions and social services to cater to all inhabitants, even if this goes against of national policies that categorise people as citizens, immigrants, refugees, or people without status.

Reducing vulnerability in US cities

Some US cities, such as New York and San Francisco, issue municipal ID cards that do not distinguish between people based on their status. In this way, all inhabitants can identify themselves to local authorities to receive services and police protection. Many US and Canadian cities have passed—or are quietly implementing—so-called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policies whereby police officers and service providers are not supposed to ask residents about their status and, when such information becomes available, not to share it with national authorities. DADT policies aim to provide non-status migrants and refugees access to municipal services without fear of detention or deportation. Essentially, these policies create a bureaucratic firewall that mirrors the Global Compact on Migration’s call to

“ensure that cooperation between service providers and immigration authorities does not exacerbate vulnerabilities of irregular migrants by compromising their safe access to basic services or by unlawfully infringing upon the human rights to privacy, liberty and security of person at places of basic service delivery.”

Many cities, however, struggle to properly implement such policies in practice. In Toronto, municipal implementation efforts lack coordination and are insufficiently resourced to properly train frontline staff, while staff who do not share the values behind DADT policies may be reluctant to implement them. Other cities, such as some in Texas, are facing hostile state laws that prohibit sanctuary city policies.These situations further illustrate the contentious nature of urban sanctuary policies: although democratically elected municipal governments may support them, other levels of government often do not.

Europe follows suit

Inspired by New York City’s status-blind municipal ID card, in 2018, Zurich’s municipal council adopted a motion to introduce identity cards for all residents, including an estimated 14,000 undocumented migrants. According to one advocacy group behind the initiative, these so-called sans-papiers “live in the shadow of our city” and

…are among the most vulnerable in our society because they cannot exercise their fundamental rights. If they become victims of violence or exploitation, sans-papiers cannot file a complaint, they can only seek medical treatment at the risk of being deported, they cannot take out liability insurance, they cannot take out a cell phone contract, they cannot open a bank account, they cannot rent their own home… They move in constant fear on the street.

In a similar move, the Berlin Senate—the city’s executive body—has approved a health insurance card that covers uninsured non-status migrants and refugees. The effective implementation of such initiatives has faced considerable challenges, such as creating incentives for all residents, not only sans-papiers/irregular migrants to use a common city ID card, and establishing the bureaucracy required to administer and fund universal health insurance. Nevertheless, these initiatives demonstrate a common proclivity to include migrants and refugees in the local community.

Rights through residence

The guiding principle that underpins this attitude is domicile citizenship, according to which urban communities accept all those who live there as members. Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando articulated this principle succinctly when he said: “If you are in Palermo, you are a Palermitan”. The domicile principle differs fundamentally from the birth principle according to which national citizenship is passed from one generation to the next (jus sanguinis) or is acquired automatically by being born in a country (jus soli).

Open door policies

There is more to a being solidarity city, however, than simply embracing all current residents: an open-door policy is another key criterion. Founded in 2018, the German Seebrücke, or Sea Bridge initiative, calls on German cities to voluntarily accept migrants and refugees directly from Mediterranean port cities, rescue boats denied entry to European ports, and border camps at Europe’s periphery.

Dozens of German city councils and mayors signed up to this initiative in a post migration “crisis” context where migration and refugee issues were consistently at the top of the political agenda. These municipal declarations have sent a clear message: solidarity cities care not only for migrants and refugees who are already residents, they are also eager to bring people in need elsewhere into their communities. These cities advocate for local migration and refugee policies to mitigate what they may frame as the inhumane and often deadly consequences of national and European policies. Another example is the recent grassroots push in several European countries to rally municipalities to accept unaccompanied children trapped in asylum centres on Greek islands. In the case of the Netherlands, in opposition to their coalition government’s refusal, by mid -2020 one third of Dutch municipalities – a total of 119 local authorities representing 9 million people – have declared themselves in favour of bringing 500 children to the Netherlands.

There may also be a political dimension behind the Seebrücke initiative’s appeal: while it is driven by activists and grassroots organisations opposed to national and European policies that deny entry to many people in mixed migration flows, mayors and city councils realise that corresponding municipal declarations remain largely symbolic as long as the national government does not grant cities permission to accept the requested migrants and refugees. For local political leaders, therefore, signing on to the initiative may curry favour with progressive voters without entailing any real risks or obligations.

While the politics surrounding refugees and migrants in cities can be cynical, much of the willingness and openness to increased refugee and migrant numbers at the local level is genuine and springs from existing proximity to migrants and refugees in the urban space. Studies and polls often show the political divide between rural and urban areas where urban populations are noticeably less fearsome or xenophobic towards migrants and refugees. Contact theory holds that sustained positive contact (i.e. friendships rather than the casual, fleeting contact of passing others in the street ) with members of other ethnic, religious, racial, or national groups produce more positive attitudes toward members of that group. Although contact theory is not the only theory of what influences local contextual decision-making and attitudes it has ‘support in numerous contexts’ and such proximity hypotheses appear to be backed up by voting patterns. For example, in the UK, low-immigration areas voted for Brexit in 2016 where immigration policy was given high prominence in voting choices. The issue of city managers being influenced and pressured by pro-migration and refugee-supporting local residents (who may also be migrants and refugees as well as other minority groups) cannot be underestimated.

Finally, while the reasons for local authorities to adopt a more welcoming approach to refugees and migrants in their cities can be primarily pragmatic – as they are ultimately the ones dealing with their presence – or ethical, it is likely there is also a political component to it. It is often assumed that local politicians are closer to their electorate and thus have a better sense of what it is their electorate wants, as opposed to politicians at the national level, often relying on polls which have proved to be highly unreliable. Like their national counterparts, mayors also think about their electorate and the likelihood of winning the next elections. This interplay between local migration policies and politics could therefore be an important factor too in what defines which cities declare themselves as sanctuary cities. Simply put, some mayors may decide to implement more progressive migration policies, sometimes antagonising the national level, because they are confident this will help gain consensus with their voters. The above -mentioned Mayor of Palermo is a good example, having been re -elected in 2017 and remaining a popular mayor, despite a clear pro-migration agenda, antagonising the national level.

National and international networks

Sanctuary and solidarity cities also build networks among each other. Barcelona, for example, as well as supporting its own vulnerable migrant and refugee residents through its Refuge City plan, has created a national Refuge City Network to support and advocate for other urban initiatives that welcome refugees. These urban networks reach beyond national borders: Barcelona also played a key role in establishing the Solidarity Cities initiative within Eurocities, a European network started in 2016 by Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens at that time. Participating cities not only seek to fund and improve local programmes for migrants and refugees but also advocate for the relocation of refugees within and beyond the network, in line with the core European values of “solidarity, humanity and dignity”. In Latin America, Cuidades Solidarias connects cities that support the local accommodation of migrants and refugees. Globally, researchers have identified more than two dozen such international city networks.

The limits of urban autonomy

It would be wrong to assume that sanctuary and solidarity cities can offer complete protection for vulnerable and (especially) non-status migrants and refugees. Around the world, migration and refugee policies tend to be determined at the national level, and most cities lack the necessary autonomy from their national governments to embrace all residents, regardless of their legal status, or to enact their own migration and refugee policies.

In the US, for example, federal immigration authorities are empowered to raid homes and workplaces to locate, detain, and eventually deport non-status residents. These powers have led sceptics to argue that sanctuary cities in the US offer a false sense of security. In Germany, federal law imposes strict reporting requirements on all foreign residents and the national government continues to block efforts by municipalities participating in Seebrücke to receive migrants and refugees directly from Mediterranean sea ports. In many countries, sub-national governments (states, provinces, etc.) have also adopted policies and enacted legislation intended to curtail urban sanctuary and solidarity initiatives.

Cities of hostility

Of course, not all cities foster migrant and refugee inclusion; some appear to do the exact opposite. This can be for a number of reasons and differ from place to place. Group conflict theory used in explaining migration attitudes suggests that “migrants or minority groups can appear to threaten the interests, identities, or status of the majority (as a group), and that those who feel this sense of threat most acutely will be most likely to oppose migration.” Some cities may have low immigrant levels and could therefore also be more susceptible to anti- migrant perceptions and/ or rhetoric. Politics can play an important role if, for example, a more populist anti-migrant approach that appears to favour local residents’ jobs and access to services can be instrumentalised by a local politician or mayor. Johannesburg’s mayor, Herman Mashaba, has rallied against undocumented foreign migrants in light of economic uncertainties. Likewise, migrants and refugees in Nairobi often experience harassment and extortion from the Kenyan police and municipal bureaucrats. More specifically following the 2011-2014 terror attacks in Nairobi and Kenya, the social and political backlash against Somali urban refugees was intense, leading to many Somalis leaving Kenya to live in Uganda (mainly Kampala). In 2007, the Quebec town of Hérouxville, where no immigrants lived, signified that Muslim newcomers were unwelcome by introducing a “code of conduct” that, amongst other things, promoted mixed-sex swimming and insisted that women showed their faces in public. The small Pennsylvanian city of Hazelton attempted to keep out non-status migrants by enacting stricter rules around housing and employment. US municipalities that enact exclusionary policies tend to have lower-than-average education levels among their population and high rates of owner-occupied housing; they also are more likely to be located outside of larger urban centres, where a vision of local belonging may be less connected to the domicile principle than to the politics of race and nation.


Cities, where many migrants and refugees live and work, are key loci of national immigration law enforcement. Different cities react in different ways: some municipal administrations and civic society institutions support the inclusion of all inhabitants—irrespective of national status—in the local community, by defiantly working to provide sanctuary or solidarity, even if, as some critics have argued, these policies end at municipal boundaries. Other cities tend to collaborate with federal immigration authorities to a greater degree than they are obligated to do and follow populist anti-migrant sentiments to exclude migrants and refugees.

It would therefore be overly simplistic to blindly favour urban policies on migration over national, regional, or global approaches. Still, in the light of national and regional (including EU) migration policies that create vulnerable non-status populations and that— in the resulting absence of regular pathways—force millions of people to risk death in their efforts to seek safety and better lives, sanctuary and solidarity cities present an alternative vision of welcome and inclusion. It is a vision that rejects categorisation by citizenship or legal status, a system of classification that is a defining feature of national migration policies, and one that often leads to unequal access to social, economic, mobility, and human rights. Tackling these inequalities lies at the heart of what drives the architects of sanctuary and solidarity cities. And precisely because cities are the main providers for migrants and refugees, there remains a strong argument that they be given a greater voice in the design of effective migration and refugee policies at the national, regional, and global levels.