Moving Cities
About the city


The leading solidarity city in Spain and Europe

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    The city administration and civil society collaborated closely on developing the “Barcelona, Refuge City” plan, a bundle of concrete measures to provide necessary services and guarantee the rights of refugees.

  • 2

    Active networking with other Spanish Cities within the framework of the “Ciudades Refugios” network, and with many European cities in the Solidarity Cities network.

What is unique about the city?

Municipal role model since 2015: Barcelona has been known as a leading solidarity city in Spain and Europe since the municipal movement Barcelona en Comú (BComú) won the 2015 municipal elections. Barcelona’s own municipal politics is the initiator, model and organising principle for its communal pro-migrant policies. The “Barcelona, Refuge City” plan is a bundle of concrete measures with the aim of preparing the city to take in and assist refugees, provide necessary services and guarantee refugee rights.

What is the focus of local migration policies?

A coherent reception programme: The municipal reception programme “Nausica" lies at the centre of Barcelona’s local solidarity policies. It is also at the heart of the “Barcelona, Refuge City” plan. A second focus of its solidarity politics is the “documento de vecindad” (neighbourhood document), a kind of municipal ID created for people without official documents.

What are the key factors?

Innovative administration meets local activism: When the Barcelona en Comú (Bcomú) minority city council took office in spring 2015, migration became a key topic in the city’s municipal politics. Its entire 2015 election campaign contains a number of concrete proposals on the issues of (forced) migration and refugees. Another important factor is the close collaboration between city administration and local civil society initiatives on designing migration policies.

With the change of municipal government in June 2023, the basically progressive stance of the city council on migration policy is unlikely to change much. However, the newly appointed mayor Jaume Collboni (PSOE - Socialist Party of Catalonia) stands for pragmatism rather than activism. Former mayor Ada Colau will fight for the continuation of her previous political achievements with her party ‘Barcelona en Comú’ out of opposition.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

The city of Barcelona has been a member of various city networks within the framework of EU institutions for many years. In 2015, Mayor Ada Colau initiated and took leadership of the Spanish network of Solidarity Cities – the “ciudades refugio//ciutats refugis”. Colau and the local government have also worked to involve Barcelona in more European and international solidarity city networks.

Member of the following networks

©ThomasLendt; wikimedia commons

Download the full city report

The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

Download Report

Political context of Spain

Migration policy in Spain

Migration governance in Spain is multi-levelled. The national level has exclusive powers over matters relating to immigration, emigration, the status of foreigners and asylum rights. At the same time, regions and cities arenas also play a central role in policy decisions on immigrant integration and refugee reception, as they determine access to public housing, vocational training and health services, amongst others. Cities are responsible for registering all their residents, whatever their residence status. The registration system gives migrants access to essential services such as health, education and other administrative procedures. Immigration is thus also high on the agenda of local politics.

This joint responsibility between the national and regional level is also the cause of Spain’s highly flawed asylum system. Planning and regulating are highly centralised, whilst NGOs, charities and local authorities are left to implement policies without the infrastructure to coordinate them. This is especially visible in Barcelona and Madrid, which are both major reception centres for those seeking international protection.

Historical background

As a former colonial power, Spain has a long history of emigration. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country’s economic boom turned it into an a country of immigration. In the 1990s, just 1% of the population was foreign-born, a figure that rose to 12.2% by 2010. Still, Spain only became a true destination for refugees after the so-called “European refugee crisis” in 2015. Whilst in 2014 authorities received just 5,947 applications for asylum, in 2019, they handled 118,264 applications. Those seeking international protection come mainly from Venezuela, Colombia, and Honduras.

Spain passed its first Asylum Law in 1980 and its first Foreigners Law in 1985, as part of its accession to the EU in 1986. At this time, Spain had a low level of immigration. In the 1990s, as Spain started to become an attractive destination for international migrants, legal frameworks were adapted to account for the change. In 1994, a new asylum law made it harder to be granted refugee status in Spain. At the turn of the new century, the country passed a second Foreigners Law, the aim of which was to regularise access to the labour market and to give all migrants resident in Spain access to health, education and social services. However, i this law differentiated between irregular and regular migrants and thus restricted the social and political rights of certain groups. In 2003, another Foreigners Law tightened visa requirements and extended powers to detain undocumented migrants. The most recent law from 2009 serves to organise migratory flows in a way that matches labour market demands. In the same year, the government developed the third Asylum Law. This law has made it easier to grant international protection status than the previous one; however, its implementation remains a challenge due to its ambiguous guidelines.

Key developments of recent years

The economic recession has had a large impact on the overall situation of migrants in the country. ‘Irregular’ migrants were particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. In 2012, the conservative government also excluded undocumented migrants from access to healthcare. In 2018, a new Socialist government repealed this restriction. Recently, new nationality laws have made it compulsory for non-native Spanish speakers to sit and pass a language test, and for all applicants to sit a history test.

Finally, between 2018 and 2019, the far-right political party Vox became a successful electoral competitor, gaining seats in several regional governments and winning 52 seats (out of 350) in the Spanish Parliament. Their anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to influence Spanish migration debates today.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

Solidarity City movements in Spain have emerged to denounce the shortcomings of the Spanish asylum system and to demand a shake-up of the system that would give cities decision-making powers on the matter of refugee reception, as well as the necessary financial resources to exercise those powers. In 2015 and 2016, grassroots organisations and citizens in cities all over Spain joined demonstrations aimed at forcing the government to comply with these demands. Volunteer networks were formed in cities and towns to welcome refugees, while Spanish city mayors created the “Spanish Refuge City Network”. The Refuge City Network continuously lobbies for greater authority and funding at the municipal level, since it is at the local level where most basic refugees’ needs are covered, including housing, training, language courses, etc.