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Welcoming migrants despite economic difficulties

Key Takeaways

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    Cádiz showed that despite socio-economic problems, a unified political leadership (2015 - 2023) can set a powerful example to local residents, other cities, national governments and the EU of how cities can defend its rights-centred approach to protecting refugees and vulnerable migrants.

What is unique about the city?

Challenging the government: The southern city of Cádiz in Spain has experienced persistently high unemployment rates and a shrinking population in the last few decades. Despite these issues, in 2015, Cádiz’s local government became one of the most outspoken critics of both the Spanish government and the EU in their response to the arrival of people seeking international protection.

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Fostering a pro-migrant discourse: The former city’s mayor (2015 - 2023) Mr. José María ‘Kichi’ González (Adelante Cádiz) has become a familiar face in Spanish media through his fervent defence of the role of cities in receiving refugees and vulnerable migrants. His government has established a discourse of welcome and the defence of human rights that Cadiz’s residents also identify with. Following years of conservative governments, ‘Kichi’ Gonzalez is the first to put the issues of (forced) migration and refugees on the local political agenda. However, in May 2023, Bruno García (Partido Popular) of the conservative party was appointed mayor. This could probably have a negative impact on the continuation of the progressive migration policies of his left-leaning predecessor.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

Increased awareness on social inclusion: The city is an important transit point for migrants arriving into Europe from Northern Africa, and the new administration has primarily focused its energies on awareness-raising and social inclusion initiatives. Over the last few years, the particular success of the former mayor ‘Kichi’ (2015 - 2023) has been in establishing the city’s pro-migrant stance, despite its own economic problems.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Since the beginning of the European ‘refugee crisis’, Cádiz has publicly called on the Spanish government and the EU to make no compromises where human rights are at stake. The local government has taken several steps to make their position on the issue clear. As a founding member of the Spanish “Cities of Refuge” network, the city has had a strong presence in national debates on these issues. In June of 2017, the city was officially declared a City of Refuge.

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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.

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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.