About the city


Developing an ambitious approach to migration from scratch

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    The creation of the first ever Department for Migration in Valencia in 2015 has enabled strong political support for and coordination of migration issues.

  • 2

    Migrants, migrant associations, and NGOs are not just passive “beneficiaries”, but are involved as key, active stakeholders thanks to newly created participation structures.

  • 3

    The new administration has established multi-level and multi-stakeholder cooperation between the regional government, local authorities and civil society organisations.

What is unique about the city?

From nought to sixty: With a progressive government elected in 2015, Valencia has adopted an ambitious approach to developing a migration policy from scratch. The city has simplified bureaucratic procedures and facilitated the participation of civil society organisations and migrants in policy processes. It is not just individual policy measures that are inspiring – the overall approach is impressive. Due to a lack of initiative from the previous conservative government there was no real migration policy before 2015. However, in May 2023, the progressive government was replaced at both municipal and regional level. At the regional level, a coalition of the conservative PP together with the right-wing populist Vox has been governing since then, which is likely to have a negative impact on the solidarity-based migration policy.

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Reinventing the municipal administration: Three elements characterise Valencia's approach to migration:

  1. Following decades of conservative local politics (1991-2015), the progressive city government has created the Department of Social Rights and Inclusion. For the first time, it has drafted a ‘migration portfolio’ aimed at creating a single entry point into the complex bureaucratic processes relating to migration and inclusion. The programme has also increased the social visibility of and political support for migration.

  2. A new participation structure was created in 2016 – the Local Council on Immigration and Interculturality – conceived as an advisory and representative body that also incorporates the voices of migrants into the policymaking process.

  3. A new multi-level and multi-stakeholder approach was adopted, enhancing cooperation between the regional government, the city of Valencia, civil society organisations and NGOs. The programme brings together the voices of multiple actors and calls on the national government to grant more powers and provide more resources at the local level for the more effective management of migration-related issues.

What can other actors learn from it?

Involving all stakeholders in policy processes: Valencia started taking a multi-level approach to migration. There was a constant and fluid cooperation between the regional government (Generalitat Valenciana) and the local level. The city actively participates in regional programmes, projects and initiatives aimed at strengthening local voices in all aspects of migration management. Civil society organisations are increasingly involved as key actors in the design and implementation of migration policies. Immigrants are actively involved at the local level through the Local Council on Immigration and Interculturality. At the regional level, they are involved through the Mixed Commission in the development of the Valencian Strategy on Migration 2021-2026.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level?

Valencia’s official nomination as a “Refuge City” in 2015 involved a visit by the regional Vice-President and the minister for Equality and Inclusive Policies to refugee shelters. The strong support of refugees by civil society – from numerous NGOs and activists, to individual families offering houses at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, and a community of more than 8,000 people – are evidence of the city’s stance vis-à-vis refugees and migration. Together with other progressive cities like Barcelona and Madrid (2015-2019), Valencia has become one of the key actors opposing restrictive Spain’s national migration policies. Together, these cities have made multiple requests of the national government, calling for more resources and powers to deal with the situation on a local level.

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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.