About the city


A new vision of urban citizenship and diversity

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Already established migrant organisations and civil society structures like “casa de las culturas'' have been integrated into municipal solidarity policies in order to make them longer-lasting.

  • 2

    Communal social workers supporting migrants locally have been integral to the city’s policy measures.

  • 3

    The city has sought to include all migrant and ethnic minority groups – including those who have lived in the city for many years – in its solidarity politics.

What is unique about the city?

Inclusion despite high levels of debt: Although Zaragoza, the fifth largest city in Spain, ranks among the most heavily indebted municipalities in the country, it has implemented a series of successful and welcoming inclusion policies since 2015. The measures are underpinned by a new idea of a diverse and intercultural urban citizenship.

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Diversity as a resource: The municipal measures insist on cultural and social inclusion as a task to be taken on by both newcomers and established residents, and frame diversity not as a problem, but as a resource. The idea of urban citizenship is also central to Zaragoza‘s solidarity politics, taking into account as it does two particularities of the city’s population: its long-established but marginalised Roma population, and growing number of migrants from Latin America.

What are the key factors in the city’s migration policy?

A municipal government and civil society collaborating: The strong collaboration between the municipal government and local civil society, especially from 2015-2019, enabled a comprehensive set of welcoming policies to be created. These initiatives, such as the Urban Citizenship programme, were designed using participatory processes with all relevant local stakeholders involved right from the start.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Zaragoza is a member of the Spanish "Intercultural Cities" programme, which advocates for diversity and a plural understanding of identity in its member cities. Over the last few years, municipal movements have been particularly influential in Zaragoza, as its membership in the “Network of Municipalities for Refugee Reception” (Red de Municipios de Acogida de Refugiados / RMAR) proves. Zaragoza also invests a large portion – in comparison with other Spanish cities – of its budget for international cooperation. Since 2015, 0.5% of the annual municipal budget has been dedicated to specific projects or to general development aid in areas where refugees come from or transit through.

Member of the following networks

I am not only thinking about the concrete citizens, but also about the citizenship. I think Zaragoza should be a welcoming and warm city, both for those who have just arrived and for those who were born here and have lived here for 40 years.

Trinidad Lacarra, social worker, Casa de las Culturas

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.