As of July 2017, a multi-year research project concerning local authorities, international law and the rights of refugees in Europe will have its base in Middelburg. The project, funded by a Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research Vici grant, will be carried out by prof. dr Barbara Oomen, a post-doctoral researcher and three PhD students.The researchers will work at Utrecht University, but will be based at University College Roosevelt.

Point of departure for this research is that the refugee crisis poses a major challenge for Europe in which local governments can potentially play a key role. ‘Where states provide asylum, cities provide shelter’. Cities, however, show strikingly different responses, from emphasizing via tweets and in practice how #citieswelcomerefugees to overtly shunning the people concerned.

In response to this, Cities of Refuge explores and explicates the relevance of international human rights, as law, praxis and discourse, to how local governments in Europe welcome and integrate refugees. This is urgent, as human rights can theoretically provide legal clarity on local government responsibilities, practical standards and a discursive frame but are not always invoked.

It is also innovative. First, because it concerns the explicit recognition of local governments as human rights actors in a multilevel context. Next, Cities of Refuge combines law, sociology and anthropology to develop a novel localized understanding of human rights. This theory will:

  1. Contribute to a sustainable long-term, localized solution of the refugee crisis;
  2. Strengthen human rights law with new, empirically grounded, insights.

The localized understanding of human rights will be developed via a three-stepped approach:

  1. A legal analysis;
  2. The development of local-level human rights indicators on the freedom of movement, participation, education and work;
  3. Grounded, explorative empirical analysis in ‘cities of refuge’/’cities that refuse’ on the (lack of) relevance of human rights for refugee welcome and integration in 6 countries and 4 cities per country.

In all, Cities of Refuge will explicate legal obligations and explore local practices. In doing so, it hopes to add insight into the potential role of human rights in addressing one of the largest challenges of our times.