Migration Series | From branding to bottom-up ‘sheltering’: How CSOs are helping to address migration governance gaps in the shelter city of Granada

Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that established itself as a ‘shelter city’ for migrants, but despite the city administration’s pledge in 2015 to improve migration governance, bridge divides, and promote community building between migrant and non-migrant communities, selective indifference towards migrants persists. In light of several governance gaps caused by the failure of local authorities in Granada to go beyond the mere branding and enactment of the concept of shelter cities, various civil-society organizations (CSOs) have launched initiatives aimed at alleviating these tensions and are filling the gaps left by local authorities, writes former ISS MA student Christy Gamboa.

Government of Granada shelter city campaign “Granada, ciudad solidaria y de abrazos abiertos” (Granada, city of solidarity and open hugs).

During the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, some cities in Spain declared themselves shelter cities, which are supposed to be places in which migrants and refugees can safely reside and receive assistance from the local government. They did so in a bid to counter the restrictive policies on migrants and refugees that the Spanish government had instituted in response to this ‘crisis’. These initiatives besides offering immediate housing and basic support were also aimed at improving the day-to-day governance of migration by addressing governance gaps at the national level and promoting community building between migrant and non-migrant communities at the local level.

Granada, a city in southern Spain with around 230,000 residents, became a ‘shelter city’ following pressure placed on the local government by RedGra (Red Granadina por el Refugio y la Acogida—Granada Network for Shelter and Reception), a network of around 40 CSOs advocating for migrant rights who identified the need to create a safety net for migrants. Because the city’s actions since it started to call itself a ‘shelter city’ have been focused merely on providing temporary support in some cases to migrants and on creating public campaigns focusing on the ‘shelter city’ brand, the various active CSOs in Granada forming part of RedGra provide bottom-up shelter to migrants in different ways.

Research I conducted last year as part of my master’s degree examined the extent of coexistence of solidarity, tensions, and conviviality within Granada as a shelter city, focusing on the actions of CSOs working with migrants. When conducting my fieldwork in Granada as part of my research, I interviewed several organizations within RedGra that help migrants and refugees from primarily Northern Africa. I identified persistent tensions within the city and witnessed bottom-up actions by CSOs to counteract them, such as by providing material support such as food and housing, promoting inclusive spaces, reporting discriminatory actions, and raising awareness among residents of Granada about the challenges that migrants face. These are described in more detail below.


Tensions in the ‘shelter city’

The city of Granada has a reputation for peaceful coexistence among people of diverse origins and religions, supposedly due to the harmonious living together of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities during the time of Al-Ándalus in medieval Spain. However, the CSO representatives I spoke to revealed that rising racism in the city is a major concern, and that the perceived reputation of enabling peaceful coexistence is nothing but an illusion. Particularly, my interviews with Dar Al Anwar and AMANI revealed that there is significant tension among residents of Granada due to unwelcoming attitudes local residents hold towards migrants who originate from Muslim-majority countries.

During the ‘crisis’, when the number of migrants surged, these tensions grew. Since then, several instances of open discrimination or harassment of migrants could be witnessed. The discontent of some Granadans has repeatedly been expressed publicly in the past few years, with women being kicked out of public swimming pools for wearing full bathing suits (burkinis). However, I was told that there are other examples of conflicts linked to the freedom of religious expression. For example, the respondents mentioned that local authorities resisted the celebration by Muslims of important religious festivities such as Eid Al Adha in public spaces by not granting them permission to do so. Catholic celebrations on the other hand are widely celebrated in public spaces without any issues.

Another issue in Granada is the inadequate support that has been provided by local authorities to migrants. The local government offers only temporary housing, leaving many people on the streets. Furthermore, tensions among migrants themselves are exacerbated by differential treatment based on their country of origin. A former public servant who volunteers at AMANI for example stated that “the public administration has a bureaucratic system that is a little bit racist that makes it difficult for some foreigners,” referring to the existence of differential treatment based on the migrants’ country of origin. This differential treatment is exemplified by the Municipal Council of Migration’s prompt response and activation of the Shelter City Protocol to accommodate asylum seekers from Ukraine, rapidly giving them access to accommodation and legal documentation to stay in the city. In contrast, people coming from conflict zones outside of Europe have been waiting for more than five years to obtain their documentation to reside legally in the city. These examples demonstrate how ongoing tensions—visible in hostile attitudes and inadequate policies alike—infringe on what a shelter city promises to be.


How CSOs are helping to alleviate tensions

In the midst of these widespread tensions in Granada, CSOs in Granada have come to play a crucial role in bringing together the local community, government, and newcomers or migrants. Their proximity to these communities gives these organizations first-hand knowledge of the respective needs of the different groups and allows them to facilitate initiatives that help to prevent disunity and foster understanding and tolerance.

All CSO representatives noted the importance of creating spaces where people can safely get to know each other. For example, the CSO Zona Norte facilitates the Verano Abierto Cartuja (Cartuja’s Open Summer) event, which is held each year in a neighbourhood with a high concentration of people with diverse migration backgrounds, with people coming from Morocco, Romania, Senegal, and Bolivia, amongst others. This event is part of an intercultural strategy to promote conviviality between neighbours in the north of Granada. It allows residents of all ages, origins, and religions to leisurely share knowledge through workshops on healthy drinks, dance, sports, and a language exchange.

Several organizations, including Zona Norte and ASPA, also emphasized the importance of listening to the needs and ideas of the people in the community in which they’re active. For example, ASPA’s community-building project involves young migrants serving as intercultural agents by sharing their migration journey experiences with non-migrants while also promoting intercultural dialogue through art therapy and classes on body language. Another initiative ASPA launched was the creation of a manifesto that was directed at the ombudsman of Granada through a rap song to claim their rights to the city.

The CSOs’ approach of facilitating bottom-up initiatives that involve migrants in the setting of agendas and development of activities offers a meaningful and holistic solution to the lack of support from the municipality. By giving migrants a voice in choosing the activities that they perceive would benefit them more, CSOs promote inclusion and reduce alienation. Their activities focus on building relationships based on shared interests, rather than highlighting differences in origin, thereby creating spaces for interaction between migrants and the host society.


How CSOs help contribute to improved migration governance

My study of Granada highlights the often-overlooked significance of civil society in addressing governance gaps, both in academic and policy debates. The presence of bottom-up initiatives showcases the essential role and positive impact that civil society can have in effectively addressing the existing gaps in migration governance. The establishment of Granada as a shelter city was a positive step, but tensions and prejudices towards migrants persist. CSOs take a holistic approach that listens to the diverse needs of migrants, promoting their well-being and strengthening their relationship with the host society. In contrast, the municipality’s commitment falls short as it merely labels the city as a shelter without taking further action to address the underlying issues and actively support migrant communities. Moreover, by creating spaces that encourage intercultural exchange and meaningful participation, CSOs aim to prevent conflicts and reduce social polarization. They promote autonomy, equity, and social inclusion for migrants, going beyond basic needs.

Read the other topics on the migration series:

How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering.

From caminantes to community builders: how migrants in Ecuador support each other in their journeys.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Christy Gamboa holds a MA in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies. She is a recent graduate from the Major in Governance of Migration and Diversity with a specialization in Public Policy and Management. She is currently a Junior Programme Officer in the Rights-Based Justice Team at the Netherlands Helsinki Committee.

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