Barcelona secrets: the intercultural approach to migration governance

In November 2017 Tihomir Sabchev, one of the Cities of Refuge PhD researchers, attended the course “Migrations and Refugees: Cities Experience in Europe” organized by Barcelona’gov and held at Pompeu Fabra Univeristy. The following post is based on a presentation given in the framework of the course by Ramon Sanahuja, director of Barcelona’s Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER).

Migration is an extremely complex issue governed at different levels. In the European context, for example, the main competences regarding the control and management of migration remain a prerogative of nation states, while significant powers have been gradually shifting to the EU. As the Cities of Refuge research project demonstrates though, in the last decade there was an important increase in the role of the local level in governing migration. While cities were formally perceived simply as implementers of supranational directives and national legislation, they are now increasingly taking a proactive stance in shaping and implementing their own migration policies, especially in regards to reception and integration. Since immigrant integration is a process that ultimately fails or succeeds at the local level, cities indeed can be perceived as the actors that have a natural competence over it.  

Barcelona’s paradox

The example of Barcelona illustrates perfectly the significance of local authorities’ role in governing migration issues. In the last two decades the city experienced a rapid increase of its foreign population, from just about 3% in 2000 to more than 17% in 2017 (Figure 1). These newcomers were primarily economic migrants, which explains the more or less stable number of immigrants in the city after the beginning of the economic crisis in 2009. Only in the last year did Barcelona start seeing its foreign population increasing quickly again, which potentially indicates the beginning of a new wave of economic immigrants.

Figure 1. Immigrant population, Barcelona 2000-2017.

Figure 1. Immigrant population, Barcelona 2000-2017.

In order to fully understand the experience of Barcelona in governing migration and increased diversity, one should take into account the context in which the abovementioned change in the population of the city took place. The recent economic crisis had a profound effect on the local policies of migration and the provision of social welfare in general. The unemployment rate increased from less than 6% in 2007 to 23% in 2013, reaching 36% among the immigrant population. In addition, the crisis led to a variety of austerity measures that had a profound effect on both the quantity and the quality of social services. Large budget cuts resulted in less doctors in the local hospitals, less teachers, larger classes in schools, tightening of the conditions for access to social benefits in the whole region of Catalonia etc., at a time when there was an increased need for social welfare. In addition, the banking crisis and the housing bubble in Spain brought about a large amount of evictions in Barcelona. Needless to say, some of the first to pay the price were the most vulnerable groups, among whom many immigrants, who had lost their jobs and could not afford paying their mortgage anymore.

The significant increase of the number of immigrants in Barcelona over a short period of time, combined with the unfavorable economic and social context described above, created the perfect preconditions for turning immigrants into scapegoats. The logical and expected turn of events would be social tensions, conflicts over limited resources, anti-immigrant sentiments and rise of xenophobic parties at the local level. Surprisingly however, things turned out differently. Barcelona at present continues not having any anti-immigrant parties, unlike other cities in Catalonia, while surveys show that the number of locals who perceive immigration as a problem has been dramatically falling in the last years. Quite paradoxically the local administration seems to have succeeded in sustaining the city’s social cohesion, without of course underestimating the important role of local civil society actors. So how did it manage to do so?

The intercultural approach

The secret of Barcelona’s success in governing migration issues locally lies in the application of the so called intercultural approach. The intercultural approach is a combination of practices, public policies and private/third sector efforts, aiming at governing diversity through mitigation of the potential conflicts emerging from it. It is a holistic model based on three main pillars – equality, diversity and interaction. The ultimate goal is to achieve convivencia. Rather than simply coexistence, convivencia should be understood as living together with others and addressing the existing conflicts emerging from social interactions by constant negotiation – a condition that undoubtedly requires continuous active policy engagement.

Figure 2. The three principles of the intercultural approach.

Figure 2. The three principles of the intercultural approach.



Providing everybody with equal access to the city is the first guiding principle of Barcelona’s intercultural approach. In other words, all residents – regardless of their legal status, should have the right to benefit from the widest range of available public services. In practice this has been achieved with the use of a local census called padrón. Everyone who is registered on Barcelona’s padrón can access a variety of social services like healthcare, education, library and sport facilities, etc., regardless if the person is also in possession of a national social security number (NIE). Since having a valid residence permit is not a prerequisite for obtaining padrón, the latter is accessible even to immigrants in irregular situation. Moreover, acquiring the necessary proof of domicile in order to register locally is also not an insurmountable obstacle, since plenty of NGOs help irregular and homeless immigrants do so. Last but not least, the padrón is also related to a rather unique legal procedure, which facilitates immigrants’ access to regularity. More concretely, being registered in the local census for three years gives irregular immigrants the right to apply for a temporary residence permit and regularize their status. Thus, in contrast to the typical closed regularization procedure used in countries like Italy and Greece, the regularization process in Barcelona is permanently open and easily accessible to all immigrants residing in the city. As Ramon Sanahuja, director of the municipal migration office notes “We work with the vision that the irregular of today is the regular of tomorrow”.


The second pillar of the intercultural model concerns respect for and promotion of diversity. Barcelona’s local administration has recognized the fact that every immigrant who arrives in the city brings with him/her a certain cultural baggage. The resulting diversity permanently challenges the local reality and creates a variety of practical problems, which need to be negotiated and resolved with flexible and adaptive policies. While other approaches to integration put an emphasis on achieving social homogeneity, the intercultural one highlights the importance of respecting diversity and manifesting it in public spaces, thus showing that all residents have equal rights and immigrants are an integral part of the local community.

An illustrative example of Barcelona’s approach to governing diversity is the Ashura celebration of the local Shia Muslims. Part of this festivity is a ritual called “matam” – a procession of man dressed in black who flagellate themselves, very often to the point of drawing blood. After a request from Barcelona’s Shia community to celebrate their religious holiday in such a manner, the local administration was understandably troubled – should they allow such an event and how would the locals react upon it? After negotiations between the municipal migration office and the Shia community, a consensus was reached – the local Shia Muslims were very welcome to publicly celebrate Ashura, however the self-flagellation should be only a symbolic action and must not include the use of blades or any shedding of blood. As a result, the procession has been taking place annually for 7 years already, ending at one of the most symbolic places of Barcelona - the Arch of Triumph, and without any problems being registered.

The respect for diversity also goes hand in hand with the condemnation of any manifestations of xenophobia and racism. In order to prevent and combat such phenomena, Barcelona’s administration initiated in 2010 an anti-rumor strategy, which included the identification of major negative stereotypes regarding immigration, the creation of a local anti-rumor civil society network and the broadcasting of short rumor-refuting videos on a local Catalan TV channel. Importantly, and in line with the intercultural approach, the campaign was not targeted towards the Spanish population only, but rather it was aimed at informing and sensitizing all local residents, regardless of their background. Due to its success,  the anti-rumor strategy quickly expanded beyond the limits of the city and was adopted in different regions of Spain. In addition, in 2014 the Council of Europe initiated a project called Communication for Integration (C4i), based on the experience of Barcelona. As a result, 10 more European cities adopted the anti-rumor strategy and a handbook providing a step-by-step guideline for its implementation at the local level was published. As of today, the approach has inspired in total 47 cities across Europe, helping them build more inclusive and free of discrimination and prejudice local communities.


The third and final element of Barcelona’s intercultural model is the active promotion of interaction between locals and immigrants. While another approach - the multicultural one, also features respect for diversity, it largely relies on targeted policies for different ethnic groups. This often results in people’s closure within their own communities, lack of meaningful social interaction, detachment from the large local society and segregation. In addressing such issues, the intercultural approach relies on the constant promotion of interaction. Importantly, social interaction is never enforced upon people, but rather it is always voluntary. It is a continuous process of inviting all local residents to meet, share and work together towards common goals.

A good practical example of this approach to governing interaction comes from Barcelona’s public library. Excited to see the number of visitors of Chinese descent on the rise, the library’s administration considered creating a special section only with Chinese books. While such an initiative would indeed promote equality and manifest respect for diversity, it would also significantly decrease the potential interaction between Chinese immigrants and the rest of the library users. After consultations with experts from the migration office of the municipality, the library’s administration took the decision to place the Chinese books in different locations, according to each book’s topic and not to its language. With this simple and zero-cost step people from different background were invited to meet and interact, rather than forced to do so.


Just as every city that faces large migration inflows, Barcelona has also experienced plenty of challenges and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Increased diversity and interaction between people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds does not translate only into benefits for the local community, it is always a potential source of conflict as well. Barcelona’s example though shows that such conflicts can and should be managed at the local level, where the emerging problems can be identified more quickly, negotiated more effectively and resolved more efficiently. The success of the city lies in the proactive efforts of the local authorities, which have managed to develop an intercultural model that ensures equal access for all residents to a wide range of social services, cherishes diversity and battles every form of prejudice, xenophobia and racism, and finally invites people to voluntary interact and recognize themselves the benefits stemming from their convivencia.

Tihomir Sabchev