CfP: Welcoming Migrants in the City. Interrogating Urban Policy and Civic Action

Call for papers, deadline 10 January 2022

Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès, May 12th-13th, 2022


Given the global tightening of national immigration regimes, compounded by the Covid-19 sanitary crisis, the fate of migrants stranded in their trajectories or trapped in unauthorized or precarious legal status has become an increasingly urgent issue for the towns and cities that host them, whether willingly or not. The breakdown in national asylum regimes and the decline of religious practices of solidarity has left civil society and local governments to construct fragmented, palliative measures to manage critical situations (Agier 2018, Rabben 2016).  Although media coverage and political discourses frequently highlight overburdened administrations and popular expressions of rejection, confrontation with migrants can also lead to tolerance, accommodation, or even embrace of foreign populations’ presence.  In some cases, local actors invoke notions of hospitality, welcome, or sanctuary in their efforts to defend migrants’ rights and promote their access to services. Many examples of solidarity from civil society have emerged in order to mitigate the dysfunction of governmental action, either because institutional actors do not have sufficient competence in managing migration, or because the State is itself the source of administrative rejection. In some cases, local actors refer to the notions of sanctuary, welcome, or hospitality in their efforts to defend the rights of migrants and to promote their access to services. Other local experiments in migrant protection are undertaken without a specific rhetoric, but they nonetheless represent ideological stances based in distinct historical, institutional, and philosophical contexts.

The mayors and other urban stakeholders that explicitly oppose and denounce restrictive State policies position the “rebellious” towns and cities involved as sanctuaries for migrants who risk detention and deportation (Furri 2017). The term “sanctuary” is rooted in a particular social and religious movement that emerged in the early 1980s in defense of Central American asylum-seekers in the United States (Coutin 1993), but its use has broadened among scholars and civil society actors in recent years, as political polarization around immigration issues has increased in many national contexts (Darling and Bauder 2019, Lippert and Rehaag 2013). In the United States, the debate about “sanctuary cities” now involves institutional questions about communication and cooperation between the federal government and local authorities in the practice of identifying and detaining unauthorized migrants. Throughout the Americas, municipal policies designed to protect migrants tend to focus on the less contentious issue of improving access to services or on the respect of human rights, more broadly (Faret and Sanders 2021). Although cities clearly cannot provide a physical safe haven to migrants, the concept of “sanctuary” nevertheless raises important questions about the tensions that can arise when local governments manage migration in a way that runs counter to national enforcement priorities. What are the practical and symbolic bases of conflict with national governments on migration issues? To what extent are these struggles over immigration policy part of a broader renegotiation of the role and authority of cities, and the reflection of a growing divide between urban and national interests? Can the ethical principle of non-refoulement of migrants at risk be applicable to local governments (Blake & Hereth 2020)? Little attention has been paid to these dynamics in countries outside the Global North, or in countries without long histories of receiving migrants.

In addition, many mayors and municipal councils have formally issued messages of welcome to migrants, often as part of larger networks of cities (Welcoming America in the United States; Cities of Solidarity in Europe). These public declarations and calls to action are based on a diverse array of practical considerations, ideological concerns, and strategic motivations. Some participate in branding cities as internationally-oriented and tolerant of diversity, raising their cosmopolitan profile. Others present immigrants as a potential economic benefit, capable of stemming population loss and stimulating the development of urban areas in decline. How much have these expressions of solidarity with immigrants resulted in actual change? To what extent have migration issues become part of policy-making in urbanism, housing, education, and the distribution of health services in these towns and cities? More than mere communications strategies, the positions that city leaders take on immigration indicate long-term aspirations and priorities.

The spaces and places of welcome can be understood to exist beyond the strict morphological limits of the city (in terms of density and administrative borders), given the role that suburban and rural areas have assumed in this geography of hospitality in Europe, in America, and in Africa (Furri et Lacroix, 2020; Berthomière et al., 2020). From “global” cities to rural towns, local governments have been integrated into networks of welcome, voluntarily or involuntarily, with differentiated effects on the incorporation and the appropriation of space by exiled populations. Thus, can the question of urbanity as a dimension of welcome be applicable beyond the classic configurations of the “city” in the singular? How can welcoming take form in this variegated geography, from urban areas (city center, peripheral neighborhoods) and suburban spaces to rural towns and villages?

The duty of hospitality towards the stranger provides a compelling frame of reference for the humanitarian reception of migrants; the individual and collective acts of solidarity that occur in the border towns where migrants cross or wait for the opportunity to do so, and in the cities that they reach, can be seen as concrete examples of actors playing host to foreigners in need, offering security and the basic necessities for survival. Civil society initiatives are constructed in relation to the different aspects of migrants’ living conditions : assisting and accompanying them in daily life (housing, education, food aid, etc.) ; helping them with legal and administrative procedures (asylum applications, unaccompanied minors, deportation orders…),  guiding them towards job opportunities and the possibility of long-term settlement. The forms of civil society solidarity, whether they are well-established or recently emerged, from organized movements or individual actions, deserve closer scrutiny. Can these initiatives offer anything besides palliative measures that are necessarily insufficient? In what ways have the forms of solidarity towards foreigners been vilified, criminalized (Carrière & Baudet 2004), but also discretely encouraged (Brugère & Le Blanc 2018) ? What could a politics of hospitality resemble, other than a “reduction in domination” of vulnerable migrants by the actors and the institutions that exploit their precarious status (Boudou 2017) ?

Whether from the perspective of local governments or from civil society initiatives, the asymmetrical dynamics created by efforts to welcome migrants raise questions that mirror those inherent to the notion of hospitality itself. Anthropologists have shown that this relationship to the other implies limits to its duration and a form of reciprocity on the part of guests (Gotman 2001, Pitt-Rivers 1977). How long can individuals and groups of migrants benefit from measures of protection without creating backlash? In some cases, the dispensing of aid produces what some actors consider to be obligations on the part of migrants receiving it, to demonstrate their deservingness or offer a form of contribution. Do the national origin and racial categorization attributed to these migrants have an impact on these expectations? How has the pandemic context influenced the perception of migrants and the possibility of providing them with aid?

In these dynamics, the question of migrants’ own perspectives – from their varying degrees of agency to their evolving migratory project – is also fundamental. In many current contexts, migrants are clearly victims of discrimination by administrative agents or by local populations, broadly speaking. Contradictions between the discourse of local authorities and the forms of intervention by agents responsible for enforcing the law are not uncommon. They are often the sign of inconsistencies between the perception of migratory issues by local governments and the way foreign populations experience the process of urban incorporation. To what extent do welcoming policies and civil society initiatives correspond to needs and expectations that are often difficult to ascertain? The high levels of vulnerability and invisibility can contribute, from the point of view of migrants, to maintaining distance with institutions, especially when the local discourse of welcome coexists with on-going State enforcement and detention operations. From the perspective of the daily urban interactions experienced by migrant populations, how does the hospitable tone of official discourse and local governmental action manifest itself?

This symposium in Toulouse, France (May 12th-13th, 2022) thus proposes to explore the underlying processes in the construction of welcoming initiatives towards migrants in urban areas, to question the theoretical frameworks that support them, including the duty of hospitality in humanitarian action, the offer of “sanctuary” by local authorities in conflict with the State, and the cosmopolitan and progressive image of the “welcoming city”. The conference aims to continue these lines of analysis in an international perspective, by bringing together scholars from Europe, the Americas, Africa, and beyond, in order to interrogate the urban reception of migrants from perspectives that are complementary and attentive to specific environments, in terms of the characteristics of migration dynamics and the existing forms of action. Approaches from anthropology, sociology, geography, political science, law, and urban studies are welcome, in order to participate in a multidisciplinary and multi-scalar dialogue that we hope can make a significant contribution to the field.

Submission guidelines

The languages of the conference will be English and French. Proposals of approximately 500 words, as well as a short biography (5-10 lines) should be sent to

before January 10th 2022.

A text and, if possible, slides offering a visual outline of the presentation, should be sent by April 30th.

The organizers will offer funding for travel expenses for the junior researchers that request it.

Confirmed keynote speakers

  • Michel Agier (EHESS, IRD),
  • Susan Bibler Coutin (University of California at Irvine),
  • Thomas Lacroix (CNRS – Migrinter)

Program & organizing committee

  • Lionel Arnaud (Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier)
  • Etienne Ciapin (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)
  • Laurent Faret (Université de Paris)
  • Annalisa Lendaro (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)
  • Stephanie Lima (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)
  • Samuel Malby (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)
  • Hasnia-Sonia Missaoui (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)
  • Hilary Sanders (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès)


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