In May, MigrationWork colleagues and Connection partners from Turin, ANCI Piemonte, (with representatives from Asti, Settimo Torinese, Cuneo) Paris, Prague, Thessaloniki, ANATOLIKI S.A, visited Zagreb to learn about the city’s experience of developing their Action Plan for Integration that was adopted in January 2022.

The capital is the first city to develop a local plan and has done so ahead of the delayed revision of the national action plan so is currently the only one in Croatia. The city of Zagreb and its partners have made impressive progress in a short time. Two prominent themes emerged during the visit: developing a local integration plan in the context of a restrictive and contested national immigration policy, and the relationship between a long-term strategic approach and crises – for Zagreb the impact of the war in Ukraine which began a month after the local plan was adopted.

Local and National context

The City of Zagreb was part of the working group for creation of the new Croatian national action plan 2021-23 (updating the 2017-2019 plan) and had originally hoped to develop a local plan for the implementation of this strategy once adopted. Zagreb decided to push forward with their local plan once they realised the national plan would not be available, and being part of Connection project has been a key driver in developing it, giving weight to the process, providing some funding and applying learning from other cities on the topic.

For the current city assembly, led by a Green-Left coalition since May 2021, integration is high on the agenda, reflecting the roots of many councillors in social and rights-based movements. In 2015, the previous administration and citizens stepped up to show solidarity to displaced people arriving and usually transiting via the ‘Balkan Route’, but in recent years after the closure of the borders, the national discourse on immigration has been dominated by securitisation, playing out in the ‘push backs’ both on and inside the borders of Croatia. The achievements of the city are all the more significant against this backdrop. Zagreb’s integration plan was accepted by council members of all political persuasions, reflecting some of the other factors influencing political positions on integration, such as labour shortages.

Taking part in the Working Group for the national plan provided a useful basis for developing a city level strategy, but the development committee (made up of city departments and NGOs) was also not constrained by this framework and could be more innovative, encouraged by learning from other municipalities and regions in this Community of Practice. One example of how the city of Zagreb moved beyond the national plan is by including asylum seekers in several measures, as well as those already granted International Protection. This amendment was made following a consultation process on a draft action plan with NGOs and other stakeholders.

Collaboration with NGOs in the city

We had the privilege of visiting five different associations who are key partners in the implementation of the Action Plan, showcasing the activities, relationships and places that are vital to processes of integration in the Zagreb context.

Association Živi atelje
Founded to preserve and promote the legacy of the sculptor Vera Dajht-Kralj, this interdisciplinary NGO uses collaborative art projects to facilitate the integration of new arrivals with those for whom Croatia is already home, into a new ever-evolving community. One project, the Women to Women collective uses workshops, gatherings and excursions to create a safe, secure and intimate space for women to share, exchange and build a support network.

Are you Syrious
A volunteer-run media and advocacy group which emerged in response to humanitarian need in transit camps in 2015. They operate a free-shop for both refugees and other local people, sourcing donations from and engaging with the wider community and delivery integration programmes and language and literacy classes. AYS are also part of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, collecting and submitting testimony about push backs and rights violations taking place on the ground.

Centre for Cultural Dialogue
The CCD runs several programmes to promote cohesion and inclusion with emphasis on empowering new arrivals to live fulfilling and independent lives, while building trust through dialogue in local communities. They also run public events and media campaigns with the aim of reshaping the narratives on migration.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Croatia
Part of the international humanitarian organisation JRS, JRS Croatia run a refugee integration centre based in Zagreb which is open to refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants. Their Volunteer Coordinator, Toni, is a refugee which marks an important step in their vision to empower refugees and change perceptions in Croatian society.

Centre for Peace Studies
Growing out of the anti-war movement in 1996, the centre promotes non-violence and social change through education, research and activism. A key part of their work is supporting the inclusion of people with lived experience of migration in decision making processes for integration and immigration policy.

Repeatedly across these visits to these diverse organisations we heard a clear message of support for Zagreb’s integration plan. We also learnt about the significant challenges of operating in Croatian national policy context where violent push backs continue both at and inside the border, preventing people entering the country but also undermining and sometimes threatening the great work these organisations are doing on integration with both migrants and local communities in Zagreb and other regions. (For more information on ‘push backs’, see Asylum in Europe and the recent judgement from the European Court of Human Rights that Croatia “violated the rights of Madina Hussiny, a six-year-old girl who was hit and killed by a train after being pushed back to Serbia in 2017”, Amnesty International . Members of these organisations shared accounts of people trying to apply for asylum at police stations in Zagreb and subsequently ‘disappearing’. The direct result of these practices mean that the numbers of those seeking international protection in Croatia are relatively low .

These experiences of NGOs and their volunteers reflect the wider trend of the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance taking place across Europe. It is Illegal in Croatia to support undocumented migrants, including providing assistance to apply for asylum and volunteers have been detained.

Many of the concerns voiced by associations were echoed by the City of Zagreb. There are 6 Members of Croatian Parliament in Zagreb who are vocal in the national parliament on human rights issues. However, as immigration policy is the responsibility of the State, the city of Zagreb has limited influence on these matters. This is, of course, the experience of many cities, including those involved in this Connection Community of Practice: national governments and politicians make the laws, but it is in cities that migrant integration takes place.

A strategic response to the Ukraine crisis

At the time of the workshop (10 May) over 17,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Croatia and 11,761 had been granted Temporary Protection. Zagreb, prior to the Ukraine crisis was home to around 500 refugees is now welcoming nearly 4000 displaced Ukrainians.

In line with several other EU countries, Croatia has developed a set of national measures for Ukrainian arrivals, including an accommodation scheme and employment support. On a local level Zagreb is providing medical and mental health care, and culture, education and social welfare initiatives such as free library access and activities for children. The city has been able to extend key measures of the recently adopted Action Plan to include Ukrainians granted Temporary Protection. Having a strategic approach in place, including coordination structures with unprecedented levels of cooperation between the departments of the city and NGOs has enabled a faster more effective response to support these new arrivals. The political response to the crisis has also made it easier for the local government to mobilise resources for their integration agenda. The City Assembly has seized this opportunity to advocate that these measures should be applied to all refugees, not only the Ukrainians.

Zagreb’s response to the needs of Ukrainians demonstrates the benefits of the City’s strategic approach remaining future-proof, so that it can include different, and often unpredictable, kinds of new arrivals or immigration statuses, such as ‘Temporary Protection’ in the case of Ukrainian refugees. This principle will be tested again as the City hopes, in the next phase, to extend the plan to third country nationals working in Croatia.

The reception and welcome of Ukrainians strengthens the case for the kind of approach the city of Zagreb is pioneering in the Croatian context. While concrete positive impacts are already clear, notably close collaboration with NGOs, in the longer term the plan’s key collaborators are optimistic that the Zagreb plan will inspire other cities to develop their own local level plans and even influence national policy. We heard from other partners about cooperation on city levels that push for change at the national level from the bottom up: Paris is part of the Network of cities in France ANVITA -Association Nationale des villes et territoires accueillants and the mayor of Thessaloniki works with The Cities Network for Integration.

The experiences of NGOs working directly with the people targeted by Croatia’s national immigration policies echo testimonies of discrimination and violence from across European contexts. The City may be constrained by this context, but the establishment of the Action Plan Committee has created a platform for these organisations and the migrant and refugee communities they work and has offered assurance that their expertise is valued and listened to. In the workshop wrap up meeting, attendees remarked sentiments of hope and appreciation of the City’s actions expressed in common by the different people we met during study visits. Zagreb’s commitment to collaboration with civil society offers valuable lessons for other cities in Croatia and beyond.

You can read more about the Zagreb Action Plan here:
https://eurocities.eu/latest/zagreb-is-ready-to-welcome-more-refugees
Zagreb’s website resource developed as part of their Action Plan for Integration:
https://integracija.zagreb.hr