The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The essay’s author Jessica Sadye Wolff is a Program Manager at Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab.
With mixed migration trends set to continue making an important contribution to the growth of urban populations, cities cannot afford to ignore the needs of migrants and refugees in their planning. Indeed, it is imperative that inclusivity be the hallmark of how destination cities prepare for the future.
In 2020, globally, there are an estimated 272 million international migrants and 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons. Trends in rural-to-urban migration spurred by climate change and increasingly unsustainable rural livelihoods, combined with moves prompted by broader economic aspirations, are driving people to cities at an unprecedented rate. In 2018, 55 percent of the global population lived in urban areas, a figure that is predicted to rise to 68 percent by 2050. Forced migration also causes refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to flee to cities, with 61 percent of refugees and 80 percent of IDPs now living in urban areas. Urban populations are increasing worldwide, putting pressure on existing city services and compounding concerns about inclusivity for vulnerable or displaced urban populations. This essay explores how cities are planning for current and future arrivals of migrants and refugees in their municipal jurisdiction.
Context and trends
Why people migrate
People who are migrating move to cities seeking security, livelihood opportunities, social connections, access to services and, in some cases, a longer-term home. Depending on the level of resources that individuals already have, some will be able to rely on existing social networks to establish themselves in a new city; others will arrive with limited connections and no financial safety net. When considering pathways to integration and long-term stability for both migrants and refugees, quick access to employment is paramount.
While immigration policy is designed at national and international levels, decisions made at the city level by local governments often have the most tangible impact on the day-to-day experience of a new city resident and present opportunities for integration and longer-term stability. Considerations such as a centralised immigrant services office, schools that offer multi-language learning, and direct representation of immigrant communities in local government are just some of the policies or programs that can be implemented at city level to help improve immigrants’ daily lives. In the context of mixed migration, the issue of how to include irregular migrants in city programming and development goals is also a priority and a particular challenge.
The next major destinations
In twenty years, the estimated number of international migrants has increased by over 120 million people, from 150 million people in 2000 to over 272 million as of 2020. Historically, the majority of migrants have lived in Asia, Europe and North America and we can expect to see sustained high rates of international migration across these regions, following trends in the early 2000s. For both economic migrants and forcibly displaced populations, the majority of international migration happens regionally, despite pervasive media coverage and fearmongering rhetoric, such as during the 2015 “migration crisis”, suggesting the contrary. In 2019, 88.9 percent of migrants in sub-Saharan Africa and 83.1 percent of migrants in South-Eastern Asia originated from another country in the same region. When considering forced displacement, 73 percent of the world’s refugees lived in countries neighboring their country of origin in 2019. Irregular migration, while hard to quantify, remains a common phenomenon of both intra- and inter-regional movements.
Looking forward, the key questions are:
- Where will migration rates increase?
- Where are the next major destinations for urban migration?
- How can cities prepare?
Though the impacts of Covid-19 may temporarily dampen and even reverse migration and urbanisation rates in 2020 due both to depressed interest in and inability to migrate, as well as restrictive immigration policies, migration trends are still tracking toward long-term urban population growth.
Data on population growth rates, pressures of climate change, and ongoing conflict can help anticipate, to a degree, future migration patterns. Recent research confirms that increases in GDP per capita in poor countries lead to an increase in emigration, suggesting that the overall migrant stock, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Central and South Asia, is poised to increase in the next few decades. The World Bank estimates that climate change will internally displace more than 143 million people in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by 2050, potentially creating “hotspots” in nearby cities also vulnerable to sea level rise. The effects of climate change in South Asian countries will simultaneously threaten rural livelihoods, negatively impact living conditions, and destabilise coastal cities, likely driving both rural and urban residents to rapidly expanding cities. The displacement of Venezuelans to cities across Colombia and Brazil will likely become a protracted situation, especially as other countries have enacted policies to prevent cross-border travel of Venezuelans.
In the next few decades, urban population growth will also be concentrated in a few countries. UN projections indicate that 90 percent of urban population growth between 2018 and 2050 will happen in Asia and Africa; specifically, China, India and Nigeria will see their urban populations grow by 416 million, 255 million and 189 million people respectively. These countries each already have at least one megacity with a population of more than 10 million people, where city services for existing residents are already overextended.
The most vulnerable cities adjacent to rural communities at high risk of sea level rise, particularly in South Asia, as well as cities hosting refugees from Venezuela and Syria, are likely candidates for an increased arrival of refugees and migrants in the near future. These cities—and their refugee, migrant and long-time residents—would benefit from understanding the practicalities, value, and imperative of building a welcoming and inclusive arrival city.
How do we plan and build welcoming and inclusive arrival cities for regular and irregular migrants, including forcibly displaced populations? An inclusive city ensures that all “plans, policies and programs explicitly include the needs and perspectives of displaced and marginalised residents.” And a welcoming city seeks to “build connections between immigrants and longer-term residents; set goals, monitor impact, and adjust strategies as needed; design for equitable access; and implement in partnership.”
Generally, planning for and building welcoming arrival cities occurs through design and implementation of urban policies that are inclusive of and accessible to all city residents, including those marginalised due to migration status or displacement. Migrant, refugee, and IDP communities experience unique vulnerabilities as compared to citizen residents, especially since varying legal statuses in their country or city of arrival may not afford them equivalent protection under the law or equal access to local and national services. Combined with instances of prejudice and xenophobia by both government officials and local residents, the barriers to accessing city services are higher for migrants and displaced individuals, often in ways that are invisible or unknown to citizens and officials.
At the same time, migrants and displaced populations in any given city are not monolithic groups. Individual and community needs vary depending on legal status, language, education, access to services, access to existing systems of wealth, social networks, and the duration of time spent in a given city, among other considerations.
Better by design
As the level of urbanisation continues to increase globally and rates of protracted displacement rise, cities will be presentedwithacriticalchoicetosupportallurbanresidents regardless of citizenship, and to design welcoming arrival cities that present pathways to integration. By focusing on planning and policy development that includes migrants and refugees at the city level, we can identify tangible, actionable steps that have been proven to improve not only immigrants’ integration and outcomes, but local economic development and social cohesion, as well.
While we can anticipate some future destinations of urban migration and forced displacement based on trends, unexpected shocks such as sudden-onset climate events or new outbreaks of conflict may alter migratory patterns, creating new “arrival cities” without significant histories of urban migration. Especially for these cities, local leadership, inclusive urban planning, and dedicated funding will determine if they actually become welcoming cities that enable arriving migrants and refugees to establish themselves and engage in the local community. Creating pathways for integration and long-term stability will affect individuals’ ability to substantively engage in the local economy, politics and culture.
The costs of failure
Failure to do so could quickly lead to overstretched local services, precarious livelihoods and living situations for migrants and refugees, widespread underemployment, and rising animosity from long-term residents. These risks are especially great in cities that will experience rapid population growth and do not plan to welcome new city residents. Building inclusive urban destination cities will not only improve individuals’ ability to establish a sustainable livelihood and engage locally, but it will also promote wider community cohesion and steps towards sustainable urban development.
Arguably, building inclusive cities does not require new strategies of urban planning or innovative technology/ design/service solutions because strong examples of effective strategies already exist. However, in order to plan and build welcoming arrival cities successfully, cities must align the necessary funds, capacity and commitment around matters of arrival, housing, employment and citizenship. Prioritising inclusivity requires commitment and political will, and the finances to act upon good intentions.
Yet inclusive urban planning is just one component of a larger migration system, and building communities that are truly inclusive to refugees and migrants also requires comprehensive refugee and migration policies. Only by developing holistic systems at the national and regional level will true inclusion of all refugees and migrants be possible.
Three priorities for best practice
To achieve this genuine inclusion, cities must demonstrate leadership to shape local narratives and advocacy efforts; prioritise the development and implementation of inclusive city plans; and commit and generate funding for expanded city services. Though rapid urbanisation can intensify needs and present challenges to scaling, cities as varied and far-flung as Bogotá, Salt Lake City, Bangui and Athens offer encouraging examples of inclusive city planning in these three primary areas. These cases constitute a living manual of actionable best practices, as well as resources, to build a welcoming city.
1. Leadership: control the narrative
One of the most powerful and cost-effective strategies a city can deploy is to lead with a proactive narrative of inclusivity and engagement. Local leaders can define the narrative and guide collective action to elevate conversations around cities’ role in supporting urban migrants and displaced populations. Mayors, specifically, set the tone for community building in their city. Among many examples of inclusive leadership is Giuseppina Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, who won a UNESCO prize for her local leadership and management of refugees arriving to her small Italian island, while calling upon larger European Union institutions to be more accountable. Other leaders, particularly Marvin Rees of Bristol (UK), and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, for example, frequently use their platform to speak up on behalf of their city’s diverse residents.
Resisting restrictions, countering hostility
Outspoken city leaders can assert a positive message, even amidst restrictive national immigration policy. In the United States (US), Executive Order 1388 on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement was issued in September 2019, establishing an unprecedented requirement that local and state governments approve in writing any refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions. Immediately, there was an outpouring of statements from mayors and state governors affirming the importance of refugees who had been resettled in their communities. Such public declarations not only indicate to recently resettled refugees that a city has set an intention for inclusion, but they also demonstrate to long-time residents that welcoming new residents and supporting their integration is a local priority.
Research suggests that a sudden arrival of refugees can increase citizens’ hostility towards refugees and immigrants and their support for restrictive immigration policies. Local governments and elected officials can counteract pervasive and toxic messages of xenophobia and help build welcoming arrival cities by demonstrating leadership in advocacy efforts to enumerate a city’s values, and shape local narratives around migration. In Barcelona, the municipal government launched their “Barcelona Ciutat Refugi” plan in September 2015 to “gear the city up to receiving and assisting refugees, providing the necessary services and guaranteeing their rights.” The city has widely advertised the importance of local resident engagement and commitment towards building a welcoming city, asking its residents to proactively engage at both city and personal levels.
At the international level, cities are pursuing collective action and advocacy through the Mayors Migration Council, a platform for elevating city perspectives in international migration policy discussions. The aim is to formalise cities’ access to such conversations, while building their capacity to advocate for representation and funding in national, regional and international policy processes.
The role of international aid agencies
2. Urban planning: think inclusivity from the get-go
The central tenets of urban planning—community engagement, data, and strategic design—are even more relevant when building an inclusive city for migrants and displaced populations.
In cities where tensions can arise between citizen and non -citizen residents, the lack of electoral accountability can lead to underfunding and underprioritising critical services for migrants and displaced people. Without the right to vote in nearly all countries, migrants and refugees are disenfranchised in local politics, making intentional community engagement even more critical. As a rare example, immigrants living in in Buenos Aires are entitled to vote in municipal elections, though the bureaucratic requirements of registering to vote remain a significant barrier leading to low rates of electoral participation by non-citizens.
The lack of electoral representation for migrants and refugees reveals two implications for cities: 1) in order to design services that are truly inclusive, local governments must feel accountable to all city residents, not just those who vote in elections, and 2) other forms of direct engagement with migrant communities, including irregular migrants, is critical for grounding city services and directing them to be more relevant and reducing barriers for all city residents.
Customary approaches to community engagement, such as open- invitation community meetings or online surveys, may not be particularly inclusive due to erroneous assumptions about migrants’ awareness of certain city offices and their responsibilities, or limited multilingual accessibility. Dedicated outreach and relationship-building between city officials and migrant communities, in formal and informal settings, as well as allocating resources to language accessibility across city government offices, is paramount for effective and diverse community engagement. For example, the government of the US city of Boston has not only neighborhood-specific community representatives, but also staff as designated contacts for immigrant communities in the city. In situations where direct engagement with city governments is challenging or could be risky for individuals, such as migrants without legal documentation, engaging with community organisations that can represent collective needs can be effective.
New American Economy, a New York-based immigration policy research and advocacy organisation, created the Cities Index which evaluates local policies for immigrant inclusion across five areas (government leadership, economic empowerment, inclusivity, community and legal support) in the 100 largest cities in the US. The index compares differences in socioeconomic outcomes of immigrants and US-born citizens in each city, identifying those with the most inclusive policies and strongest pathways to integration, thereby revealing best practices that can be applied elsewhere. Of the 10 cities with the highest index score, eight offer comprehensive policies for community engagement, such as setting up a local office for immigrant services, ensuring immigrant representation in government positions, and liaising with immigrant communities directly.
Good plans need sound data
Obtaining accurate data on migrants and displaced populations at the local level is challenging. Most data on migrants and refugees from national censuses or international migrant stock calculations are quantified at the national level. There are often disincentives—such as concerns over legal status or fear of deportation for irregular migrants—to participate in formal population surveys. However, working toward an accurate estimation of the migrant or displaced population is essential for planning and budgeting.
Without systematised, local- level data, cities must dedicate resources and staff toward data collection efforts to ensure services are designed and located appropriately. REACH is a humanitarian research organisation that works with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to gather city- and neighborhood-level data and conduct area-based assessments in the absence of existing data to guide local planning. In 2018, REACH completed participatory mapping exercises and focus group interviews to identify neighborhoods in Brazilian cities with a high concentration of displaced Venezuelans. In 2019, the research was expanded to a representative sample of Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants in order to conduct a thorough socioeconomic and vulnerability assessment to inform opportunities for local integration and humanitarian support.
Data can also be used to strengthen city narratives around inclusion. New American Economy quantifies the economic impact of immigrants in US cities and advises cities to use these data as an evidence-based approach to ground conversations about immigrant integration at the city-level. For example, in 2017, the 152,558 immigrants living in the Salt Lake City Metro Area had a combined spending power of $3.1 billion in 2017 and contributed over $900 million in taxes. While immigrants also bring intangible and unquantifiable benefits beyond economic value to a city, this is one way to tangibly account for their impact and to present an evidence-based argument to counter negative opinions and advocate for inclusive policies at the local and national level.
Mainstreaming migration response
Embedding inclusive policies into city plans ensures that building a welcoming city becomes an overall urban development goal and a critical aspect of urban resilience. Examples include:
- The Kampala Capital City Authority released the Strategic Response to Displacement, Migration and Resettlement in April 2018. This was the Ugandan capital’s first ever plan to acknowledge that its refugee population (most recently estimated at over 98,000 in 2017), as well as its migrant population, have both unique needs that require support from city government as well as needs that overlap with those of the host population. For example, there is a dire need for more affordable housing and improved sanitation systems in neighborhoods where refugees and poor Ugandans alike live in under-resourced informal settlements.
- The City of Athens ratified the Strategic Action Plan for the integration of migrants and refugees as well as the Preparedness and Response Mechanism for the management of potential refugee crises in February 2019. Both were designed by the Athens Coordination Center for Migrants and Refugee issues, which brings together 92 different organisations across the city. The Strategic Action Plan outlines goals to strengthen the city’s service provision based on mapping efforts to identify existing service coverage and gaps. The Preparedness and Response Mechanism establishes preparatory actions and systems, including a risk matrix of potential situations as well as protocols to identify which city offices will be engaged in a response, so the municipality can respond successfully to future refugee crises.
From paper to practice: four case studies
In order to be successful, city plans must go beyond frameworks and policies towards implementation of programs that provide expanded services for migrants and forcibly displaced people. The examples below highlight practices across four distinct sectors of city policy.
- Arrival: In Bogotá, the High Council for the Rights of Victims, Peace and Reconciliation was established in 2011 to provide services for IDPs arriving in the Colombian capital fleeing armed conflict. Upon arrival at any one of nine dedicated arrival centres across the city, individuals are offered support and evaluated by psychosocial and legal teams who then determine which immediate services may be required (such as food assistance and transportation). The city’s High Council also coordinates with other city government units to ensure that appropriate accommodations are made to ensure accessibility for IDPs including support finding employment to establish financial security.
- Housing: In Germany, in order to prevent widespread homelessness among thousands of asylum seekers arriving in 2014, the federal government approved section 246 of the National Building Code, a new federal land-use policy to build temporary refugee housing in non-residential areas. Under this new provision, Hamburg built over 15,000 new places in temporary housing sites across the city, while also increasing construction for additional permanent social housing facilities. These facilities were initially built under the temporary provisions of section 246 and intended for asylum seeker accommodation, but will ultimately become a part of the city’s social housing stock, available for citizens as well.
- Employment: In Canada, the Integration Office for Newcomers in Montreal established ‘Employ Nexus,’ a program which offers consultation services to local businesses struggling with employee recruitment and encourages hiring of immigrants. Furthermore, immigrants with specific employment barriers are offered six-month internships to gain local work experience in their professional field.
- Citizenship: In Los Angeles, the city government established New Americans Centers in city libraries where Department of Justice-accredited librarians provide advice on immigrant rights and citizenship. In 2018, the facilities had already served 46,000 immigrant residents and the mayor announced the programs’ expansion across the city.
It is critical that plans and investments are made in alignment with actual destinations; otherwise, governments risk investing in underutilised or even entirely vacant urban areas. National governments are currently building and trying to attract internal migrants in China, or international migrants in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, to new cities to prevent overcrowding of existing cities and to diversify economic hubs. However, without existing social, cultural and economic draws, the newly planned cities run the risk of remaining vacant for a long time. This phenomenon is especially apparent in the prevalence of China’s “ghost cities”; while the exact number is unknown due to restricted data, estimates suggest potentially hundreds of thousands of new apartments in planned, but unpopulated cities across the country.
Challenges for cities of transit
The examples above focus on destination cities where community development and inclusionary efforts entail long-term investment in and engagement with new local residents. However, determining how to allocate limited city resources in a transit city that may see high numbers of transitory migrants, especially irregular migrants, is even more challenging. In these cities, the probability of irregular migration may be higher, resulting in a population that is highly vulnerable and at great risk of exploitation along their journey. For example, approximately 920,000 migrants and refugees traveled through Belgrade between 2015 and 2016. Other transit cities, such as Agadez in Niger and Cúcuta in Colombia, experience mixed migration flows. Significant numbers of migrants pass through, yet many also stay in such cities, due to varying circumstances including limited financial resources for further travel or, more recently, borders closed (often only ostensibly) because of Covid-19.
Even transitory migrants depend on and can strain city services for temporary accommodation (if available), health care, food, and sanitation. Such significant population movements challenge existing city systems. Due to the (intended) temporary nature of these migrants, however, transit cities will likely prioritise investment in more short-term arrival procedures and safe temporary housing options, rather than in longer- term goals of employment and citizenship. Transit cities should collaborate with local and international development organisations in order to best serve transitory populations. UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and NGOs often set up centralised locations for information and service provision in transit cities, including Agadez and Cúcuta. Local organisations also provide essential support for refugees and migrants. For example, seeing a gap in existing city services, a volunteer collective called the Baobab Experience in Rome established basic medical, legal and social services for people who lacked access to official immigration centres, serving more than 35,000 people in 2016.
Locations initially regarded as transit cities, however, could morph into arrival cities when transitory populations for a variety of reasons tend to stay more permanently. When this happens, local governments will need to react and emphasise employment and citizenship efforts for these groups. Effective responses for transit cities will vary depending on available resources, the local political situation, the intended duration, actual duration and number of refugees and migrants passing through who end up staying, but prioritising protection of all migrants should be an imperative in all cities.
3. Funding: an ever-scarcer commodity
In order to act on stated intentions of inclusion, cities require funding to expand existing services to accommodate new urban residents, and to design and execute new inclusive services. However, city budgets for immigrant, refugee and IDP services, if at all present, are small, and, in many cities, getting smaller. City budgeting is a complicated political process, reflecting the nuances of voting residents’ and local leadership preferences. For a global report on inclusive city planning, the International Rescue Committee interviewed 23 local governments in cities with significant populations of migrants or displaced persons; only five had dedicated budgets for refugee or immigrant services. When asked what would be the single most important additional input to serve their refugee or IDP residents, half of the cities in the IRC report said they needed greater access to financial resources. Funding for inclusive city services needs to be an explicit priority of local leadership and the reality of increasing city budgets for these services is dependent on local political will and budget constraints.
Cities almost constantly operate with limited resources and underfunded budget lines and face challenging decisions about program prioritisation. It is critical to demonstrate how prioritising access for particularly vulnerablegroupsinthecityactuallyimprovesaccessibility and inclusion for all residents. The needs of newly arrived migrants or displaced persons often overlap with other vulnerable groups living in a city. As newly arrived migrants and refugees often require inexpensive initial accommodation, many will move into neighborhoods, usually far from the city centre, already underserved in terms of quality housing and city services. Targeting specific services and aid programs towards one group of city residents can directly or indirectly elevate tensions among city residents by exacerbating inequalities and increasing local competition. For example, providing rental grants to Syrian refugees in Lebanon can increase rental prices in the housing market overall, negatively impacting poor Lebanese households. Emphasising neighborhood-based planning, which dedicates funding to build up services accessible to all residents in a given geographic area, can be a more effective approach.
Go to the top
A critical source of financing is an infusion of national funding specifically allocated to urban areas experiencing high rates of in-migration. In April 2019, President Iván Duque of Colombia announced an investment of more than $229 million across multiple lines of credit from national banks for border departments and cities which have received more than 1.5 million displaced Venezuelans. The funding will be allocated toward the development of new jobs, humanitarian aid, health care and sanitation, and capacity building initiatives which would likely not be possible at scale without supplementary national funding.
Given limited local budgets, cities must look to alternative sources, such as public-private partnerships or collaborations with development and humanitarian agencies. Since such organisations are mandated to serve displaced populations they offer opportunities to identify program synergies to use multiple funding sources to expand services to advance city development plans. For example, since 2011, over 600,000 Syrian refugees fled to Jordan, with more than 270,000 living in the capital city, Amman. The rapid population growth aggravated an already overburdened solid waste management system as waste levels increased by 25 percent. In order to expand the city’s landfill capacity, and to contribute to other important infrastructural developments, a €50 million loan was co-financed by donors including the UK Department for International Development, the European Union, and the US Agency for International Development. By tapping into these streams of financing, the Greater Amman Municipality was able to address not only an urgent need triggered by the recent population influx, but also to enhance a critical municipal service more broadly.
In 2016, as a part of the Grand Bargain (an agreement among several of the largest donors and aid providers to guide and reform humanitarian response for the subsequent five years) signatories committed to providing 25 percent of program funding directly to local and national governments for implementation. However, in 2019, only 10 of 52 signatories met that target, suggesting that a significant amount of funding that could be used directly by cities to expand their existing services is not yet being channelled to local authorities. Donors note that a primary challenge in allocating greater funding directly to local actors is a lack of capacity, reflecting the importance of pairing funding with training and capacity building in certain contexts.
Migration will be a defining feature of the next several decades. As outlined in the examples above, building welcoming cities for all people in mixed migration flows depends on commitment and political will. For cities that do demonstrate leadership and initiative in advancing plans for a welcoming urban environment, funding will likely remain the most significant barrier to expanding inclusive services.
Importantly, inclusive urban planning doesn’t exist in a vacuum and should not be seen as a substitute or band-aid for comprehensive migration policy at national and regional levels. To fully support refugees and migrants of varying backgrounds, legal status, and long-term aspirations, comprehensive migration policies are required, including pathways to regularity and residency. Mayors, local governments, and other city planners must take the initiative to work towards a welcoming city, but such efforts are most effective when migrants and refugees can safely arrive and, if they so choose, stay.