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Mixed migration and cities: Urban frontlines for displacement and mobility

A UN report predicts that by 2050 about two-thirds of the world’s population could live in urban areas. In many cases, the process of urbanization is considered to result largely from migration. Urban centers attract different types of migration movements, both forced and voluntary, permanent and temporary, internal and international. One source estimates that in 2018, 60% of all refugees and 80% of internally displaced persons lived in urban centers, outnumbering refugee populations living in camp settings. This reality poses a significant challenge for urban policy, which has conventionally not been an integral part of debates on migration policy at the national level. In cities, people moving for a variety of reasons with a variety of legal statuses find themselves integrated by some and marginalized by others.

Life for refugees and migrants in cities is often framed in terms of opportunities and risks, both for refugees and migrants themselves and the cities receiving them, whether permanently or temporarily. In urban centers refugees and migrants hope to find easier access to resources, such as work, education, housing and other basic services. Many cities are both destinations for refugees and migrants, as well as hubs for those on the move. Increasingly securitized and fluctuating migration policies can strand migrants in transit and prevent them from moving on for indeterminate periods, as recently witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic. Generally, when well-managed, migration to cities is proven to contribute to economic growth, both locally and in countries of origin, cultural diversity and deferment of population decline. Yet, when a city’s resources are overwhelmed or lacking and when there is no political will to integrate foreigners, it pushes refugees and migrants to the margins, exposing them to highly precarious living situations and rights violations.

As of 2019, the Turkish city Gaziantep, not far from the Syrian border, hosts roughly 500,000 Syrian refugees. While the arrival of refugees put pressure on the city’s resources, Gaziantep’s integration approach is largely considered a success. The city of Cúcuta along the Venezuelan frontier with Colombia hosts a large number of displaced Venezuelans, with an estimated 5,000 people crossing into the city daily. In Cúcuta, Venezuelans join a large population of Colombia’s internally displaced and confront similar challenges with accessing basic services as the host community, while the municipality struggles to adapt. In Tangier, at the juncture between Africa and Europe, the increase of refugees and migrants has caused social tensions and ‘many Moroccans in Tangier consider Sub-Saharan immigrants a threat to their city’. In South Africa, rising unemployment was considered to play a large part in the escalation of xenophobic violence across many of the country’s cities last year. In Gulf Cooperation Countries, the coronavirus pandemic has shed fresh light on the conditions under which migrant workers live and work. There, foreign workers are often more numerous than the locally born population, yet there is little effort towards their integration. In Europe, 30% of Berlin’s population in 2018 was deemed to have a migration background and the city is (self-)perceived as a ‘city of diversity that has challenges but also benefits’.

There exists a tension between national and local approaches to refugees and migration, well exemplified by the rise of so-called sanctuary cities around the globe and an often more pragmatic approach to migration at local level, as opposed to more ideologically driven and increasingly securitized approaches at national levels,  leading to a normalization of extreme migration policies and actions. It has been said that sanctuary cities challenge ‘the state monopoly on who can stay and under what conditions’. In the United States, the term sanctuary cities is associated with states and cities with opposing laws or policies to the mandate of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency– it has gained renewed attention during the Trump administration’s clampdown on immigration. Similar movements have sprung up across Europe, from Palermo to Glasgow, in an effort to protect those without regular immigration status.

In a rapidly urbanizing world, various global and regional processes acknowledge the key role which cities play in managing today’s intricate mosaic of human mobility. Yet, a key obstacle posed to those seeking to integrate urban and migration policy is the lack of data on migration gathered at the municipal level. Cities host hard to reach populations, including people without regular status and those on the move, which presents challenges in terms of data collection, protection responses and policy development. What are the experiences of refugees and migrants in different urban centers around the world? Which risks and opportunities do cities present to refugees and migrants, and vice-versa? To what extent do cities offer protection and opportunities to refugees and migrants? How will refugees and migrants in cities be affected by climate vulnerabilities? How do different global and regional processes influence urban approaches to mobility and what can we learn from how cities govern migration issues compared to national migration polices? What are existing data gaps regarding mobile populations in cities? What is the relation between cities, migration and pandemics, such as COVID-19 and what will our future ‘arrival’ cities look like?

This year’s Mixed Migration Review (MMR) 2020 explores these questions around ‘urban migration’ as the overarching topic. The narrative around mixed migration in cities is not a straightforward one and effective migration policy straddles various intersecting policy areas and depends on the individual make-up and resources of each city. As every year, the MMR2020 will offer its yearly updates on global mixed migration trends and policy developments and examine (as this year’s main theme) the complexities around mixed migration in cities, through essays, mini-case studies (‘urban spotlights’) and interviews with leading experts and thought leaders.