The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Vittoria Zanuso is the executive director of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), an organisation that helps cities influence national and international deliberations on migration, refugee protection, and inclusion. Prior to joining the MMC, Zanuso held multiple positions at the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.
Seeing migrant newcomers to cities as competing with existing residents is a dangerous conceptual error that plays into the hands of right-wing populists and extremist groups, warns Vittoria Zanuso. Instead, city planners should embrace migration as an opportunity to build resilience and shape national policies.
There are lots of Fora mayors around the world. What does the Mayors Migration Council offer that’s different, in terms of its added value? And what are your aspirations?
It has been fascinating to see the exponential increase in the number of city networks over the past few years. Many of these focus on environmental sustainability and climate change, but it is great to see more and more city networks now dealing with migration and refugee issues. But even with these inroads, cities continue to face obstacles when it comes to accessing and influencing national, regional, and international policy deliberations that have a great impact on local realities. The MMC was created back in 2018 by a group of visionary mayors as a direct response to this challenge. Rather than launching a new network, our founders felt there was a need for an agile organisation that would help mayors access key inter-state policy deliberations, build their diplomatic skills, and unlock international funding.
While we work closely with C40 Cities, United Cities and Local Governments, and other networks, we differ in that we are not an exclusive club. Without membership requirements, our resources are available to all cities, regardless of their size or geography. This allows us to work with a diverse group of mayors whose experience we can elevate to the global stage, while other organisations are limited to cities who fit specific criteria. Our flexible nature also allows us to move nimbly in this space and jump on opportunities more quickly than others that have more bureaucratic structures.
Mayors and city planners have been engaged in migration issues for years. Do you think commentators and academics been too slow to embrace migration as an urban phenomenon, or to realise it’s extent?
The responsibilities of city practitioners and academics are very different, and understandably so. Cities and mayors are on the front line, whether they want it or not, and migration has always been something they’ve been dealing with in a way or another. Academics are more removed from on-the-ground experiences, so it is understandable that they have been paying attention to this phenomenon a bit later. And this already feels like a generalisation because I am sure there is plenty of researchers who have predicted this new reality a long time ago.
While migration is not a new phenomenon for city leaders, what is new and what has changed very recently is mayors’ awareness that their leadership and local action can actually inform global responses and accelerate the implementation of multilateral agreements. City diplomacy can—and does— incentivise bolder, faster steps among states and the international community. And the Mayors Migration Council has definitely played a big role in this by elevating the voices and successes of local leaders internationally.
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative, where you used to work, has said “the factors pushing migrants to cities will only become more common and impactful” and “the mass migration we are witnessing today is not a temporary state of emergency, but the beginning of a new reality.” In light of this, what will big cities look like in 20 or 30 years’ time?
Most of the urban expansion that will take place by 2050 will happen in the developing world and likely through informal settlements. This is a challenge, but also a significant opportunity to reshape cities—some 75 percent of the infrastructure expected to be in place by 2050 has yet to be built. As cities will continue to grow, leaders can either follow business as usual, or instead take this opportunity to build more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable cities.
Of course, the Covid-19 crisis has introduced an element of unknown in all of this. Countries are closing borders and demonising migrants as carriers of the virus. We’re seeing migrant workers going back to rural areas because they’re not able to sustain their livelihoods in cities due to lockdown measures and other restrictions. But this contraction of urban life after the pandemic will be temporary at best. As we recover and build back better, mayors will be the driving force in addressing the inequalities exposed by Covid-19. The optimist in me hopes for, and envisions, a brighter future where no one is left behind because of his or her immigration status.
Most movement into cities is occurring in the global South. How equipped are cities in developing countries to absorb large numbers of newcomers?
Yes, around 95 percent of urban expansion expected in the coming decades will take place in the developing world. By nature, global South cities are very flexible and adaptive. But most of this expansion will likely occur in informal settlements, beyond the scope of basic services and municipal assistance and at high risk from natural hazards and the effects of global climate change. Here’s where we need to focus our attention and investments.
Previously with the 100 Resilient Cities program, you led the design and delivery of a network exchange on effective city-level practices to address migrant integration in urban settings. Do you see the Mayors Migration Council as an extension of that work that you were doing before?
Absolutely. I owe a lot to the 100 Resilient Cities Network, where I grew personally and professionally for over six years. It seems only yesterday that, when the Syrian crisis hit in 2015, we convened chief resilience officers from Los Angeles, Amman, Montreal, and other cities to frame urban migration as a key resilience opportunity, when back then many only saw a burden, a challenge, a shock. Most of the mayors that helped build that narrative and movement are members of the MMC Leadership Board, our mayor-led governance body. This includes Giorgos Kaminis, the former mayor of Athens who hosted the 100RC Network Exchange back when everything started. He now serves as special envoy for the MMC and C40, bridging the agendas of our organisations. But the overlap doesn’t end here. At 100RC I worked closely with the mayors of Amman, Bristol, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Milan on migration issues and they all sit in the MMC’s Leadership Board. While at 100RC, we partnered to accelerate on-the-ground project implementation, now we are taking these experiences and elevating them at the global stage.
You once wrote that “we can reduce our reliance on crisis as a driver of change and proactively plan for a future that is bright for all migrants and residents living in our cities.” What would this kind of planning look like? Can you point to some examples of where it’s happened or even where it’s not happened?
I’ll give you an example. In 2015, when the Syrian crisis hit and a number of European countries suddenly closed their borders, Athens found itself changing from being a place of transit—with millions of refugees coming through the city to go to most prosperous European countries—to becoming a destination city. With a tight budget, unclear political mandate, and competing priorities, the municipality had to do even more with less. It had to adapt its services and infrastructure and, most importantly, reorient its mandate from humanitarian relief to long-term development and inclusion. Among other things, the municipality launched a new innovative partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to rehabilitate abandoned buildings and offer affordable rent to refugees. This is a good example because the municipality not only made more efficient use of unused assets, but also created a model that can accommodate other vulnerable residents, such as the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly, when a new crisis hits.
Back then, the mayor had to be resourceful and “build the plane while flying it”, but the big lesson he shared with me and his peers is that you don’t need to wait for a shock to happen. The secret is to be proactive and design services and infrastructure that address the needs of multiple residents at once and that can quickly be adapted in the face of known and unknown risks.
In your publication, Global Migration: Resilient Cities at the Forefront, in 2018, you called for cities to embrace and include newcomers. Is this an optional policy for cities, or do you see it is an unavoidable imperative? And if so, then why?
Yes [it’s a must]. And mayors should do this not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do. With more migrants and refugees moving to cities, local leaders must meet the needs of newcomers on top of those of existing vulnerable groups. That means housing, educating, training, and ultimately integrating individuals from different backgrounds and cultures, while maintaining public order and safety. Ineffective management of these challenges can exacerbate existing stresses on city systems and services, as well as social tension between newcomers and existing residents. Settlement patterns can intensify the problem, given that newcomers with limited resources and networks settle into already marginalised neighbourhoods.
Put simply, if cities do not embrace or include newcomers, they make their city more susceptible to damage from sudden shocks. But if they incorporate migration into their planning—developing proactive, rather than reactive inclusion strategies—they can turn this into a major opportunity, one that can have a positive impact on everyone. That’s because, when cities make their plans work for the most vulnerable, they make them work for all residents.
Can you identify forces or ideologies that are against new arrivals of migrants in cities? How would you identify or characterise these forces, and do you think they will last?
It’s critical to tamping down the perception of competition between newcomers and long -time residents, and ultimately, resentment among them. When residents believe that migrants are the cause of deteriorating living conditions, it is likely easier for right-wing populists to promote their politics. When social alienation increases, the same is true for extremist organisations, which often attempt to radicalise the disaffected. Developing thoughtful strategies for pre-empting tensions and promoting an environment where cohesion can grow should be high on city leaders’ agendas.
Moving onto other, less obvious, existential threats that keep me up at night: first, we need to be careful about the “cities versus states” narrative and consider moving towards “cities with states,” cities as an asset that complements and supports national efforts, rather than replacing them, otherwise we risk alienating the very actors we’re trying to influence. This won’t always be feasible nor desirable, especially with those national leaders that are spreading toxic anti-immigrant narratives and building walls. But it is definitely something to keep in mind. Second, in our field, we are all tempted to romanticise cities as transnational actors driving progress and innovation. And in doing so, we tend to focus our attention on big, influential, global cities to carry out key messages. But by doing this we risk exacerbating the rural-urban divide and cause the very radicalisation and polarisation of politics we’re trying to combat. The involvement of rural towns and surroundings and a “meeting people where they are” approach will be key to mitigate this risk.
In so far that the MMC is an offshoot of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, what is its position on irregular migrants?
While cities cannot—and should not—have control over who enters national borders, they have a responsibility to address the needs of all those who live within their boundaries, regardless of status.
Immigration policy is and should be the prerogative of states, but once people get into a country, they will likely move to cities, and when they arrive, it is mayors and city officials who are responsible for their wellbeing. Mayors don’t really care about labels like “refugee”, “asylum seeker” and “IDP”. What they care about is whether they can keep all their residents, including undocumented immigrants, healthy, safe and thriving.
Do you fear that the fallout of Covid-19 will set back the aspirations of the Global Compact? What’s your sense so far?
With this pandemic, we are seeing xenophobia against foreigners spreading faster than the virus. We’re seeing national leaders using Covid-19 to build walls and challenge the whole idea of human mobility and migration as an engine of sustainable economic growth. This is ironic given that, especially in cities, migrants and refugees are playing a key role as essential workers delivering anything from healthcare to food (and all in between) to their neighbours and receiving communities.
At the same time, the international community of states and multilateral agencies is really stepping up and showcasing solidarity towards migrants, refugees, and other groups who are putting their lives at risk in the midst of the pandemic. I’m encouraged by this movement and I see the opportunity to use thismomentum to build back better. First, we must ensure safe, equitable access to Covid-19 assistance regardless of immigration status, including healthcare and financial relief. Second, we must empower migrants and refugees to be part of the solution to Covid-19, including through the regularisation of immigrant essential workers. And third, we must combat misinformation, racism, and xenophobia, working to strengthen community solidarity in all Covid-19 response and recovery efforts.
Finally, what do you see as the future major drivers of mobility to cities? Will they be noticeably different from today’s drivers?
I think today’s drivers are interlinked, complex, and multiple, so I would only expect that the trend is going to continue. Something we’re paying close attention to is climate- induced migration. Climate change, combined with other trends, is increasingly a key driver of human mobility. In 2018 alone, it was estimated that 17.2 million people were newly displaced as a result of disasters linked to natural hazards, most of which were climate-and weather-related. If one also accounts for people compelled to move due to slow-onset events linked to climate change and environmental degradation, this number would be even higher. Worse still, entire nations in the Pacific Ocean are facing complete destruction. The World Bank recently projected that, without significant climate and development action, by 2050 up to 143 million people may move internally in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia alone.
As the majority of people who move as a result of climate change settle in urban areas, cities are the first responders. In the coming years, they will face increasing pressures, both from direct climate impacts and from climate-induced movements. MMC Leadership Board members have recognised that it is up to them to identify solutions for these major challenges. With our partners at C40 Cities, we will work to coordinate and streamline cities’ diplomatic activities to promote conducive national and international policy frameworks, highlight concrete recommendations and best practices on integrating inclusive climate with integration and inclusion policies in cities, and explore joint and targeted approaches towards climate and migration related funding instruments and streams.