First responders – what opportunities and obstacles face urban migrants and refugees?

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 Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She was assisted in the preparation of this essay by graduate students Christian Jepsen and Dani Douglas.

Cities across the world face myriad challenges living up to the hopes and needs of their migrant and refugee populations, especially when it comes to providing work, services, and protection in informal settlements. Are the streets of cities ever paved with gold?


Millions of migrants and refugees arrive in or pass through the world’s cities every year to seek refuge or find new opportunities. Such cities may be in the home countries of those on the move, in a neighbouring state, or located tens of thousands of kilometres away. For many, cities initially viewed as mere transit points become permanent homes and evolve into established destinations for mixed migration flows. Generally, it is cities—their municipal authorities and civil society organisations—rather than national governments that are the first to respond to the needs and aspirations of refugees and migrants.

This essay describes how the responses of cities take different forms. Some (as the separate essay on sanctuary cities explores) strive to welcome and integrate refugees and migrants, even if their national governments adopt overtly anti-migrant policies. Other cities simply neglect refugees and migrants, or have no capacity to help them, leaving the newcomers to fend for themselves or rely on the help of other residents, including other refugees and migrants. And some are explicitly exclusionary and discriminatory, in line with the directives of anti-migrant authorities and politicians. Many migrants and refugees will be unaware of which of these types of city they are heading to until they get there.

Resources and options

Whatever the type of welcome they receive on arrival in a city, most refugees and migrants tend to settle in specific neighbourhoods, either those where their compatriots already live and can provide assistance, or, if have the means, in areas that offer better prospects for housing, services, and jobs. People who have hastily fled their own city, town, or rural village because of armed conflict, persecution, or disaster, generally have fewer resources than those who were able to plan their departure more carefully. This means the forcibly displaced are more likely to end up living in low-income areas with the urban poor. Refugees and migrants, including the forcibly displaced, come from all social classes and economic backgrounds. Those with more wealth and other resources, or who have professional and business skills—a small minority—have less trouble integrating as they are able to find decent housing, establish their business and occupations, get their children into schools, and access services. But the vast majority are much less well- off, and tend to gravitate to informal settlements or slums within or close to cities.

The Arab region, comprising 18 countries, hosts over 38 million migrants and refugees and around 15 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Together, migrants, refugees, and IDPs represent one-third of the region’s population—and a large majority live in cities.

Urban terminology

There is no single globally- agreed definition of “informal settlement”, or indeed of the term “urban”—national governments and their statistical offices vary in the criteria they use for both terms. The UN has come up with a useful way of conceptualising cities as concentric zones of habitation: the “city proper” is the area within administrative (municipality) boundaries; the “urban agglomeration” consists of the built-up area around the city proper; and the “metropolitan area” refers to the reach of economic and social interconnectedness. This reclassification of cities has led to new ways of thinking about urban growth in an era when the majority of the population of many countries live in cities. Migrants and refugees, both internal and international, live in all three zones: in slums in older congested areas of the city proper, in informal settlements (sometimes termed “shantytowns”) at the edges of urban agglomerations, and in smaller outlying villages that fall within the city’s metropolitan area. For example, in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli, Syrians live alongside Lebanese nationals in well-to-do suburbs such as Maarad in the city proper, in informal settlements such as Hay el Tanek on the outskirts, and in the more distant villages of north Lebanon whence they commute to Tripoli for work and health services.

In US cities on the border with Mexico informal peri-urban settlements known as colonias that house migrant communities have increased rapidly, mainly because migration from Mexico and Central America has been met with little expansion of affordable housing. The State of Texas defines colonias as border communities that may lack basic living necessities such as potable water, sewage, electricity, paved roads and safe housing. In the city of El Paso, some 75 percent of colonia residents were born in Mexico, but most have acquired US citizenship and have resided in the US for an average 18 years. Many work as day-labourers in the construction and service industries, making it hard for them to afford to buy or even rent homes in the urban centre. Moreover, deregulation of the housing market in El Paso county and poor enforcement of housing codes resulted in the expansion of mobile and prefabricated home sales to the colonias.

North vs South

Informal settlements and slums are found in or near virtually all large cities and towns across the global South, and increasingly in European cities too. In 2013, UN-Habitat estimated that 25 percent of the world’s urban population lived in informal settlements, with 213 million informal settlement residents added to the global population since 1990. In the Middle East and North Africa, a large proportion of informal settlement residents are refugees and migrants, including IDPs. In some smaller cities in countries with very high levels of internal displacement, such as Baidoa in Somalia, displaced people outnumber the host community. The city of El Fasher in Sudan’s North Darfur province had a population of about 540,000 in 2012, with three large IDP camps nearby housing some 149,000 people, with another 34,418 IDPs residing in the town itself.

In the global North, well-enforced zoning regulations mean there tend to be fewer informal settlements of the kind found in the global South. Still, refugees and migrants sometimes create their own ad-hoc settlements or camps, with little or none of the support provided to traditional refugee camps by national governments, the UN and NGOs. Notable examples include the “jungle” camps outside the French port of Calais, or the “Gran ghetto” in the Italian province of Foggia. Italy has dozens of such settlements. Sometime, informal settlement sprung outside of state run facilities like in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos. In post-Communist south -eastern Europe, informal settlements have arisen on the edges of cities such as Tirana, Belgrade, Tbilisi and Bucharest.

Wherever in the world they spring up, informal settlements result from a combination of increased migration flows and a lack of affordable housing, often in the context of widespread public mistrust of government. Such distrust stems from corruption and lack of transparency in land and construction permitting, inefficient urban planning bureaucracies, and unfair and property taxation.

Marginalised neighbourhoods

Migrants and refugees come to cities with the hope of benefitting from the jobs, services and infrastructure that cities offer. But for the many who end up in informal settlements, these urban benefits are hard to come by. With some exceptions, notably in Latin America, city authorities are reluctant to legitimise informal settlements. The resulting marginalisation and poor municipal governance mean everyone, local citizens and new arrivals alike, struggle to find legal jobs that pay adequate wages, while basic services such as water and sewage systems, energy supply, and roads are decrepit or overburdened, and access to health and education services is limited. Migrants and refugees, however, can be worse off than the locals. As discussed below, they face additional hurdles to finding decent work and housing, and in some cases, municipalities resist or are legally prevented (by national policy) from providing them with health or welfare services.

Barriers to work

In informal settlements there are few formal sector jobs, i.e. work that is regulated, with normal hours and regular wages, and from which the income is taxed. Most such formal opportunities—and even informal ones, such as domestic work—require employees to commute long distances to the city proper or more upscale areas. In addition, migrants and refugees are often prevented from formal sector work because of national restrictions intended to protect the employment of the local population. In some countries, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers each require different kinds of permission to work. Many countries do not allow asylum seekers to work at all, and migrants are required to obtain work permits that are often hard to come by. For example, since 2016 Egypt has worked with the European Union (EU) to prevent migrants and refugees from travelling to Europe. This effort has been praised by the EU, but as migrants become stuck and new arrivals keep coming, Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods are filling up. Work is difficult to find. Egypt’s quota system requires that non-Egyptian workers not exceed 10 percent of semi-skilled or unskilled workers in any company, and 25 percent of skilled workers, and compensation of foreign employees must not exceed 35 percent of total payroll. Only when no Egyptian nationals are qualified for a certain position can foreign workers apply for a work permit to fill it, a process that can take well over a year to complete. Things are no better for refugees, whom Egypt considers “foreigners” and on whom it imposes the same restrictions on rights and services as it does for non-Egyptian visitors.

In Egypt and elsewhere, migrants’ and refugees’ limited access to formal employment means they often pursue work informally, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation and lower wages, or payment in kind (such as housing) for their labour.

Limited services

Migrants and refugees in cities need amenities such as electricity, sewage, health care, schools, and financial services just like other urban residents. In the case of health care, and specifically mental health care, their need is often greater, due to the travails of their journeys and their pre-departure exposure to conflict, persecution, or extreme poverty. In addition, many migrants and refugees arrive impoverished and malnourished by losses and debts incurred during their journeys. For many, the most important priority upon arrival is getting their children into school. All these needs are often are met in cities, provided by different actors in different ways. But in informal settlements, the provision of services is much more challenging, all the more so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Access challenges

Services in cities are not always readily available to migrants and refugees. Even if they are legally available, obstacles related to documentation or language can prevent access. Informal settlements are often located far from services, so getting to them can be expensive and time consuming. Access to services can depend on legal status, with registered refugees and migrants having more access than the undocumented. In many countries, public health services and schools are legally accessible to refugees, but governments impose restrictions, in part because these services are under-resourced. For example, in Egypt, the government has reduced public school access for refugee students who compete with Egyptian students for under-resourced classrooms with too few seats. The alternative of private education is beyond the reach of most migrant and refugee families. Some countries discourage migrants from accessing services regardless of their status. The US has framed migrants as drains on public services since the 1920s, when welfare programs for the poor first began. In 2019, the Trump administration barred access for nearly all migrants who it deemed could become “public charges”—that is, dependent on the government—for food, housing, and healthcare assistance, driving millions who previously qualified for assistance programs out of the system.

Other factors also obstruct migrants’ and refugees’ access to services. Mental health issues can severely limit the ability of migrants and refugees to deal with arrival procedures and bureaucracies. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable, since many will have fled violence and persecution in their home country, but both migrants and refugees experience traumatising events on their journeys. Trauma can make it difficult to interact with the local population and even with other migrants. The problem is severely aggravated when people have undocumented status, such as asylum seekers who have been rejected for state protection. The undocumented often cannot register for welfare services, meaning their mental health issues go untreated. There are studies around the world of how this problem manifests in cities. For example, one study in Stockholm found that the prevalence of mental illness among undocumented people soared due to untreated trauma arising both from strife in their homelands and from the precarity of their lives in the city. In Sweden, almost half of unsuccessful asylum seekers come from the Middle East, and a quarter come from Afghanistan. Their experience in the world’s most violent countries created a severe predisposition for mental illness: 68 percent of asylum seekers in Sweden suffer from anxiety, with 39 percent suffering from severe anxiety, compared to 15 percent of the Swedish population as a whole. An estimated 58 percent of rejected asylum seekers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of isolation and traumatic life experiences, compared to only 9 percent of resettled refugees.

Overcoming obstacles

In cities, obstacles to accessing services are overcome in two ways: migrants and refugees help themselves, often assisted by civil society NGOs, and city authorities step up to address the problem.

Migrants and refugees compensate for the lack of city-provided services through their kinship networks or through small community-based organisations that emerge in the areas where they live. Especially in the global South, such organisations set up schools, and provide health services, social services, and childcare. Migrants and refugees may act as brokers for employment, healthcare, and travel (in which latter case they may be termed “human smugglers”). These kinds of self-help organisations are so widespread that a simple Google search for “refugee community organisations” in any large city in Africa or the Middle East will yield dozens of examples.

Humanitarian response

This agency of refugees and migrants is not new of course: throughout history migrants and refugees have started their new lives by helping each other. In recent years, and especially in the global South, humanitarian agencies have stepped into the limelight, often helping both refugees and the local poor. For example, since 2012 the countries surrounding Syria—Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—have received over 6 million Syrian refugees. In many cases, these refugees joined pre-existing migrant communities in the host countries. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees joined the half a million Syrian migrants already living there, often in the informal settlements on the edges of cities like Beirut and Tripoli. Palestinians displaced from Syria joined Palestinians already living in Lebanon. The support provided by international aid agencies for these populations has been vast, especially in the fields of health, housing, education, and food, and is sometimes extended too poor Lebanese citizens as well.

The international humanitarian response to the Syrian emergency and others like it receive considerable media attention, but globally, and away from the media glare, it is small, locally-based community organisations that do the lion’s share of supporting fellow migrants and refugees and helping them survive and thrive. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this ability of refugees and migrants to help themselves was especially apparent in many cities, where services became even less available and migrants were sometime vilified.

Vital remittances

Migrants and refugees do much to build the service capacity of not only the cities they settle in but also those they left behind. Most migrants and refugees maintain substantial connections to their cities and countries of origin. By sending remittances to their families and sometimes to support community structures, they contribute to the quality of social services. For example, remittances sent by the Zimbabwean diaspora across the world are used in cities such as Harare to build houses, buy cars, and pay school fees. As migrants and refugees have begun returning to Harare, many have established businesses that contributed to services offered in the city.

Surge capacity

Population surges are challenging for urban municipalities, especially smaller towns. For example, during the peak of the exodus from Venezuela in 2019, the Brazilian border town of Boa Vista saw an influx of 30,000 Venezuelans, equivalent to more than 10 percent of its usual population. Camps were set up by civil society groups and the Brazilian military. The government attempted to relocate some Venezuelans to other cities such as São Paulo, but this was met by local resistance in these areas. For Boa Vista, the growing number of Venezuelans led to pressure on local schools and other services. The use of local resources by Venezuelans—46 percent of whom depended on government welfare— stoked tensions with the residents of Boa Vista.

The case of Boa Vista exemplifies the responses of small cities faced with a major humanitarian influx. Most very large cities—megalopolises of more than 10 million inhabitants—are sub-divided into boroughs or districts, each potentially responding differently to arriving refugees and migrants. In some, pre-existing social connections between refugees and migrants and host communities can make integration more seamless. For example, the municipality of Sultanbeyli on the outskirts of Istanbul hosts some 300,000 Syrians. (Greater Istanbul, which has a total population of 15 million, hosts more than half a million of the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, more than any other Turkish city). Despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in the rest of Turkey, Sultanbeyli has continued to provide refugee services because the town’s political leaders consider the Syrians to be part of the permanent population and see serving refugees as “a conscientious obligation rather than a legal duty.” The municipality has a five-story refugee centre that offers legal assistance, in-kind aid, health, education and training, and also houses the Istanbul Directorate of Migration Management. With so many refugees in Turkey moving to Sultanbeyli because they have family there, the district has become an amicable place for refugees, and integration occurs more easily because of all the pre-existing social connections.

In recent years, many countries, especially in Europe, have recognised the importance of enabling migrants and refugees to access services. The Council of Europe’s project on the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants has developed a toolkit to support member states in their efforts to help refugees acquire competences in the language of the host country. But individual national governments—perhaps driven by political considerations—vary in their efforts to promote access to services. This is where cities step up, often bucking national policies. In the US and EU, individual cities, including those known as “sanctuary cities” have effectively overridden national restrictions, either making services available to everyone in the city, or actively trying to overcome obstacles that prevent access, such as language barriers. Ultimately, it is the cities themselves who have to deal with communities under their care, and provide services if even in the face of national policy that is restrictive.

Protection risks

The informal settlements where most migrants and refugees live are often unsafe areas, both because they are more likely to be in or close to “dangerous and polluted urban areas: steep-sided hills, flood plains, hillside, waste dumps, and hazardous industries” and because crime rates are higher. When it comes to the latter, are migrants more at risk than their neighbours? There is plentiful evidence from a range of cities that migrants are at risk of being targeted both by criminals and the police, and more likely to be subject to discrimination and harassment from employers, landlords and the general public, whether they are going about their livelihoods, trying to find housing, or walking down the street. Examples range from the problems internal migrants experience with the police in China, to police in South Africa standing by as locals attack migrants and refugees. In Salvadoran cities, police violence against IDPs is normalised as part of the security force’s anti- gang activities. Housing evictions in migrant informal settlements are frequently conducted aggressively by the police, often without the support of social workers or interpreters. In the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, where informal settlements were established after migrants became stranded due to border closures, nearly 25 percent of those who tried to cross the border reported at least one act of violence by Italian or French officials.

Few population -based studies systematically compare the experiences of specific cities’ residents according to their nationality. One exception is 2017 survey of some 2,000 informal sector entrepreneurs in the South African cities of Limpopo and Cape Town; respondents were more or less equally divided between non-South African refugees and South African migrants. This found that the refugees experienced much higher levels of “business risk” and other security problems. More than a fifth (21 percent) of non-South African respondents (21%) said they had been victims of attacks or assaults, compared to just 4 percent of South Africans; a similar proportion of the refugees (19 percent) said they had been harassed or extorted by the police (compared to six percent of the South African respondents), and 38 percent said they had been victims of theft of income, compared to 19 percent of the South Africans. They survey found that the refugees were five times more likely to be subject to demands for bribes by the police. Almost half of the non-South Africans surveyed in Cape Town reported experiencing prejudice as a result of their nationality, compared to only 3 percent of the South African respondents.

Many urban police forces recognise that migrants and refugees are more vulnerable to crime and discrimination, and some try to work with rather than against migrants and refugees. For example, the San Diego Police Department hired nine police service officers from within migrant and refugee communities to act as (non-commissioned) community liaisons and interpreters for the city’s Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong and Somali communities. Yet the racial and legal status bias that undergirds systemic violence against migrants and refugees means crimes against this population are often underreported, because of their fears of the consequences should they contact the police.


A city’s willingness to support migrants and refugees partly depends on the budget support it gets from its national government and on the legal framework and how well it is implemented, especially in areas that host migrants and refugees. For budget and capacity (and political) reasons, city governments are often eager to pass responsibility for assisting migrants and refugees on to NGOs. Such organisations do their best to provide short term relief but are quickly overwhelmed if a large humanitarian influx occurs in a short space of time.

City governments face huge challenges integrating migrants and refugees, from identifying people in need, to providing essential services, to dealing with xenophobia, to establishing adequate protection. Within a city, these challenges can vary from one neighbourhood to another, and the responses of local governments, service providers, and community leaders are equally diverse. These urban complexities increase when cities and towns host diverse populations of migrants and refugees with different needs and capabilities. Border cities like Tijuana in the US, with diverse migrant populations, will have a different experience to a city like Boa Vista, which has mainly received displaced Venezuelans. The cities that offer the best examples of good practice are those that have built collaborations between civil society, city leaders and refugees and migrants themselves. Such collaboration enables effective responses and promotes integration.