MMC interviews Doug Saunders
“Sticking points”

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.

Doug Saunders is a Canadian journalist and author best known for his 2011 book Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World. Previously he was the Toronto Globe and Mail’s European bureau chief. He currently lives in Berlin where he is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, conducting field research on “local economic-mobility traps”

A decade after his best-selling book explored the idea of immigration as a constant process involving interlinked networks, Doug Saunders reckons many policymakers still fail to grasp the fundamental dynamics of international migration. And as immigration has become more suburbanised, traditional pathways of social mobility are increasingly strewn with obstacles, leaving many stuck in “trap neighbourhoods”. The good news is that canny one-off local investments are often enough to clear them.

It’s been almost a decade since you wrote Arrival City. You wrote that we do not understand contemporary migration because we don’t know how to look at it. Since then, we’ve seen large-scale migration continue with massive amounts of media and political focus. Have we learned how to look at it better?

At the point when I started writing Arrival City in about 2007, there was a lack of understanding that the big migration flows we experience are at their root the final stage of a population shift that really has been underway since the late 18th century, from subsistence rural life to urban life, and that most international migration is mostly a small subset of that. Public-policy dialogues were much more short-term; there was a lot of talk about push factors and pull factors, and a belief that we can control immigration by pouring foreign aid into sending countries and that sort of thing.

In some countries, there has been a greater understanding of the workings of international migration, at least in policy circles, during the past 10 years. That’s in good part because the European migration crisis and the extreme anti-immigration politics of the United States (US) and many European countries made the issue impossible to ignore. That said, in the big European debates about migration over the last ten years, there has not been a very sophisticated understanding of the issues. A lot of policymakers, on both sides of the issue, still think people migrate internationally because they’re destitute or impoverished. Part of what I was trying to do in Arrival City was to establish a more complex understanding of immigration as a constant process that links networks together, rather than just a shift of units of labour.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by a “constant process”?

The way human migration works in practice is not so much that one country sends immigrants to another country, but rather that a network of people in one particular geographic area—a cluster of villages or set of urban neighbourhoods in one country—ties itself gradually to a network of people in a specific geographic area—an urban neighbourhood or even a specific set of streets—in another country. There’s a lot of movement of people and information and money back and forth between those networks over the long term. Temporary migration becomes chain migration and then turns into permanent migration, all facilitated through the sending of money back and forth through remittances (which are of course now the largest source of foreign aid in the world). Knowledge and intellectual capital also flow back and forth; knowledge of future potential immigration experiences, of economic opportunities in work and entrepreneurship, and of course also educational knowledge.

Have you been surprised at the extent that migration has been on the political and sociocultural agenda in recent years in such a polemical way?

I’m not surprised that immigration is a hot-button political issue in many countries, or that people are uncomfortable with newcomers coming in around them. It takes a leap for people to understand that the new people around them are just versions of their own families at some point in the past—we all have a migration experience somewhere in our background— and that they themselves were the strange and misunderstood people once. And while I think that discomfort is natural, I think there’s terrible political manipulation of it that turns into hatred and xenophobia, often to the point of violence and exclusion.

So are you in favour of far more open immigration policies?

I am not proposing open borders and policy-free immigration, or mass immigration on the scale we saw in the early twentieth century. I don’t think that view will ever sell among domestic populations, but I also don’t think it’s good for immigrants themselves. It in a way de-valorises immigration, and it cheapens the exceptional costs and risks people take on when they migrate. You need to recognise that immigration and citizenship are things of great value to people, things they strive for and see as great accomplishments.

Immigration is a calculated gamble for families. It involves a complete tearing up and disruption of your entire established domestic life and family connections, and the taking of a huge risk based on whatever information you can obtain from other people in the country that you’re going to. So there needs to be an appreciation in countries of reception that these are not the random detritus of the world washing up on our shores.

I think immigration policies that do regard immigration as an honour and a prize to be achieved, that have some control and restriction, recognise this fact that these are people doing something important in their lives and that will benefit the host country. And I think it’s important, and some countries have done it, to develop policies that see them as people making a big investment to become part of the country around them, for whom citizenship and full participation in the life of the country is always the main goal.

Do you still see arrival cities as transition spaces where the next economic or cultural boom will be born? Are you still overwhelmingly positive about arrival cities?

Arrival City is often described as an optimistic book, which leaves some readers surprised that it’s sort of a chronicle of failure. Most of the immigration-settlement neighbourhoods I describe have deep problems and difficulties, and the people I chronicle are mostly struggling against really tough odds.

It’s optimistic because I recognise that success has overwhelmingly been the norm for families and communities that immigrate, though it often takes a generation or two to climb up the ladder. Historically, that is what immigration settlement neighbourhoods have done, and it should be our goal to turn them into these places of social mobility.

Most famous urban neighbourhoods, in any great city, have started out as immigration settlement districts. The norm historically has been that immigration settlement districts are hated and seen as insalubrious and dangerous for many decades after the first people from the sending country settle in them. And then eventually those districts become places that are seen as attractive and desirable because the immigrants have invested in them and made them desirable to more affluent residents.

Until really the very end of the 20th century, most immigration settlement in Western countries took place in the urban core, in places where the housing price was lower than average because they were seen as unclean or undesirable neighbourhoods for established populations. And those urban districts in the centre were almost perfectly designed for the success and the acculturation and economic integration of the immigrants, because those districts had cheap housing that you could own, had spaces where you could conduct business and had easy transportation links to middle-class places, to established economies. They had populations walking and driving through their streets who were middle class and had money in their pockets and would shop at your little shop or go to your little restaurant or do business in your little factory. And those urban spaces made it quite easy to accumulate both social capital and real capital within your living space, using the materials of the city around you.

What we’ve experienced since the beginning of the 21st century is what I would call the suburbanisation of immigration and the suburbanisation of poverty. In most Western cities, with some notable exceptions (such as Berlin, where I live now), immigration settlement mainly happens in the suburbs now, particularly in the inner suburbs.

So there is a spatial dislocation that affects social mobility options?

Exactly. The arrival city neighbourhoods of the 21st century have some challenges that were not common to the ones in the 20th century. They’re often physically isolated from the established city through poor transportation links, they often have a low overall population density even if they’re comprised of apartment buildings that themselves are crowded.

There’s a downward spiral that happens in those neighbourhoods, partly caused by the fact that more ambitious immigrants pursue strategies to achieve socio-economic upward mobility. And those strategies often involve moving—shifting their kids and themselves out of the neighbourhood into a more middle-class place. These moves have always been a big part of immigrant success. But in isolated suburban immigration districts, this creates a downward spiral because the schools in those neighbourhoods start drawing away the more ambitious kids and families. Then the more ambitious teachers start finding ways to get transferred to other schools. And this causes the neighbourhood to be less desirable; it’s a downward spiral that is very hard to interrupt.

One of the things I said in Arrival City was the thing that makes a particular neighbourhood an arrival city— what makes it a first rung on the mobility ladder for immigrants, usually by providing a lower-than-average housing cost—is the very thing that a generation on will make it fail as an arrival city. Whatever made the housing cheap is going to be the thing that later kicks away the second and third rungs on the mobility ladder. So, you could say the problem that emerged in a big way since I published Arrival City, the thing that really amplified this problem, was the world-wide crisis of housing supply.

You published your book in 2011 just as the Arab Spring was starting in Tunisia. You referred to migrants then as a “catalytic class” that not only provided much -needed labour to cities but also brought about necessary political change. Looking at Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen now, if you were writing a new epilogue to Arrival City, what would you say?

Yes, but it’s not over. The social tensions that caused at least the beginnings of the 2011 uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt—and maybe to a lesser extent in other places—emerged from tensions between the new populations of the arrival city slum districts and the highly state- controlled official economies of the established city. I would say that those tensions over ownership of and de facto citizenship in urban space continue. There’s been some more reasonable ways of dealing with them in Tunisia since then; Egypt, of course, has returned to exactly the same form of regime that it had before. But I think the lesson from that experience is that it’s going to happen again because there are still unresolved tensions over who are the real citizens of the cities of those countries. The fact that they have the lowest rates of economic growth in development in pretty much the entire world remains a big problem. But also these questions of urban space and citizenship remain underlying problems in the Middle East and North Africa.

You’ve said that the failure to accept cities as arrival cities in the West has created waves of religious conservatism, sexual oppression, and organised crime, and that investment in arrival cities is the antidote. How do you feel these investments are going?

When those investments are made, they’re very successful. Policymakers tend to see immigration districts as places whose problems are endemic and therefore require a long-term, multi-generational expenditure in social welfare, in policing, in emergency services. The governments that are smart are the ones that recognise that these are not endemic problems, rather they’re specific obstacles placed in the way of a trajectory that is known to the occupants of those neighbourhoods. The residents know where they came from and where they’d like to be, and they very clearly know what obstacles stand in their way, whether it’s a poor transportation route or a bad school or racial segregation. And if there’s one lesson I hope policymakers took from Arrival City, it’s that you don’t need these multi -generational expenditures; instead, you can achieve a lot more lasting success with a one-time investment in removing a known obstacle to success, sometimes something as simple as replacing a crowded bus line with a more rapid tram line. Or filling up an empty, unpopulated space so the neighbourhood becomes more desirable, little things like that; one-time investments can save many generations of both public expenditure and of violence and trouble.

Moving on to sanctuary cities… are they only good at stopping people from being deported and detained, or are they also good at integrating and making it a success?

Sanctuary city policies address a larger threat in immigration, which is that it is very unhealthy for a city or for a country to have a large, permanent population of people who have no pathway to citizenship. Such people are forced to live in a grey market, they do not pay taxes, they live in a way that does not allow them to invest in their communities. They can’t own their housing, so they’re not going to improve their neighbourhoods and they don’t become settled or part of a network.

So if a national policy prevents a large number of your city’s citizens from having a pathway to legal citizenship and therefore wanting to invest in their communities, then it is possible for cities to have policies that get around that to some extent by permitting those people to have de facto citizenship. The sanctuary city movement therefore is important for the health of immigration neighbourhoods and of cities themselves, because it solves the problem of a lack of real citizenship by providing some of the instruments and institutions of a de facto citizenship.

In light of rapid changes in automation and AI, do you think the demand for labour pulling people from countryside to city, or across international borders, will be sustained in the coming years?

I do. I think countries that are economically successful are going to attract immigration, regardless of their policies, because when a country is doing well economically, and therefore needs people, it gets people. Nature abhors a vacuum. Every single historical example over the last 50 or 60 years of a country trying to restrict immigration has only succeeded when the economy’s doing badly; immigration restriction always fails when the economy is doing well.

Will the new economy change this? There’s not a lot of evidence that it will. We know that certain categories of existing jobs will be rendered obsolete by AI and related technologies. But assuming that technology produces a successful economy—which is the only reason to deploy it—then it will also cause an equal or greater number of jobs to be created. We do not know in advance where those jobs will be. But the idea that smart technology will eliminate employment in general, rather than just employment in certain categories, is based on a naive misunderstanding of how jobs are created.

Can you tell us a bit of the focus of your work in the last decade and what you’re doing now?

I’ve continued to be focused on cities and migration and population in a number of books I’ve written. And during the last couple years, I’ve focused once again on the neighbourhood level of analysis. This time I’m looking a generation beyond the arrival city to see what happens, not when people arrive from another country, but when they arrive into a new economic reality. What happens a generation on, when neighbourhoods, rather than becoming springboards, instead become traps. How do you free those neighbourhood traps? I’m doing field research in urban neighbourhoods in Russia, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Spain, and I’ve earlier done work in southern China and the US.

My working title for the project is Unstuck, playing on the dual meaning of that phrase: you come unstuck in the sense that everything goes off the rails, which we see in many neighbourhoods today, but also we want to be looking for policies that cause things no longer to be stuck.

In an extraordinary change of events Covid-19 has caused reverse migration. For example an expected 600,000 Nepalese migrants returned from India and millions of internal migrants in India returned to rural areas. Is this a phenomenon that you’re hearing about elsewhere as well?

I’m also hearing in the Middle East and North Africa there’s quite a bit of this return migration, and also in sub-Saharan Africa. People are returning to their villages, at least temporarily, in Egypt and Nigeria and other countries where people are fearing the coronavirus quarantine measures, if not the disease itself.

From what I can tell, it’s the largest reverse -migration phenomenon since the years after 1989 in the Warsaw Pact countries, when we saw a move of people back to the villages, especially in Poland for the reason that the communist regime in Poland did not collectivise agriculture, so there was still family ownership of rural land. As I wrote in Arrival City, a lot of families used that rural land as a welfare backstop during a period when the state basically disappeared.

And what we’re seeing now with Covid is also a lot like the reverse migration that was observed in sub -Saharan African countries during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, when we saw measurably large populations shifting back from cities that they’d settled in. And it’s certainly what we’re seeing now. And I think it confirms a little bit of what I was talking about in Arrival City, which is that families who are settled in urban districts, often multiple generations in, always maintain some form of link to the originating village. But these reverse migrations always turn out to be temporary.

Do you think in other ways, Covid-19 has accelerated or decelerated or changed conditions for continuous, inevitable migration?

If the disease is placed under control within a year or two, reverse migration and the curtailment of movement will prove to have been temporary phenomena, simply because the economic and cultural logic of migration will continue to make the larger cities more desirable than otherwise. Second, I think even if it’s not placed under control during this shorter timeframe, the effects and dynamics of the disease are going to change, in terms of the geography of the spread. It’s already a much more rural disease – while it started in cities, after the initial months, villages became much more dangerous places than big cities. So, I wouldn’t want to give a prediction, but I would say that it seems very unlikely that in the long term, or even in the medium term, that this is going to change the 21st century dynamics of human migration.

Are you planning to write a follow-up book to Arrival City, and if so, what would the central thesis be?

I’m hoping my current project will result in another book that examines urban neighbourhoods, and in some cases towns, in multiple countries, to look at what you might call Arrival City: A Generation or Two Later. It would look at the “trap neighbourhood”—the places where upward mobility, the expectation of a transition to a lower-middle-class life, gets stuck.

This is a huge phenomenon in the middle-income countries, in the so-called BRICS, where millions of people had expected to be in the middle class by now, but are finding it impossible due to housing or labour markets or divisive politics. Their parents moved out of the village and experienced the huge shift that moved them out of subsistence poverty and danger of starvation and into a less deadly form of urban working-class poverty, a vast improvement in living conditions. But their children and grandchildren are still living in factory dormitories or informal housing or remote apartment districts without a path to the middle class. Their frustration at that lack of pathways to mobility is driving a lot of the political crises in those countries.

But it’s also striking a growing number of neighbourhoods in the West, where huge shortages of housing supply are driving up prices and causing measurable increases in economic segregation. We don’t see it as much, because so much immigration settlement and low-income life is now located in isolated suburbs.

These pathways from low income to the middle class have become beset with barriers in many countries that are affecting not just migration populations, but post-industrial populations. Immigration settlement continues to follow familiar patterns. But second and third generations are experiencing difficulties in the 21st century that they didn’t in the 20th century. It’s very easy to go from being in absolute poverty to being in a more prosperous urban life, but it’s much more difficult now to reach the lower bounds of the middle class, which I would call ability to save and borrow money, to put your kids in post-secondary education, to have enough resources that you’re not in danger of falling back in poverty.

So that very minimal definition of the middle class, whether you’re in China, or Brazil, or in the US, or Western Europe right now, has become more difficult to attain, and my working hypothesis is that this is a set of barriers that manifest themselves mainly at the neighbourhood level. What we usually think of as national or international crises and issues are best understood as neighbourhood-level problems, and the solutions are often found in neighbourhood policies. That was the message of Arrival City, and that’s the overarching message of this new project.