Risky cities, mean streets

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 Dani Douglas and Eric Smith.

This essay explores the security threats migrants and refugees confront in cities, and the extent to which they exacerbate insecurity in the neighbourhoods where they live or even, as alleged by certain populist politicians, create problems due to their alleged inherent criminality. The essay also considers how governments, civil society actors and urban residents work to mitigate threats and increase protection.

Myriad threats

By dint of their (often precarious) legal status, race, ethnicity, and gender, refugees and migrants are exposed to a variety of threats to their safety and wellbeing that in many cases place them at a similar level of risk that led them to flee their home countries.

For women, urban migration presents both empowerment opportunities and risks. Many women migrate to escape a lack of opportunities and the gender-based violence, and their households cooperate because women are seen as more responsible and more likely to send money home. Once in arrival cities, women migrants and refugees might still face the risk of domestic violence, for example in cases where conservative husbands would frown upon them working outside the home, as well as a toxic mix of threats from crime, gender-based violence and harassment, and xenophobia.

Violence and crime

Migrants (both internal and international) and refugees tend to live in specific areas of cities. These can be established immigrant enclaves, slums in older, congested areas of the city proper, or informal settlements or areas of rapid urbanisation at the edges of urban agglomerations. In such peripheral areas, access to social services is typically poor, municipal governance is weak, and the police are often unhelpful, unavailable or simply corrupt, resulting in scant official protection. These problems increase the risk of crime and violence for all residents. For example, intermittent electricity and the resulting areas of darkness at night present opportunities for criminals.

Do areas where migrants and refugees are concentrated have higher rates of crime and violence than other areas? Findings are mixed and vary greatly from city to city. One study in the UK, for example, found that crime rates were substantially lower in immigrant enclaves than in neighbourhoods without sizeable immigrant population shares. A study in Colombia, by contrast, found that the arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the cities of Bogotá and Pasto was followed by an increase in homicides, a rise possibly explained by the lack of economic opportunities for IDPs, and the violence IDPs were exposed to prior to arrival. Eastleigh, a district of Nairobi heavily populated by Somali migrants and refugees, is the most vibrant economic enclave in East Africa but also a centre for gun dealing. Many cities in Latin America and the Caribbean are afflicted by drug cartels and related gang violence, and in South Asia, cities like Karachi, where 62 percent of housing is informal, experience spasms of violence targeted at specific ethno-religious groups.

Whether refugees and migrants are at greater risk of falling victim to crime, extortion, and violence than other residents depends on the local city context, but the evidence indicates that they generally are. According to UN-Habitat, migrants and refugees in informal settlements are more susceptible to violence and violent crime because they are “physically, politically, and economically marginalised”. This vulnerability can stem from refugees’ and migrants’ appearance: their race or ethnicity, or the way they dress and speak, often makes them easily distinguishable from the host population. Apart from being potential victims of discrimination and xenophobia, refugees and migrants may also become targets for criminals and gangs who often count on their victims’ reluctance or inability to speak out.

Police perils

An important risk factor for migrants and refugees is their legal status. Irregular and undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are at much greater risk than other residents of being arrested or extorted when stopped by police. In many cities, even documented migrants and refugees are reluctant to report crimes because they fear the police and other government authorities more than they trust them as a source of protection. In Nairobi’s sprawling informal settlement of Kibera, where 50 percent of the population is made up of migrants, some residents describe the police as “slow, inept, corrupt and unlikely to properly investigate criminal cases for successful prosecution.” In Bangkok, Burmese migrants said they feared moving about in public because of how often they had to pay bribes to avoid being arrested for not having documentation—they felt they were “used as ‘ATMs’ for the Thai police.” In Johannesburg, Somali refugees face regular raids by the police who confiscate goods from street traders, arrest those without identity documentation, and issue fines. In a survey of Somalis in a Johannesburg area (Mayfair), 65 percent of respondents said they had experienced a harmful act against them or their property by non-Somalis, and 75 percent said they had been subject to police interrogation, had their documents destroyed or been forced to pay bribes. Somalis’ experience of state pressure in Kenya, where “state security concerns have increasingly permeated public discourse on refugee issues”, is also one of the factors behind the movement of some Somalis to Uganda.

The reluctance of refugees and migrants to interact with law enforcement creates power imbalances that enable unscrupulous landlords to exploit or discriminate against migrants without fear of police interference. Some landlords reportedly charge migrants and refugees rent above market rates, evict them, and even demand sex.

Workplace woes

This aversion to engaging with police also contributes to the risks faced by migrants and refugees in their urban workplaces. Many are self-employed, hawking goods on the street, or employed in so-called “3-D” sectors: those that are dirty, dangerous and discriminatory, such as garment factories (sweatshops), domestic work, private security, and construction.Migrant workers are at particular risk of exploitation because employers are able to withhold wages or discriminate without fear of being reported.

In Qatar, where demand for migrant labour has soared ahead of the 2022 World Cup and its numerous construction projects, workers not only have to toil in dangerously high temperatures but also face abuses partly linked to the kafala recruitment system. This obliges migrant workers to be “sponsored” by an all-powerful employer before they arrive in Qatar and to obtain permission before changing employer or returning home. Many migrant workers in Qatar are caught up in forced labour, debt bondage, physical abuse, non-payment of salaries, and unacceptable living conditions, as well as gender-based violence—especially in the case of female domestic workers. The kafala system is in place across the Gulf States, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon. The vulnerabilities and abuses facing hundreds of thousands of labour migrants in the Middle East and Gulf States has been the subject of extensive research and advocacy in recent years. Despite some claims that the system is being reformed or even abolished in places, “the system’s most critical vulnerabilities still remain.”

Refugees are not recruited to the same extent as migrant workers but, like migrants, they are often employed in 3-D jobs and face the same xenophobia, discrimination and harassment by police, as well as poor working conditions, and delayed or unpaid wages.Refugees are often denied work permits, or only permitted to work in certain industries. In 2016, Amman and the European Union (EU) signed the Jordan Compact to provide 200,000 work permits for Syrian refugees in tariff-free export manufacturing in Jordan. The aim was to “attract investment to Jordanian export manufacturing and create jobs for refugees.” After signing, the Jordan government decreased the number of migrant worker visas given to Egyptians and began to enforce sanctions on those without valid visas, “render[ing] migrants’ work lives more precarious and decreas[ing] their access to decent work.” Thus, migrant workers and refugees face similar risks, but they manifest in different ways, and as in this example, promoting one group can sometimes disadvantage the other.

Trouble in transit

Many mixed migration routes feature transit hubs, which often have long traditions of smuggling, both of people and goods. In the past ten years, as the numbers of refugees and migrants—and mixed migration routes—have increased, the human smuggling industry and its profits have grown too. Some hubs, like Benghazi in Libya, lie in conflict zones where armed non-state actors in control of the city are deeply involved in migrant smuggling, and where war economies are tied to smuggling.

For several decades at least, smuggling has played an important role in the histories and economies of transit cities such as Izmir in Turkey and Agadez in Niger. In such hubs, the human smuggling business was for a long time seen by many people living in those cities as benign and necessary for livelihoods and survival, threatening to no one, enabling people’s mobility, and creating jobs and income for the cities.

The case of Agadez

But many of these cities have seen dramatic changes since Europe declared a migration “crisis” in 2015. For example, Agadez, is a longstanding transit hub for sub-Saharan Africans headed north to work in Libya and Algeria and, to a lesser extent, those aiming to reach Europe. Historically, the Nigerien state tolerated the facilitation of these flows, and transporting people across Niger into North Africa was a lucrative, and ocially acceptable profession: Agadez used to boast some 50 migrant “travel agencies” employing 7,000 people; thousands of civil servants, soldiers and customs officials benefited from the business of moving people. By 2015, the industry was contributing some 60bn CFA francs ($110 million) to the Agadez regional economy per year. Travellers sometimes had to spend long periods in Agadez, often confined to residential compounds, waiting for funds or means of transport, and there was some forced labour and abuse, but things were to get a lot worse for migrants there.

In 2015, under pressure from an EU keen to externalise its inward migration controls, Niger passed a law banning migrant smuggling. After the law began to be enforced the following year, the number of migrants traveling north from Agadez plummeted from an estimated 333,000 in 2016 to 69,000 in 2017. The law’s economic impact on Agadez was devastating, with a huge loss of revenue and jobs. But new security problems emerged too—for both the city and those passing through. The new law empowers Nigerien security forces to stop citizens of West African countries and detain Nigerien drivers simply for being together in a vehicle headed north. Transporting or hosting West African nationals can lead to fines of up to 30m CFA francs ($50,000) and 30 years in prison. For refugees and migrants, transport routes have become far more dangerous as smugglers avoid the main roads and use tracks across the desert to Libya, leading to more deaths and more passengers abandoned. The cost of passage has increased by as much as four times.

The case of Agadez illustrates how cities with established smuggling traditions can benefit from smuggling, but also how sudden policy changes can disrupt smuggling economies without improving the situation for either refugees and migrants or the city.


Changes unrelated to government policies have also made smuggling more dangerous, both for transit cities and migrants. The growth in profits and diversification of the smuggling industry create new risks in cities, as rival crime or smuggling syndicates compete (often with state actors involved), as seen in Mexico and Latin America.

When refugees and migrants get stuck in transit, they become an unsettled and highly marginalised population, particularly when they are undocumented. After the Balkans route was shut down in 2016, cities such as Belgrade had thousands of stranded refugees and migrants who had no desire to remain in Serbia but were unable to move on. Other transit cities, such as Izmir, have had different experiences, with some refugees and migrants electing not to make the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe and instead remaining in Izmir.

Scourges or scapegoats?

Considerable and frequently sensationalised public discourse revolves around the risks refugees and migrants allegedly bring to cities, with heated rhetoric emanating from certain politicians and the media about their supposed connection with crime, terrorism and transnational gangs. Such xenophobic aspersions have been a key feature of Donald Trump’s discourse since he declared his candidacy for the 2016 US presidential election. And in Italy’s 2018 election campaign, politicians steered public debate towards the nexus between migration, crime and security. Similarly, in South Africa, politicians rail against migrants as sources of crime and violence, while in Kenya they add the accusation of terrorism, following various attacks in recent years.

Three main types of security risk have been associated with refugees and migrants living in cities across the world: transnational gangs, street crime, and terrorism and extremism. This section explores each in turn.

Transnational gangs

Transnational gangs are criminal organisations that are spread across multiple countries, often committing crimes in one country, while planning crimes in another. These are not mere street gangs: they are much larger in size and power and are considered security threats by national governments who mobilise responses against them. The members of such gangs may include many migrants, both documented and undocumented. In the United States (US), there are at least five transnational gangs, the most notorious being the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13 (mara is the Spanish word for gang). Like other transnational gangs, MS-13 is involved in “a myriad of criminal activity, including murder, extortion, narcotics and weapons trafficking, human smuggling/trafficking and prostitution and other crimes with a nexus to the border.” In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security made over 4,000 gang arrests, detaining more than 400 MS-13 members. In 2018, more than 6,000 gang members, including 1,332 MS-13 members, were deported from the US, a 24 percent increase from 2017. MS-13 is based in California but operates in cities throughout the US and in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Crimes committed by groups like MS-13 receive extensive press coverage in the US, but on a national level their reach is limited: at their peak, estimated US membership never exceeded 10,000. Nonetheless, the presence of transnational gangs in cities creates significant security concerns, both from gang activities and the responses of security forces. In the past few years, poor, migrant-dominated areas of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Cape Town, and many Mexican cities have all had armed police or military interventions targeting gangs, where civilians were killed and injured too. In 2018, a record number of people were killed in police operations in Rio de Janeiro state, with 1,375 fatalities between February and December. The military intervention in Rio’s northern zone in 2018 was followed by a pledge by the state’s new governor to “slaughter” criminals.

General crime

Most studies exploring the relationship between migration and crime focus on Europe and the US. Almost all of those relating to the African continent focus almost exclusively on South Africa. In both cases, findings cannot safely be extrapolated to other regions or countries.

In the US and EU, there is no evidence that migrants and refugees have a higher propensity to commit crimes than native- born citizens. A meta -analysis of 51 studies in the US found no relationship between immigration and crime; neither did a study of crime in Europe after the refugee “crisis” of 2015 -2016. A study of crime statistics in Italy between 2007 and 2016 found that crime rates had fallen across the country, while the share of people granted asylum since 2013 had increased exponentially. The study found that the share of crimes perpetrated by foreign residents in a given region, on average, matched the same decreasing trend for the overall crime rate in Italy. In Germany, foreigners make up 13 percent of the population but account for over 38 percent of crime suspects.

There is also no evidence that cities with a higher share of immigrants have more crime than others. In the US, studies have found no relationship between crime rates and the foreign-born share of a population, including in border cities and “sanctuary cities.” In Texas, border towns have lower crime rates than non-border cities of comparable size, and those rates were falling before the border wall went up. Studies of sanctuary cities show no increase in crime rates after sanctuary policies were put in place, and the rates of violent crime, property crime, and rape are not higher in sanctuary cities than other comparable cities.

Although news media often produce sensational coverage of serious crimes involving street gangs with significant immigrant memberships, crimes committed by immigrants and immigrant gangs generally represent a very small proportion of a country’s overall offences. After a Sudanese gang committed a murder in Melbourne in 2018, former prime minister Tony Abbot claimed that Sudanese-born people in Victoria constituted less than 0.1 percent of the population, but were responsible for “well over” 1 percent of all crimes committed in that state. (He then called into question the integration of all African migrants in Australia).

In slum areas of the global South, migrants and refugees may form street gangs that commit crimes. From the migrants’ perspective, gang membership may be a tactic of resilience and survival—especially for younger migrants and refugees—in the absence of state-provided security and services. In Cairo, young Sudanese refugees (albeit a very small portion of the Sudanese population) formed gangs as a way to address common grievances, but these gangs have become more violent over the years, and sometimes clash with rival groups. In Nairobi’s Kibera, where at least half the residents are migrants from rural areas of Kenya, there are eight major gangs. As in Cairo, youths join gangs as a way to provide “informal security networks” due to corruption and a lack of trust in the police. In Nairobi’s neglected slums, residents are “forced to rely on gangs for service provision, at a fee. They turn to […] gangs to resolve matters of justice, law and order. Gangs have […] emerged as key players in the provision of security, less as contributors to the disorder in slums and more as actors that mitigate the absence of government.”

Extremism and terrorism

Some urban neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations in large cities are labelled by the media and politicians (and thus many citizens) as “no-go zones”. In Europe especially, the label has been applied to Muslim-dominant areas where it is alleged that Sharia law prevails and police do not have control. For example, Molenbeek, Belgium’s second poorest municipality and home to many Moroccans and Turks, gained notoriety because of its connections to those who carried out the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. Government documents revealed 51 NGOs in Molenbeek were suspected of having links to terrorism, and 46 residents were monitored for terrorism links. But many residents of so-called no-go zones—especially those who live or work in these neighbourhoods— reject the term, pointing out the ordinariness of the neighbourhoods, and the small proportion of migrants and refugees who become extremists or suspected terrorists. Between 2014 and 2018, out of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants that entered the EU, there were 104 suspected terrorists, of which 28 carried out attacks that claimed the lives of 170 people. Similarly, in the US, some observers and commentators have calculated there is only a 1 in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist, and a 1 in 3.86 billion chance of being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack. There is no evidence for the argument that migrants have a higher propensity than non-migrants to join terrorist organisations. While some migrant-dense neighbourhoods have seen connections to extremism, the labelling of these neighbourhoods as no-go zones is not factually accurate and often politically motivated.

Pushback: how governments and civil society respond

Public perceptions that migrants and refugees bring crime, extremism, and terrorism to their country are fuelled by disinformation and selective statistics. While some governments may actively work to reduce the spread of disinformation, some more cynical political leaders manipulate it to their advantage. In the runup to the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, groups campaigning to leave the bloc blamed immigration for a range of problems, warning Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) would become “unsustainable” under pressure from a growing immigrant population, despite NHS evidence to the contrary. In the US, President Trump frequently overstates the number of “illegal” immigrants in the country and associates crime with irregular immigration with no evidence. Stigmatising migrants in this way increases their risk of being profiled by law enforcement, as evidenced by the overrepresentation of migrants and refugees among criminal suspects.

International organisations, NGOs, and migrant communities try to combat this stigma. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has run campaigns such as No Stranger Place and From Far and Wide to highlight communities in Europe and Canada that have taken refugees into their homes, and its social media campaigns featuring celebrities also boost its messaging efforts. Civil society groups facilitate events where migrants and hosts do things like eat a meal together, with the goal of fostering relationships that counter preconceived notions.

Beyond such campaigns, migrants and refugee leaders actively work to address problems of extremism and gang violence in their communities and to protest unfair practices. As the following examples illustrate, these actions range from counselling and employment programs, to street protests. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugee-led organisation Shanti Mohila provides counselling services to victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence. In Kampala, Uganda, the Somali Community Association works to create employment opportunities for young Somalis who they believe may otherwise resort to violence. In Cairo, in 2013, some Ethiopians were caught up in a violent backlash from Egyptians after Ethiopia diverted the Nile for the construction of a vast dam. Ethiopian refugees demanded UNHCR make a statement to clarify that they had no connection to the actions of the Ethiopian government. In Durban, South Africa, where Congolese refugees face frequent xenophobic attacks, the Christ Assembly Church of Africa holds rallies to foster solidarity. The pastor advertises the church as “comprised of many nationalities” and works to protect members from anti-foreign attacks.”


Location matters. Urban neighbourhoods often come with higher risks of crime and violence for migrants and refugees, and worse working and living conditions. Migrants and refugees are less willing to engage with the criminal justice system or other forms of government assistance, and when they do, they rarely receive adequate recompense. Risk is exacerbated along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Disinformation and political rhetoric often stigmatise migrants and refugees as criminals, terrorists, and gang members, leading the public to believe they pose a danger despite the lack of evidence. This stigmatisation increases the risk migrants face and the likelihood of their becoming crime suspects. Urban responses need to not only address service provision and humanitarian response, but also how to better tackle negative stereotypes that stigmatise migrants and refugees that are perpetuated through disinformation, in line with Objective 17 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: “eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration.”