How Cities Are Demanding a Greater Voice on Migration

Cities are developing their own solutions to help fast-growing migrant and refugee populations in urban areas. Cities expert Robert Muggah describes the swell of initiatives by urban leaders and what it will take to overcome the barriers ahead.

Written by Natalie Sikorski Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
New Yorkers march in support of immigrant families on June 30, 2018. Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Most refugees and internally displaced people live in cities. Yet urban leaders are regularly excluded from international discussions about refugee response.

Robert Muggah, cofounder of the Brazil-based think-tank the Igarape Institute and Canadian risk consultancy The SecDev Group, is among a growing chorus of city and migration experts calling for that to change. His recent paper for the World Refugee Council describes how cities are developing their own solutions and offers a blueprint for better cooperation.

“Cities will need resources to scale up their activities,” Muggah told Refugees Deeply. “This may require changes in laws so that cities can determine their own residence policies and keep tax revenues generated by migrants who move there.”

Refugees Deeply talked to Muggah about how city leaders are championing new approaches to displacement and the barriers they’re trying to overcome.

Refugees Deeply: Are the global compacts on refugees and migration a missed opportunity for a smarter international approach to urban refugees and migrants?

Robert Muggah: The international response to the urbanization of displacement has been woefully inadequate. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in particular, was remarkably slow to empower cities to assume a greater role in protecting and assisting refugees and other groups of concern. And while it has made some modest improvements, the UNHCR’s strategic plan (2017–21) makes just one reference to urban refugees – acknowledging that they constitute the majority of the agency’s caseload – but offers no vision or concrete recommendations moving forward.

The global compacts on migration and refugees were never going to be revolutionary. But so far they have been a disappointment seen from the vantage point of cities. While still under review, the new compacts only tangentially address the central role of urban authorities, businesses and civic associations in supporting displaced populations. While they offer a suite of sensible-sounding proposals to ensure a more predictable approach to protection and care and “regularize” population movements more generally, they are silent on the role of cities. The global compact on refugees mentions the word “urban” just four times and “cities” just once. These omissions have not gone unnoticed: cities and inter-city networks are agitating for a greater voice.

The global compacts on migration and refugees were never going to be revolutionary. But so far they have been a disappointment seen from the vantage point of cities.

Refugees Deeply: What are some of the main political and institutional blockages to better equipping cities around the world to protect and care for migrants and refugees?

Muggah: For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, nation states have actively resisted giving cities more discretion in responding to issues of cross-border and internal population displacement. Cities will not find recourse in international law, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also have nothing to say about urban displacement. More positively, the nonbinding New Urban Agenda offers more concrete direction on cooperation between national and subnational authorities to address the needs of refugees and internally displaced people.

Cities have also received comparatively limited support from international organizations to support urban refugees and displaced people. On the contrary – the UNHCR has instead emphasized the need to reduce assistance and promote self-reliance. Under immense pressure from U.N. member states, and host states in particular, the UNHCR sought to limit refugees from moving to cities where possible. UNHCR made tentative gestures to move beyond the minimalist approach and advocate for refugee rights in cities in the 2000s, but a camp-based model prevailed. There were concerns that the focus on refugees in cities could antagonize host countries, many of whom saw displaced people as a threat to domestic and international security.

Refugees Deeply: What are some of the factors common to the most proactive and innovative cities on these issues?

Muggah: A growing number of cities are demanding a greater voice on issues of migration and displacement. Earlier in 2018 a small delegation of cities – led by New York – sent recommendations to improve the overall wording and content of the Global Compact. Likewise, in 2017, the International Organization for Migration, together with the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG), assembled 150 cities to sign the Mechelen Declaration demanding a seat at the decision-making table. And in 2015, Eurocities also issued a statement on refugees in the wake of the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. They set up Solidarity Cities, which provides support to help cities deliver services and identify effective long-term solutions to protect social cohesion and integration.

Cities are also getting on with developing legislative and policy frameworks to welcome refugees and promote protection, care and assistance. Good examples include more than 100 “welcoming cities” in the U.S. that have committed to promoting integration, developing institutional strategies for inclusion, building leadership among new arrivals and providing support to refugees. Meanwhile, some 500 jurisdictions describe themselves as “sanctuary cities.” Despite threats of cuts to funding, they are resisting federal efforts to enforce immigration law and are on the front line of supporting refugees. In the U.K., at least 80 “cities of sanctuary” offer another approach to providing compassionate solutions for refugees. Large and medium-sized cities across Europe are also adopting similar strategies, in cooperation with Eurocities – a network of major European cities founded in 1986.

The economies of sanctuary cities, towns and counties are largely more resilient than nonsanctuary counterparts, whether measured in terms of the population’s income, reliance on public assistance or labor force participation.

While it can generate tension with federal counterparts, these city-level responses can help contribute to greater safety and economic progress in the long run. Cities, states and countries with sanctuary policies tend to be safer and more prosperous than those without them. Sanctuary cities can build trust between law enforcement agencies and migrant communities. Likewise, the economies of sanctuary cities, towns and counties are largely more resilient than nonsanctuary counterparts, whether measured in terms of the population’s income, reliance on public assistance or labor force participation.

Refugees Deeply: Many cities face financial and political limitations on their ability to respond to refugee crises. Where have you seen good examples of devolution of power and resources helping cities to respond better?

Muggah: There are countless examples of cities strengthening their protection and care for urban refugees in a time of austerity. In New York, for example, city authorities launched ActionNYC, which offers free, safe legal assistance for migrants and refugees in multiple languages. In Barcelona, the SAIER (Service Center for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees) program provides free advice on asylum and return, while Milan works with the UNHCR and Save the Children to offer services for unaccompanied minors.

Montreal established the BINAM (Bureau d’integration des nouveaux arrivants a Montreal) program to provide on-the-job training and mentoring to new arrivals, and Sao Paulo has created municipal immigration councils to help design, implement and monitor the city’s policies. Likewise, cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles are requiring that migrants – in particular, refugees – have equal access to city facilities, services and programs regardless of their citizenship status.

Cities are also banding together, pooling their resources to achieve greater influence on the urban refugee agenda. Today there are more than 200 intercity networks dedicated to urban priorities, ranging from governance and climate change to public safety and migration. Several of them have dedicated guidelines on how cities can protect and care for refugees. For example, the Global Parliament of Mayors, established in 2016, focuses on, among other things, promoting inclusive cities for refugees and advocating on their behalf. The International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities and the UCLG are others, having teamed up with think-tanks and international agencies to strengthen information-sharing and best practices. Another new initiative is Urban20, which is promoting social integration, among other issues, and planning an inaugural meeting in October 2018.

Refugees Deeply: Most cities at the forefront of refugee crises are in the Global South. What recommendations would you offer to ensure that international responses to urban displacement do not become too North-centric?

Muggah: This reality is often lost on Northern policymakers and citizens as they seek to restrict new arrivals and reduce overseas assistance. The Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab and the Igarape Institute have developed a range of data visualization tools to highlight these trends, but a much greater effort is required to educate the public. These outreach efforts must be accompanied with a dramatic scaling-up of assistance to redressing the “causes” of displacement as well as supporting front-line cities absorbing the vast majority of the world’s displaced populations.
This interview was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity.

Suggest your story or issue.

Send

Share Your Story.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more
× Dismiss
We have updated our Privacy Policy with a few important changes specific to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and our use of cookies. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies. Read our full Privacy Policy here.