Bringing Border Cities into the Center of Migration Governance

September 13, 2021
Photo credit: Tim Roberts Photography /
The terms “border cities” and “migration” tend to invoke startling images of humanitarian emergency situations—the French “jungle” of Calais, the barbed-wire fences in the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, or makeshift camps in Mexican Tijuana.

What remains conspicuously absent from such images are the actual cities—cities not just as passive spaces where emergencies happen, but as diverse social networks of people holding potential to find political and practical solutions that go beyond ad hoc measures at the local, national, and international levels.

Always in the Media SpotlightNever at the Policymaking Table

The municipality of Lampedusa and Linosa is one such city. Situated on Lampedusa Island 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia and closer to Libya than any other European territory, the city has seen a high number of arrivals of migrants and refugees over the last years. However, instead of calling for restricting European immigration policies (even) further, the Mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa joined forces with border towns and cities in Malta, Cyprus, France, Italy, Hungary, and Austria to launch the Border Towns and Island Network (BTIN) in 2019. Member cities of the BTIN strive to support each other with the exchange of good practice but also aim to draw the attention to a paradox that can be observed all over the world—the border city migration governance paradox.

Border cities are often more directly impacted by national and international migration policymaking than other rural and urban areas. One could mention, for instance, the implications of the EU-Turkey agreement for cities in Greece and Turkey or the short- and medium-term consequences for Mexican and U.S. border cities triggered by former President Trump’s announcement of his plans to construct a physical wall along the southern border. However, despite being spaces where the effects of (inter)national decision-making manifest most clearly, border cities lack voices in the exact policy deliberations that affect their social, economic, and cultural urban structures.

Migration City Diplomacy Is on the Rise…

Over the last decade, migration and displacement have become central topics of city-to-city (C2C) exchanges and city efforts to influence national and international policies on both sides of the Atlantic. City diplomacy may appear as a counterintuitive concept at first sight, given that diplomacy is mostly thought of in the context of relations between national governments. However, all over the world, local governments have started engaging at regional and international levels to defend municipal interests and share local experience in order to influence policy processes that affect local realities.

All over the world, local governments have started engaging at regional and international levels to defend municipal interests and share local experience in order to influence policy processes that affect local realities.

In Europe, EUROCITIES, a network of major cities, plays a central role in leading city advocacy at the EU level and in collaborating with the European Commission to promote C2C cooperation via various Integrating Cities projects. Other influential European networks engaging on questions of migration and integration include Intercultural Cities, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, and the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism. At the national level, a variety of networks have either been founded around or have started addressing these topics in recent years, with prominent examples being the French Association Nationale des Villes et Territoires Accueillants, the Greek Cities Network for Integration or the U.K. Inclusive Cities. On the other side of the Atlantic, Mercociudades works toward inclusive migration that respects human rights in South and Central America, Welcoming America and Cities for Action support the development of inclusive communities and policies in the United States, and the Réseau des municipalités en immigration et en relations interculturelles du Québec promotes C2C dialogue on immigration and intercultural relations in Canada. As migration governance develops an increasingly important international dimension, city diplomacy is following suit with the growing global-level engagement of United Cities and Local Governments, the Global Parliament of Mayors, Welcoming International, the launch of the Mayors Migration Council, and the creation of the Mayors Mechanism within the intergovernmental Global Forum on Migration and Development.

…but Border Cities Lack Voices and Opportunities

While these developments have indeed caused a rise in city diplomacy as well as research on cities and migration, the overwhelming majority of C2C cooperation, city diplomacy, and respective policy-oriented research focuses on local authorities’ role in welcoming and integrating migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Furthermore, at the time of writing, it is predominantly capital cities and other major cities that are in a position to engage in dialogue and diplomatic action on migration at transnational levels. The political spotlight is thus on major host cities. These, however, often have different needs, potentials, and interests than smaller towns and cities situated along national or continental land and water borders.

How to Shape Resilient and Sustainable Border Cities?

As many border cities consider themselves cities of transit, interlinkages between migration and development stemming from long-term benefits of cultural and social diversity as well as economic contributions of migrants and refugees highlighted in C2C best practice exchanges may be more difficult to realize or may at least be less obvious to local authorities and populations. Both national and local authorities may be less incentivized to dedicate budgets for building up physical and social infrastructures to address migration and displacement in border regions, expecting mobile populations to spend only short times in these areas. However, administrative and legal barriers often force migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to discontinue their journey for months or even years. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic provide a drastic example of migration movements that are suddenly halted due to border closures leaving persons in uncertain states of limbo.

Both national and local authorities may be less incentivized to dedicate budgets for building up physical and social infrastructures to address migration and displacement in border regions, expecting mobile populations to spend only short times in these areas.

However, each border situation has its own unique context. Therefore, the question must be asked—are border cities automatically transit cities? Are they de facto short or long-term transit cities? On what factors does a city’s short- or long-term “migration profile” depend? And do local resources and legal competences, as well as national policies, match a city’s migration profile?

Many border cities have direct experience with the ineffectiveness of purely security-based migration management. Cities, like the members of the BTIN, therefore are calling for more sustainable and development-oriented solutions. Some border cities that have become long-term transit cities may have quite similar interests to host cities focusing on pragmatic ways to make migration work for urban development by including migrants and refugees in social and economic networks. Nevertheless, border cities tend to receive predominantly short term national and international funding and support tailored to address humanitarian emergencies. A common challenge of such support is that it targets specific groups rather than specific areas, with the intent to support arriving refugees and migrants in temporary structures instead of investing in strengthening the social, economic, and infrastructural resilience of the city as a whole. Through collaboration with local and national authorities, humanitarian and development actors could promote so-called “area-based” approaches not just in traditional host cities but also in long-term transit border cities.

Short-term transit cities with a high frequency of arrivals and departures are also in need of more than humanitarian action. Otherwise, a city is simply moving from one crisis to the next, leaving the local administration and population a little less resilient each time, draining the motivation of volunteers willing to aid migrants and refugees, and opening spaces for security-based migration narratives. Short-term transit border cities might be interested in collaborating with national and international actors to pilot flexible funding options, scalable social infrastructure, and housing that could be used by different communities at different times for a variety of purposes.

Cities Managing Migration—Space for Cities to Rethink Borders

When it comes to collaboration between cities on all sides and dimensions of a border, the Cities Managing Migration project strives to open up spaces to rethink borders, exploring with city representatives whether these could transform from barriers of exclusion into bridges to find joint solutions. In particular neighboring border cities with economic, historic or cultural ties can bring a lot to the table to develop cross-border collaborations that could also inspire and serve as models for national and international policy-makers. Uncovering this potential includes asking questions such as:

  • As a C2C exchange focusing on long-term integration may not necessarily be the best fit for many border cities, what kind of good practice dialogue are border cities interested in?
  • How could cities develop cross-border political advocacy to feed their experience, interests, and needs back into national and international decision-making processes?
  • Do border cities have specific needs and potential for cross-border collaboration with media actors to counter fake news and misinformation?
  • Is there interest to collaborate with other cities in engaging in (private-sponsored) resettlement and other forms of legal migration pathways?

The Cities Managing Migration project’s work on border cities aims to provide border cities with spaces for dialogue to identify common interests and potentials, to develop ideas for practical action, and to launch joint political advocacy bringing the knowledge and positions of border cities right into the center of migration governance.