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Blog Post

Cities Managing Migration: the State of Affairs

July 21, 2021
9 min read
Photo credit: Fishman64 / Shutterstock.com

After migrants and refugees have crossed national borders, they settle in local communities and increasingly in urban areas. The responsibilities and competences of cities include many aspects that are essential to welcoming them. Moreover, cities are not just the places where challenges and opportunities materialize; for cities to thrive, they inherently depend on diversity, inclusion, openness, innovation, and social cohesion. Reflecting this reality is the increasing role that cities are playing and claiming in migration policy nationally and internationally. There are many ways that city policies and practices can inform national and international policymaking, but cities can do more than transfer critical information. Drawing on their local experience and (need for) innovation, local authorities can provide important reality checks for national and international policies and present scalable models to follow.

What European and North American Cities Do Locally

A recent survey of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) highlighted that a majority of the more than 25 cities surveyed across Europe and North America are responsible for and provide services that are critical to the welcoming and integration of migrants and refugees, such as public safety, health services, social support, workforce integration, vocational training, language learning, education, and temporary accommodation, among many other services. In all these sectors, cities are confronted with different challenges; but they also gain opportunities for urban development. GMF will be working with cities in Europe and North America to share and explore innovative lessons and provide joint spaces for incubating new ideas in the following areas:

Creative Workforce Integration

Cities are responsible for the development of strategies and tools for creative workforce integration. They are critical to promoting effective integration of newcomers in the workforce by providing training opportunities and leveraging existing skills in ways that support individuals and families while boosting the local and regional economies. Through its survey, GMF found that the main priorities in this regard are recognition and certification of skills as well as education and training. This involves not only gaining the necessary requirements for the local labor market, but also a certain level of language skills. Still, certain cities detect room for improvement to fill a specific labor demand by attracting immigrants, such as nurses, teachers, carpenters, and bricklayers in Amsterdam or employees in technology, manufacturing, and construction in and around Boston. In order to support cities, the Cities Managing Migration project will work with local actors to explore particularly innovative and creative good practices and local policies around recruitment, training of workforce, and professional recognition.

Bridging Borders

Borders are often the focus of political attention. Border cities on the other hand are seldom given political or media attention that picture them as anything else than spaces of emergency. As key nodes of transit, border cities are deeply affected by national and international contexts, but they mostly lack opportunities to feed their local experience back to higher levels of governance. These barriers and the fact that national policies are often rather adopted with a focus on host than on transit cities are unfortunate given that cities such as Gaziantep have proven that even in the direst contexts they can find innovative and creative ways to support labor-market integration and the economy, while maintaining an open, human-centered perspective.  However, most border cities included in the GMF survey highlight that they lack cooperation with counterparts across the border—an area for growth that the Cities Managing Migration project will explore.

Rural Cities and Towns

While major cities receive most of the political and media spotlight when issues of migration and integration are discussed, greater attention should be paid to smaller and medium-sized cities. Rural cities and towns in particular can benefit from the arrival of newcomers that may bring needed skills, entrepreneurship, and cultural diversity to local communities. However, this presupposes that these local communities have the infrastructure, resources, and capacities to integrate newcomers and offer support to establish a new home. It is thus worthwhile to focus on particular challenges experienced by small and medium-sized cities when it comes to attracting and retaining newcomers. Rural areas in Europe and the United States must develop good practices to address these issues. For instance, the network Welcoming America in the United States creates toolkits for welcoming refugees in rural areas; for example, for economic development in the Austin area and for community building in Cazenovia. The SHARE network in Europe fosters multistakeholder cooperation and innovative approaches for the inclusion of migrants and refugees, and it shares best practices from rural areas in Belgium, France, Spain, Poland, and Greece. Based on the different experiences in rural areas, the Cities Managing Migration project will share good practices and support networking and rural advocacy strategies.

Human-Centered Security

While marginalization, mutual distrust, social segregation, and higher levels of vulnerability among many migrants and refugees (especially in times of the Coronavirus pandemic) make it difficult for cities to effectively address safety and human-centered security concerns within these communities, cities are leading the way in developing outreach and joint action to understand integration needs and launch inclusive strategies to create safer communities for all. For instance, the City of Los Angeles provides training on fighting human trafficking to local police forces, the City of Barcelona has established a dedicated city unit bringing together social workers, lawyers, and police to support victims of trafficking and prosecute traffickers, the city of Malmö has taken preventative action against violent extremism, and the city of New York benefited from its New York ID card to allow all residents access to basic services in times of COVID-19 and beyond. The Cities Managing Migration project will bring city representatives, civil society actors and migrant-led organizations together to share local practices, discuss challenges and jointly come up with inclusive solutions.

Diversity in Civic Life and Leadership

Many local authorities are also coming to grips with a lack of diversity in the civic life and leadership of their cities and aim to break the barriers that hinder newcomers or members of minority groups from exercising their full agency, and help them to thrive in civic life. To change this, cities and civil society have been working hard and developing pathways that help underrepresented groups exert their voice and leadership. In Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Nexus Community Partners’ Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute helps people from underrepresented communities exercise leadership in public life, the City of Sao Paulo has set up a Municipal Council of Immigrants and the city council in Stuttgart has established an International Committee. Offering and developing strategies for societal and political participation of minorities will feature prominently among the topics of the Cities Managing Migration project.

Migration is Encoded in the DNA of Cities

Cities all over the world are the product of migration and therefore frequently spaces of high diversity—as highlighted by cities during the regional consultations of the Global Forum on Migration and Development—migration is encoded in cities’ DNA. The mayors of cities like New York or Lampedusa therefore emphasize that cities can have a far more inclusive concept of local citizenship than states. But that does not make cities automatically spaces of inclusion. As urban areas risk suffering from segregation, marginalization, and social exclusion, many local authorities have taken proactive steps to create structures and mechanisms to involve migrant and refugee groups in their policymaking processes.

From Integration Implementers to Migration Policymakers

Even though in practice cities are critical actors for successful and sustainable reception and integration, they are often left out of discussions and decision-making at the national and international levels. The experience, insight, and innovative practices pioneered in many cities could prove invaluable contributions to policymaking that seeks to be pragmatic, human-centered, outcome-oriented, and grounded in human rights, as called for by the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees.

Four out of five of the more than 25 cities surveyed by GMF answered that national policies on migration and integration were restricting local strategies to develop inclusive solutions for all residents; but two-thirds of those same cities also consider national policies to be supportive. These seemingly contradictory findings points to the need and opportunity for more integrated policymaking involving different levels of government. In recent years, cities have been increasingly coming together not just to share good practices but to advocate for the role of cities at the national and international level. At the national level, a variety of networks have either been founded around or have started addressing these topics, with prominent examples being the French Association Nationale des Villes et Territoires Accueillants (ANVITA), 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, and Welcoming America and Cities for Action support the development of inclusive communities and policies in the United States. As migration governance develops an increasingly important international dimension, cities are following suit with the growing global-level engagement of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the Global Parliament of Mayors, Welcoming International, the launch of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC) and the creation of the Mayors Mechanism within the intergovernmental Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).

Why Cities Need a Louder Voice

Cities will certainly not replace national governments as key actors of migration policymaking. However, in the interest of developing effective whole-of-government approaches, as called for by the Global Compact for Migration, cities need to be more than local implementers of national and international policies. They need to have a voice and a seat at the decision-making tables.

The political manipulation of fears related to migration and the growing weaponization of migration by authoritarian governments makes this issue even more critical to the resilience of open liberal democracies. Given that displacement will continue to a be a constant, and one that will face more stressed and strained human capacities and systems in the context of climate change, it is critical for well-managed migration to create better policies and practice through the engagement of all levels of government.

The Cities Managing Migration project will convene city leaders along with national and international experts and policymakers to identify, distill, and disseminate good policy and practice at the local and transnational levels to inform and support all city governments dealing with challenges related to migration and integration, as well as to map out cooperation gaps across levels of government and propose outcome-oriented solutions.

Engaging cities to share, learn, and experiment with policies and practices is important to ensure sound and effective policies on migration that strengthen inclusive societies and promote social cohesion at the local level. Moreover, exploring and working on ways cities can strengthen their role and institutionalize participation in national and international policymaking spheres will not just help improve policy coherence and intergovernmental cooperation, but can also ground discussions in the liberal democratic values and pragmatism that inherently characterizes many open city approaches to migration and integration.

GMF’s Cities Managing Migration addresses the most salient and current issues of immigration and integration on the local level. In this regard, the project focuses on five key areas: creative workforce integration (track #1), bridging borders (track #2), rural cities and towns (#3), human-centered security (track #4), and diversity in civic life and leadership (track #5). At the same time, the project takes into account related issues (such as the inclusion of immigrant youth) and crosscutting learning themes (such as technology and digitalization). The project offers a platform to support interested local-level actors with policy analysis, opportunities for peer learning, and opportunities to develop advocacy strategies. In order to do so, crosscutting learning themes are: cross-sector coordination, technology, strategic communication, intergovernmental coordination, and future scenario planning. To kick off the project, a GMF survey collected input from over 25 cities to refine the relevant issues of migration and integration on the local level