How Inclusion Leads to Safer Cities for All Inhabitants
In 2020, the mayors of Los Angeles, Freetown, and São Paulo publicly condemned national pandemic responses that conditioned support on a person’s immigration status, arguing that exclusionary practices would only prolong the pandemic and prove harmful to cities around the world. Walking the walk, the city of Los Angeles established the Angeleno Fund, offering financial assistance to vulnerable city inhabitants who fell through the gaps of federal pandemic relief. The city of Freetown established a partnership with the European Union to ensure that city inhabitants living in informal settlements would receive support and access to basic services. And the city of São Paulo established virtual sessions of its Municipal Council of Immigrants and Refugees to make sure that migrant communities would continue to have a voice in the city’s political dialogues.
Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has sharply increased urban insecurities regarding access to housing, health care, basic services, education, and the formal and informal economy. Moreover, in many cities around the world, vulnerable migrants and refugees, in particular individuals without social safety nets, were and continue to be disproportionately affected. City representatives from both sides of the Atlantic draw on these developments to reinforce an argument they have been bringing onto national and international agendas for some time now: Cities need inclusive strategies to fulfill the economic and social potential of their increasingly diverse urban societies.
City representatives such as the Head of the Migration Unit in Gaziantep, Turkey, argue that only if cities have the means, mandates, and partners to create services and opportunities for all urban inhabitants, including migrants and refugees, can they work toward making the city work for its inhabitants. Exclusion, in contrast, reinforces insecurity for migrants, refugees, and local residents, as has been highlighted, for instance, by cities participating in the C-MISE project led by the University of Oxford. Exclusion from basic services exacerbates food insecurity and household poverty. Exclusion from legal support and representation increases the vulnerability of victims of human trafficking, verbal or physical attacks and criminal activities. Exclusion from the labor market drives urban inhabitants towards the informal economy.
Cities need inclusive strategies to fulfill the economic and social potential of their increasingly diverse urban societies.
Exclusion based on citizenship is traditionally tied to the argument that an individual as a citizen of a state has a right to make certain claims vis-à-vis that state. However, as urban societies grow more and more diverse, some cities and city networks, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), advocate for the right to the city, claiming that instead of national citizenship, urban city-zenship should be the defining criteria, when it comes to access to basic services, health care, and education of urban inhabitants. The argument here is not that there are no legal differences between nationals and non-nationals, but rather that providing certain basic social and legal services as well as financial support in respect of basic human rights benefits the city as a whole and makes it safer for all its inhabitants.
This brings us to an essential point – it matters whether we speak of safety or security in cities. While both terms in principle may have quite similar meanings, framing discussions on migration and cities in terms of security leads to completely different associations than discussing migration and cities in terms of urban safety. Security is often connoted with threats to avoid or contain, while a feeling (and the reality) of safety can be promoted through trust, dialogue, and community.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including a goal of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Cities and city networks around the world celebrated this as a success of their advocacy work and as the recognition that in the context of worldwide urbanization, the SDGs’ central principle of “leaving no one behind” has gained particular relevance in cities. What can cities do to leave no one behind and promote the safety of their urban inhabitants in the contexts of urban migration and displacement?
Background research conducted within GMF’s Cities Managing Migration project shows that local authorities tend to argue that urban safety is closely connected to social cohesion and social inclusion. In order to promote these objectives, several practices have proven beneficial in cities on both sides of the Atlantic:
Proven Practices in CitiesExpand All
Make it about an issue, not a specific group
City policies that target issues of relevance to large parts of urban society can be more effective than policies targeting specific (social) groups. While the former have the potential to create inclusive approaches for all urban inhabitants in need of certain services, the latter may reinforce divisions among communities. For instance, the city of New York has created a city ID that focuses on opening up access to basic services for all city inhabitants instead of zooming in on support for specific groups.
Launch inclusive two-way communication
The Covid-19 pandemic has once more demonstrated the importance of ensuring rapid, inclusive information flows and two-way communication between local authorities and urban inhabitants. Research shows that information reached the broadest parts of urban society when it was distributed via both online and offline channels, in written, audio, and visual formats, and in different languages. Furthermore direct dialogue with migrant and refugee associations and communities proved central, not only to provide updates on protection measures and support but also to receive up-to-date information on needs and potentials within the communities. Moving beyond the Covid-19 context, inclusive information flows and two-way communication are of high importance when reaching out to persons who may not have a regular status and may be threatened by homelessness or need legal assistance. In these situations, it is essential that such communication includes clear information on what kind of personal data individuals need to supply to receive assistance and how this data will be processed, stored, and protected.
Build resilient relationships
If the feeling and the reality of safety in urban areas relies on trust, safety needs to be based on relationships between migrants, local residents, local authorities, law enforcement, and civil society organizations. Building up resilient relationships is a hard piece of work and has to be done on different levels simultaneously. Including migrant communities into political city dialogues and processes is as important as creating spaces for intercultural encounters and bringing together people from different backgrounds and age groups to discuss sensitive issues of diverse societies such as right-wing extremism or religious radicalization.
Shape narratives in proactive ways
Narratives on migration have played a central role in media reporting in Europe and North America in recent years. As “stories about reality,” narratives can prove highly influential for (local) policymaking and public attitudes toward migration, as they tell us whether we are facing a problem or an opportunity. During research interviews, city representatives from Germany shared that they were used to highlighting challenges in order to raise sufficient funding for integration for a long time. It was only during exchanges with colleagues from the United States that they started thinking about possibilities to frame migration and integration as an opportunity that needed to be seized. The objective—raising funds for sustainable integration—remained the same, but the strategy changed from preventing negative consequences to making positive outcomes possible. This example shows the importance for local authorities to reflect on which kinds of narratives they strengthen and promote through their actions.
Form local-national coalitions against human trafficking
Cities that strive to fight human trafficking need to focus on a range of different areas simultaneously—prevention and awareness raising, identification and investigation, victim support, rehabilitation, and reintegration. In order to address these areas of responsibility in coherent ways, cities require both a team of local staff dedicated to these topics as well as partnerships with local and national authorities (including judicial branches and police forces), health services, safe houses, civil society actors, and migrant and refugee associations. There is a lot of good practice out there that cities can draw on. For instance, the city of Barcelona established a Municipal Unit against Human Trafficking in 2016. The city of San Diego collaborates with national and federal partners in the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force. And the city of Houston, building on its own experience, provides a social media toolkit and offers fellowships to city leaders around the world to share practical knowledge and to provide advice on developing municipal anti-trafficking responses.
Use digitalization responsibly
Digital service provision as well as online and social media tools can be great assets in launching two-way information flows, building relationships, shaping narratives, and combating human trafficking. However, local authorities should always be aware of and strive to bridge digital divides when offering services and information via virtual channels. Furthermore, local authorities need to check continuously for risks that the use of digital services may entail regarding data protection and privacy concerns.
Promote human safety beyond city borders
And finally, safety does not stop at city outskirts. During the summer of 2021, cities and city networks from Europe and North America called upon their national governments to provide regular channels to safety for those fleeing Afghanistan. These calls build on previous city engagement and concrete offers to host migrants and refugees rescued in the Mediterranean Sea or caught in conflict situations and being in urgent need of resettlement. More recently, European cities announced their readiness and started taking pragmatic actions to welcome refugees fleeing the war on Ukraine. By means of transnational agency and active city diplomacy, cities increasingly become advocates for the safety of migrants and refugees beyond city borders.
The war on Ukraine puts cities once more center stage as places and actors providing safe havens for those fleeing from violence and conflict. It is therefore important for cities in North America and Europe to strengthen their focus on human-centered safety, to share challenges and good practices, and develop joint ideas for fostering social cohesion and inclusion.