Managing migration (and displacement) is in the DNA of cities

Managing migration (and displacement) is in the DNA of cities

The world’s attention has turned to an age old phenomena: People on the move, on the run from conflict, displaced by natural hazards, seeking better opportunities. This is how cities have grown and are transformed.

Its scale, speed and international dimension are, however, unprecedented since World War II. There are one billion persons considered migrants worldwide, of whom approximately one quarter has crossed international borders, with the majority moving from city to city. It is perceived as a deepening and increasingly humanitarian crises. We strongly believe that this should not only be seen as a humanitarian challenge but also a development challenge and opportunity.

There is no doubt that quick demographic growth results in competition over jobs and creates hard to manage stress on infrastructure, housing and the provision of services, including seemingly easy tasks such as garbage collection. Inflation in rent, sometimes aggravated by subsidies provided by humanitarian organizations, all too often results in evictions for the most vulnerable amongst the local population. If migration is unplanned, unmanaged, and migrants and refugees are excluded from the planning process, it further marginalizes and discriminates those in need of protection, contributes to rising inequality and, in developing countries, the prevalence of slums. 

Mayors and city leaders are placed in the difficult position of maintaining the balance of supporting respective needs of host communities and migrants, and managing potential conflict. They have seldom been sufficiently equipped to manage these realities and challenges. Mayors are at the forefront of managing these crises, ensuring that both the needs of their communities and those of the newcomers are addressed.

Maintaining social cohesion is a key concern. Mayors however also see the opportunity for to manage the growth of their cities. They should be empowered to do so. The response capacity to deal with crises should be boosted as much as possible through local governments. At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, mayors will set out their vision and make a call for national governments, humanitarian and development actors to rally behind them. The humanitarian community still needs to come to terms with the fact that these crises are increasingly urban in nature. Most important is to ensure a better understanding of the dynamics in cities and people’s own coping mechanisms. New approaches are needed. 

 The U.N.-Habitat’s City Profiling in Syria and refugee hosting countries, for instance, has enabled local governments, other local actors and the humanitarian community to understand the impact of conflict related displacement on urban neighborhoods, by mapping demographic changes and the functionality of urban services, economy and housing market, and capacity of local actors in order to define appropriate strategies and interventions. In several cities in Somalia and Iraq, new approaches to accommodate and integrate temporary and protracted displacement as part of planned city extensions are starting to bear fruit.

It enables improved access to jobs and basic services and social inclusion of displaced within the wider urban community while ensuring that investments made to deal with a crisis are contributing to longer term sustainable urbanization.

In Europe and North America, the challenge is, of course, different. We need to invest in the ability of cities to integrate and empower people of different backgrounds in an era of human mobility, as migration touches upon the very essence of a city. Good migration policies will depend on the city response to migration and its ability to plan and develop practical solutions that take into account how migration transforms, expands and diversifies a city. Local authorities are the best informed about local realities and therefore have the knowledge and the capacity to integrate migration into local urban development strategies. Migrant inclusion in cities is an important element that can shape the economic, social and cultural vibrancy of cities. Good migration policies will contribute to the flow of money, knowledge and ideas between destinations and cities of origin. 

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises, which will be launched at the World Humanitarian Summit, is a strong, practical and proactive partnership, between local government networks, humanitarian and development actors and urban professionals to develop and promote new ways of working. The New Urban Agenda, being negotiated by Member States and which is to be adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito (Ecuador, Oct. 17–20, 2016), offers a great opportunity to secure the necessary commitments and guidance to address the challenges of large movements of migrants and refugees to, between and within cities while contributing to sustainable urbanization. Let’s make sure mayors and local governments who bear the brunt of this challenge are empowered to play their part.

* Dr. Joan Clos is Under Secretary-General of UN-Habitat and Secretary-General of the Habitat III Conference