Cities can make a difference

Cities must stop underestimating their need and ability to respond to migration – six recommendations about building inclusivity in an era of displacement


By Caroline Winjuku Kihato, L.B. Landau, A. Sarkar and R.Sanyal. Published with kind permission of Citiscope, where it first appeared 25 April 2017

In October, world leaders gathered in Quito to officially adopt the 20-year road map on sustainable urban development known as the New Urban Agenda. Notably, that document expressly commits to respect the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, regardless of their migration status. This statement comes as the UN's refugee agency has pledged to work beyond camps to protect the rights of those seeking protection in urban areas.

While laudable, achieving that aim will mean shifting many of the incentives driving urban politics and planning ╤ processes that often marginalize cities╒ most vulnerable, including the displaced. Beyond moral appeals and platitudes, how can we reshape urban politics and institutional processes to promote the positive inclusion of displaced populations in cities?

A first step is to recognize that cities and their leaders are at the centre of a global humanitarian crisis. According to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), over 60 percent of the world's 19.5 million refugees, and 80 percent of the world's 34 million internally displaced, live in urban areas. More than 7 of every 10 people displaced across or within international borders seek safety and futures in cities.

Yet while debates rage over integration in Europe, North America and Australia, cities outside the wealthy West are where thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of displaced people first arrive. Amman, Beirut, Gaziantep, Kampala, Peshawar and Nairobi already accommodate many of the displaced from Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan, according to UNHCR, and will host many more. Meanwhile, tourism centres such as Dar es Salaam and Bangkok are becoming increasingly important sanctuaries for those fleeing conflict.

Local authorities already struggling to meet the needs of rapidly growing and diversifying populations often perceive the immediate priorities of citizens and refugees as mutually exclusive. And naturally, citizens come first. However, ignoring the displaced is no solution.

Many urban planners simply wish refugees will go away. But if the past decades teach us anything, it is that displacement is enduring. In many places, refugees are fully part of an expanding urban population, and ignoring them is likely to heighten poverty, marginalization and social fragmentation across cities. Alternatively, recognizing and capitalizing on their presence can promote cohesion and prosperity for all.

Even urban planners and municipal officials who realize the benefits of addressing population displacement must typically overcome institutional systems, political incentives, planning and democratic processes working against them. Because refugee and immigration policy and enforcement are usually national mandates, urban policymakers often underestimate their ability to respond.

Beyond mandates, proactive planners will face colleagues unwilling to address refugees' needs. The displaced typically are not political constituents – even when they can vote ╤ and resources are simply too scarce to go around. Ironically, the more democratic a city is, the more political leaders may turn away or against the displaced. Participatory planning processes, lauded as empowering long-time marginalized urban dwellers, can lead to the exclusion of newer urban residents seeking economic opportunity and protection.

Even where local democratic participation is open to refugees, the displaced may lack the political security, language or incentive to participate. Elsewhere, they simply cannot compete with more-powerful host communities. Where politics is fragmented or contentious, urban responses that exclude, alienate and exploit refugees are likely to win local favour.

Cities wanting to 'leave no one behind' – an overarching goal adopted by the United Nations – must confront these messy politics and institutional practices. But what are the options for mayors or city officials? What pathways exist for city leaders to grow urban economies, expand opportunities for all, provide sustainable and affordable urban services to both host and refugee populations, and protect all who live in cities?

Six recommendations

While there are no easy answers or best practices, here is some of the advice offered at a recent conference of multilateral organizations, municipalities, urban planners and humanitarian organizations working in cities in the Middle East and Africa.

Consider the needs of displaced populations across sectoral planning processes: Displacement intersects with everything that cities do. While it might be symbolically and politically tempting for municipalities to 'externalize' displaced people to see their needs as requiring the action of others – national government and humanitarian organizations – refugees are consumers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, labourers, tenants and parents whose everyday activities intersect with multiple sectors and all aspects of urban planning.

Special refugee programmes may have a place in urban policy, but they run the risk of engendering local hostility and duplicating resources. Instead, cities need to consider human mobility as they formulate sectoral and urban development plans. For an urban planner, it matters not whether the garbage was produced by a refugee or citizen. What matters is how to ensure that the city's urban services and infrastructure can sustainably meet urban dwellers' demands without becoming hazardous to the environment and its people.

Make displacement work for you: Even the most humanitarian-minded bureaucrat or official recognizes that displaced populations are not the only people needing help. In many instances, locals may be as or more vulnerable. So how to overcome the politics of helping others while facing severe resource constraints for your own voters?

While we reject the idea that the displaced offer universal or automatic economic benefits, a refugee presence can be economically and politically useful to the community. In many places, the least skilled and most vulnerable refugees head to camps or are unable to move at all. As such, many of those coming to the city are relatively healthy and skilled. In Maputo, for example, central African refugees brought new small-scale trading skills and networks to the previously socialist economy where few had such trading experience.

Whether it is through their contributions to municipal revenues and taxes, entrepreneurship or labour, refugees have skills and human capital that can grow urban economies, create jobs and increase city income streams. In Nairobi, daily trading permits, issued regardless of immigration status, have allowed the city to benefit from refugee traders, many of whom work as street vendors. Ensuring that regulatory frameworks – banking, by-laws, licensing – enable such trade can create jobs and lower commodity costs while providing taxes and levies to municipalities.

Leverage humanitarian development aid: Beyond their own capital, there is a global humanitarian funding regime invested in the rights and welfare of those displaced. The trick for city leaders is getting that funding to work for their city. By working strategically, local authorities can partner with humanitarian organizations, directing their resources to align with local development agendas, while taking ownership of the services delivered.

Channelling refugee assistance toward place- rather than people-based interventions can expand urban services such as water, waste and electricity as well as investment in roads, community parks or clinics in refugee-settled areas in a city. In Lebanon, for example, humanitarian NGOs are increasingly shifting toward area-based approaches and upgrading urban services in neighbourhoods where both host and displaced communities live. Partnering strategically with these organizations could win municipalities political goodwill from their constituencies.

Know thy partners: The partnerships called for to accomplish any of these goals will require a deep understanding of humanitarian and development actors in a city – their priorities, funding cycles and local programmes – on the part of municipal authorities. This implies strengthening research, relationship-building and negotiation skills within and across municipalities. To make human mobility work for cities, municipal actors have to be proactive about identifying appropriate partners, integrating them into their development plans, and co-producing outcomes that are beneficial for all parties. Rejecting aid is sometimes the best option.

Enhance local literacy: Municipalities have to understand the needs of marginalized populations in their cities. Local literacy is particularly critical in cities beyond the wealthy West where large segments of the population live in slums because it easier to access housing and employment. In cities such as Nairobi, Kampala and Peshawar, these sites are often outside the control of local government. Making humanitarian aid work for the city means being able to identify needs, understand land and property markets, and think smartly about how to promote common interests between local and displaced populations. The presence of humanitarian aid may provide support for research that enables this level of local literacy.

Build solidarity: All this calls for municipalities to build solidarity across different levels of government, host and refugee populations, municipal, humanitarian and development actors. In addition to the technical skills required to provide urban services, municipalities need to invest in the 'soft' skills of negotiation, relationship building, and winning hearts and minds.

We fully recognize that realizing these principles depends on municipalities╒ own legal mandates, financial and decision-making autonomy, which dictate what they can or cannot do in their countries. Yet whatever the levels of decentralization, much of what we suggest is possible with political will and strategic thinking.

As we move toward more urban forms of displacement, the challenge of managing cities will become only more complex. Realizing the New Urban Agenda's vision of sustainable and just cities demands deliberate action: changing institutional processes and politics towards a more inclusive urban practice.


Caroline Winjuku Kihato is Visiting Researcher at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a Global Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Washington DC. She is a board member of Mistra Urban Futures.

L.B. Landau is the South African Research Chair on Mobility and the Politics of Difference with the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

A. Sarkar is a researcher at the World Peace Foundation, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy.

Romola Sanyal is an assistant professor in urban geography at the London School of Economics.


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