We need to get better at integrating migrants into our cities. Here’s how

With the right strategies, cities can turn a potential problem into prosperity. Image: REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Alice CharlesCommunity Lead, Infrastructure and Urban Development, World Economic Forum

Dilip GunaProject Collaborator — Future of Urban Development and Services, World Economic Forum


Today, there are more than one billion migrants in the world, representing a seventh of the world’s population. This level of human mobility is unprecedented and continues to rise at a rapid rate.

This one billion is comprised of an estimated 244 million international migrants and 763 million internal migrants — over three times the number. Yet it is international migration that seems to monopolize the attention both of the media and of politicians.

Image: World Economic Forum

In 2015, the Ethical Journalism Network published a report entitled Moving Stories, which broke down the media coverage of migration in EU states and 14 other countries across the world. It highlighted the fact that, while India, China and Brazil were experiencing high volumes of internal migration, the phenomenon was often ignored by mainstream media. In addition, it showed how opportunities were missed to raise the alarm regarding the coming refugee influx into Europe, how anti-migrant sentiment and hate speech regularly found its way into stories, and how media coverage of migration was often hijacked by hyperbole, intolerance and distortion.

More recently, the discussion on migration has drifted towards the implementation of immigration controls, and away from the impact of migration (both international and internal) on destination countries — and specifically cities, where the majority of migrants live.

Unfortunately, this shifts the focus away from the actual challenges impacting the population on the ground. Migration has been going on for generations, and given the political, social and economic imbalances in our societies today, coupled with a changing climate, the mass movement of people is likely to continue in the coming decades. The narrative, therefore, needs to focus instead on the means of effectively managing migration in the destinations where they eventually arrive.

Migrants are settling in cities

Migrants continue to be drawn to cities in search of a better quality of life, greater job prospects and ease of access to urban infrastructure and services. A recent study by PwC showed that population growth in metropolitan areas is often higher than the national average as a result of migration. Between 2010 and 2015, Beijing and Johannesburg recorded the highest growth (about 14 migrants per 1,000 inhabitants) among the top 20 metropolitan areas featured in this study.

Cities address the immediate needs of migrants and respond to some of the challenges related to their integration into society. The presence of migrant communities in cities also accelerates their chances of integration. The projected increases in both urbanization and migration, meanwhile, indicate that cities will continue to play an integral role in human mobility in the coming decades.

And yet statistics on the number of migrants in cities are limited, particularly those pertaining to developing economies, where such information could inform urban planning processes and ensure that cities are better prepared to manage migration.

Increased pressure on urban infrastructure and services

Our recently published World Economic Forum report on Migration and Cities has found that migration places increased demand on urban infrastructure and services in destination cities. This is particularly observable in relation to housing, healthcare, utilities, water and sanitation, waste, transportation, education, employment and safety and security. In Calgary, for example, the waiting list for housing units has reached 3,000 people; in Paris, you can expect to wait longer than 10 years.

Migration further increases the pressure on infrastructure and services in cities already struggling to meet the demands of existing residents. Migrants, meanwhile, are rarely accounted for in urban planning processes, often leaving newcomers to meet their own needs.

The need for integrated urban planning

Notwithstanding the issues migrants face due to language and cultural barriers, as well as their reduced knowledge of the environment and social context, they can also face increased marginalization and discrimination from native communities, who often believe migrants consume resources and benefits that are meant to meet their needs. This can lead to the exclusion of migrants from basic urban infrastructure and services, such as housing, health and employment. This alienation process can, in turn, result in the formation of segregated community clusters, which over time become breeding grounds for the radicalization of migrants, leading to hate crimes and xenophobic violence, which make it even more difficult to integrate the new community into the city. The circumstances leading to this vicious cycle are illustrated below.

A Migrant’s Path at the Destination: Vicious or Virtuous? Image: World Economic Forum

If, on the other hand, cities choose the virtuous cycle and embrace integrated urban planning, a different result is possible. By recognizing for the needs of migrants and natives collectively, cities can align their focus towards inclusively addressing challenges faced by all communities. Cities that are inclusive are able to solicit active engagement from all communities, and over time can create a greater sense of belonging among migrants, who will see potential benefits in investing their time, efforts and resources into improving their skills, and are therefore able to tap into better opportunities, which will improve their overall quality of life.

The growing focus on migrant integration

City authorities are increasingly realizing the potential benefits of integrating migrants, and are starting to plan for migrants before they even arrive at their destination. They have realized that the responsibility of integrating migrants rests primarily with them, and that a plan has to be devised and implemented before a potential opportunity turns into a problem.

For instance, Welcoming America, through initiatives such as Welcome Community Planning and the Welcoming Standard and the Certified Welcoming Program, assists local governments in implementing multi-sectoral plans to become inclusive places both for immigrants and all residents. Their network spans over 100 local governments in the US, and has triggered the Welcoming Cities initiative in Australia, which now has nine member cities and more than 50 other local governments on its books.

Some cities are already implementing measures for the long-term integration of their migrants. For example, Berlin has developed a masterplan for integration and security, detailing initiatives covering migrant arrival, housing, education, health, labour markets and security. The city of Gdańsk, similarly, has developed an Immigrant Integration Model, with the goal of paving the way towards a cohesive, inclusive society.

Successful integration of migrants in cities depends on five key influencers

If migrants are to be successfully integrated into cities, the following five key influencers must be considered:

Perception: The perception of migration needs to change — from being viewed as problematic to being viewed as beneficial for the city and its population. It is important that cities look beyond the short-term costs for migrants and focus on their potential contribution to society, and how they can help boost the economic growth of not only cities but countries as a whole. Media organizations can play a pivotal role by ensuring evidence-based reporting, framing guidelines that avoid stereotypes, using correct legal terminology when representing migrants, incorporating representative voices from migrant communities and challenging xenophobia.

Community engagement: Integration is a two-way process. Cities need to devise strategies that promote the active participation of all communities in public decision-making and incorporate their voices. They need to give political rights to migrants, enabling them to voice and articulate their interests. Conversely, migrant communities also need to actively participate, engage and cooperate with governments in representing the concerns of their respective communities. Migrants Organise is one such platform, which has been developing leaders and providing channels for the organised participation of migrants and refugees in UK public life.

Policy reforms: City agencies can help identify the relevant priorities for integration, and tailor policies to overcome urban infrastructure and services challenges, implement these policies, and subsequently monitor and evaluate their results. Implementation will require dedicated efforts and support not only from city agencies but also from higher levels of government (state and federal). Lack of policy coherence between various levels of government will only make this task more difficult. A case in point is the US federal government’s recent immigration policies & principles, which proposes blocking sanctuary cities from receiving certain grants while also proposing the enhancement of state and local cooperation to enforce federal immigration law.

Urban planning: For most cities, migration usually appears as an afterthought rather than as an integral part of the urban planning process. While most migration-related initiatives continue to focus on inclusion and integration, the effect of migration on urban infrastructure and services is often underrepresented, affecting the city’s overall social and economic development. Thus, there is greater incentive for building migration-related issues into the urban planning process. Seoul, for example, has already dedicated a significant amount of its policy resources towards migrant integration through their projects distributed across 14 categories under the Dagachi Seoul Master Plan, devised in 2014.

Leadership: City leaders need to demonstrate responsible and responsive leadership to meet the needs of migrants. They need to be proactive and acknowledge their role in integrating migrants. They need to assume responsibility for managing migration integration and be accountable for the results. To achieve this, city leaders may need to look outward to other cities around the world that have been successful in their endeavours, through city-to-city partnerships. The Athens Network Exchange, the Mediterranean City-to-City Migration Project (Mc2CM), URBACT Network: Arrival Cities, the Intercultural Cities programme (ICC) and CITIES-GroW are just a few examples of how cities are learning from each other through information exchange and mentorship programmes.

The World Economic Forum has recently released its Migration and Cities report, covering the different types and causes of migration, with a particular focus on its impact on cities around the world and how cities can be better prepared in the future. The report can be downloaded in full here.


Originally published at www.weforum.org.

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