Migration, Diversity and Cities – IMISCOE 2017

Jacqui Broadhead

This blog post originally appeared on Jacqui’s blog on 5 July 2017

This year’s International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion (IMISCOE) conference, hosted by Erasmus University in Rotterdam, focussed for the first time on the role that cities can, should, and already do play in integration and inclusion.

Migration has often been framed as a European or national issue, but there has been a turn to the local in migration studies. Why this might be was an area of discussion and debate at many panels – is it the hardening attitudes to migration at the national and supranational level that have led those researching (and working in) migration and inclusion to focus on the local level, or is it a realisation that cities, as those with the highest levels of migration and diversity, and those who most strongly experience the negative effects of exclusion are best placed to step up and provide leadership on inclusive practices.

Blanca Garcés Mascarenas (CIDOB) illuminated some of the key questions in her response to a session on the local turn in integration studies:

  1. Has there actually been a change in what/ how much cities do or simply how much they talk about it? How does this change intersect with austerity and how much is it a reaction to this retrenchment by national governments or to the additional powers granted to it through devolution?
  2. What are the characteristics of local integration policy – how does it specifically differ to national practices or are we simply talking about national practices implemented locally?
  3. Are cities (and city administrations) really more inclusive?  There is a hypothesis that they are because they see the effects of exclusion and will therefore act more inclusively generically – can we evidence this, or does research simply tend to focus on cities which are more inclusive?

There are further challenges to this focus on cities, as conference coordinator and Associate Professor Public Policy & Politics at Erasmus University, Peter Sholten, highlighted in his opening remarks; comparative research has been more challenging in localities than between national policy approaches and there is, perhaps, an over reliance on the few super diverse ‘global’ cities such as London and New York, to the detriment of the many which don’t meet this profile.

Nevertheless, cities can provide both a useful frame for understanding the challenges of inclusion and are clearly an attractive area of study into inclusion and integration – both because of the perceived greater opportunities for a positive discussion on integration outside of the national discussion on immigration policy and policing the border, as well as the more manageable scale of cities, allowing researchers to more easily test the efficacy of interventions.

How can research support cities to become more inclusive?

As a recent convert from a public policy background to an academic environment – it was fascinating to hear about how research can support cities to take a leading role in developing inclusive practices.  One panel, chaired by Tiziana Caponio (FIERI and University of Turin), brought together researchers with policy makers from Athens and Rotterdam to reflect on this.

Based on experience of working with cities on knowledge exchange initiatives, Sarah Spencer (my colleague at COMPAS) set out five areas in which cities have outlined that they could benefit from research input:

  1. Providing evidence and analysis – This means both providing the data in order to inform policy making (especially data that is disaggregated to city level) but also, as reflected by Ronald Derks, Special Adviser on Integration in Rotterdam, to shape the narrative of inclusion within a city – to help ‘win the argument’ and to legitimate inclusion as a policy stance.
  2. Provide a space for reflection by allowing cities the space away from their day to day pressures to frame the problem differently
  3. Help cities gather evidence on themselves – in particular where austerity or retrenchment has reduced the capacity to do this
  4. Independent evaluation of existing initiatives
  5. Facilitate comparison (and knowledge exchange) with peers

As ever, there are challenges within in this – firstly the need to retain the necessary distance and independence that is valued by the cities in the first place – to be policy relevant, but never policy driven. Similarly, while policy making often demands certainty and answers, migration studies in relation to integration and inclusion retains a high degree of uncertainty – it is hard to provide policy makers with the answers that they sometimes crave.

However, these difficulties were placed into perspective by hearing the challenges faced by Athens – where the integration team is limited to 6 people and where a lack of institutional memory and capacity within services have required an outward looking focus (both to partnerships with NGOs, links to research and knowledge exchange with other cities.)

It is this desire by cities to look upwards and outwards, that inspired me in my exploration of key topics across the conference. From a wide ranging variety of platforms and expertise, there were a few key areas which stood out as emerging themes, highlights and potential areas of best practice which could be translated for a policy making and research audience.

City Offices, Mayors and local leadership

Els de Graauw (CUNY) presented on the growing role of City Offices for Immigrant Affairs in the US, both creating a database of cities with such offices and exploring 5 case studies cities in detail. Two major themes have emerged to date as early findings of this research:

  • The importance of leadership – These offices tend to be Mayor led initiatives and are often reliant on a personal interest by the Mayor and their chosen lead official to drive change forward. In a UK context, where a number of mayoralties have just been created, it is interesting to consider the opportunity this offers for cities to have the confidence to take a leading role in this agenda (as British Futures highlighted in their successful call for an office for citizenship and integration in London.) As in the debates around devolution and city deals, a possible critique of the model is that it is overly personality driven – it will therefore be interesting for research to look into the cases where these offices have outlived a political administration (e.g. New York.) Warda Bernabas (Erasmus) presented separately on city branding strategies and how these can link into integration – outlining strategies used by city administrations and leadership to brand their cities (and to partake in their wider role as place shapers.) Broadly speaking these are to acknowledge diversity, even when not necessarily putting this front and centre of a branding strategy, but also to frame diversity with a particular focus on its economic benefits.  Much research on local integration is focussed on policy and plans – the broader role of leadership (in particular within a place shaping/ city branding context) is perhaps harder to quantify – but could  be an important part of what local inclusive practices offer. Lorenzo Piccoli (EUI) identified ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ inclusive practices by Italian cities in granting access to healthcare for irregular migrants – is there an additional benefit (or potentially a drawback) to not only providing an inclusive service, but also communicating that policy ‘loudly’ and, in so doing, providing leadership on the agenda?
  • Collaboration – The other area that jumped out from the research is the opportunity for greater collaboration – with universities, civil society, chambers of commerce – but particularly with philanthropic foundations and employers. As I found in my WCMT research, there is huge scope to leverage greater resources – but also to frame the conversation differently by bringing in new partners and emphasising some of the links between immigration and inclusion and economic regeneration and growth. Tiziana Caponio raised the question of governance over these kinds of collaborations – this will be an important component of our Inclusive Cities project which will incorporate a taskforce appointed by the Mayor and including the actors described above. We hope to be able to contribute to the literature on this through our knowledge exchange and will be fascinated to hear more on this as it is developed further.

Employers stepping up

Looking more closely at the perhaps under explored areas of the role of employers – both in shaping a narrative externally, but also looking internally at how to promote inclusion, Valentina di Stasio (GEMM – Growth, Equals Opportunities, Migration and Markets) presented research on discrimination in labour markets. Previous research has demonstrated that those from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send out 3 CVs for every 2 from the majority population (Zschirnt and Reuben 2016) and that in order to understand this it is important to look at organisational culture.

The project identified 3 strategies used by organisations to mitigate bias within their recruitment:

  1. Laying low (employing ‘blind’ recruitment practices)
  2. Sticking out (using role models and a pro-diversity strategy)
  3. Keeping Straight (transparent procedures to hold employers to account – e.g. formalising hiring procedures, standardised criteria, scrapping phone interviews as they can act as a filter)

This study used both blind cvs and interviews with HR managers, finding that discrimination was pervasive and consistent across nationalities (excepting Western Europeans) and job types (excepting retail and tech.) Interestingly, HR managers interviewed were aware of bias creeping in, but struggled to pinpoint where in the process this happened, as they did not have oversight over the entire recruitment process.

This could not fail to remind me of Upwardly Global’s work to tackle refugee underemployment. Rachel Peric from Up Glo spoke to me about a hiring manager who has a post-it on his phone simply saying ‘Don’t Hire Me.’ As per Dobbin (2016) – efforts to tackle these kind of biases and therefore realise the benefits of talent contained within migrant communities need to be pro-actively managed, strategic across an organisation and constantly reiterated if they are to succeed.  Working with employers to promote this kind of diversity could be an important, and different, way that cities can promote inclusion – and that it is important to position this agenda within workplaces as well as the more usual civic spaces.

Learning from work with refugees 

Many sessions focussed on work with refugees and asylum seekers – one focus of the Inclusive Cities programme will be to look at how best practice from these projects can be built out to the wider newcomer population. Some interesting exemplar projects highlighted at IMISCOE included:

  • Antwerp’s buddying UIA project – CURANT – providing accommodation for young refugees and young locals through a buddying scheme (similar to the Utrecht UIA project). This model draws on one of Welcoming America’s key tenets, that projects to support newcomers must do as much for ‘host’ or ‘receiving’ communities as for newcomers in order to ensure that they drive support rather than alienation.
  • INFORM  – looking to assess the provision of information and advice for asylum seekers across the EU, sharing examples of best practice and developing guidelines from this. The information and advice offer for migrants remains a conundrum for UK local policy makers and it will be intriguing to see the division of advice provision between the local and the national. The project is particularly interested in advice for children, and with new DfE guidance for unaccompanied children due to be released shortly, potentially with new responsibilities for local authorities,  looking to examples of innovation elsewhere (particularly those which leverage resources whether through digital innovation or public/ philanthropic partnerships) could provide a road map for how to meet the guidance.

IMISCOE certainly provided food for thought about what cities can do on a policy level to promote inclusion, and the role of research to support and understand this. Cities have a role to play throughout the ‘golden thread’ of policy making; from providing a clear narrative of inclusion, drawing together partners interested in inclusion and providing the local leadership to drive change – through to using these principles to deliver inclusive services.

Inclusive Cities is a knowledge exchange initiative which will support five UK cities and their local partners to achieve a step-change in their approach towards integration of newcomers in the city, including through a learning exchange with Welcoming America, peer learning between the cities and research input from the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity at COMPAS.


CitiesCivil SocietyIntegrationNeighbourhoodsPolicies