Local inclusion of migrants and refugees: a city’s perspective

Published 15 June 2021 / By Gilda Borriello & Loren Landau

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To date, international policy and research have typically focused on big cities as centres of migration movement. This is understandable given that approximately one fifth of all international migrants live in just 20 megacities (Migration Data Portal).

Only recently has this emphasis been complemented by critical work on other forms of cities and mobility. These include small, peripheral cities hosting high numbers of displaced population, including those who have not crossed international borders. This work provides fresh and valuable insights on the inclusion of migrants and refugees in secondary cities in the Middle East and East Africa.

Drawing from recommendations contained in a recently published, multi-agency, Guidance Document for local inclusion of migrants and refugees, we will talk about the constraints, major barriers, and innovations of small, peripheral cities, often “invisible” to financial and technical aid, yet very engaged in the migrants’ inclusion agenda.

The role of local authorities in migrants’ and refugees’ inclusion

Amidst ongoing mobility and displacement, local authorities are increasingly being charged with managing the economic and social inclusion of migrants and refugees. Whether cities, governorates, or small villages, local authorities form the physical and communal space where migrants and refugees enter into contact with other residents, are offered services, and find opportunities to engage host economies and societies.

In the cities, displaced populations often co-mingle with citizens and international migrants who also recently arrived from other towns, rural areas, or elsewhere in the city. Sometimes the pace of change rapidly outstrips local capacity to respond, and local authorities are the entities which first see and live the impacts of migration. They are often the most aware about what migrants need, what they need to respond, and the political challenges of balancing migrant and citizen interests. Many are proactive, seeking solutions to commonly felt issues, from ensuring livelihoods to managing tensions. Others are less welcoming, drawing boundaries and scapegoating migrants for political gain.

In both respects, mayors and municipalities matter.

Differences in local governance show differences in refugee protection and inclusion (Betts, Memisoglu & Ali 2017 and 2020; Landau, Segatti, & Misago 2013). Local-level policy and political will can also contribute to including migrants on an irregular status despite restrictive national migration policies (Spencer 2020). However, the voice of local authorities is often absent or unheard in the international development arena. It is primarily capital cities with important financial assets and political incentives that attract notice and praise.

In 2018, at the margins of the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR), leaders of local authorities from around the world met together to sign the Marrakesh Mayoral Declaration: “Cities working together for migrants and refugees”. This is one of the first international attempts to acknowledge the important role of local authorities in including migrants and refugees. The Mayoral Declaration particularly highlights some cities’ commitment to address and reduce vulnerabilities and counter discrimination, provide safe access to services for migrants and refugees, ensure their social and economic inclusion and self-reliance in a way that also benefits local hosts, and engage in partnerships. These commitments are correlated by a global call to partner with international, regional, and national actors, including the private sector, to achieve the goals set in the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees.

The important role of cities is set out in a new Guidance Document “Local Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees: a gateway to existing ideas, resources and capacities for cities across the world”, published in February 2021. The document was drafted by a partnership between different international organizations working with local authorities in different domains and collects some recommendations to local authorities and other local, national, and international stakeholders on how to practically support the implementation of the GCM and GCR at the local level. We were both involved in the writing of this report.

Beyond the Refugees Welcome message

The Guidance Document brings about some important messages. It emphasises the importance of supporting local authorities and leaders with guidance and technical resources, not always available to cities. It also advocates going beyond a one-sector approach to migrants’ and refugees’ inclusion or stand-alone ‘migration or displacement’ policies. Cities have to balance different needs and interests, a reality that necessitates multi-sectoral approaches. Finally, it highlights the fundamental role of a whole-of-society approach, which goes hand in hand with the adoption of multi-sectoral and coordinated local actions spanning  social, economic, urban, and political domains. This means going beyond actions targeted exclusively to migrants only or that are purely symbolic, but ultimately empty, proclamations of tolerance and welcome. Rather, it means considering migrants and refugees – and ongoing human mobility – as part of any local actions: from urban planning to local economic policy to social inclusion.

The document’s recommendations are varied, and intended to spark local and intergovernmental conversations. Some of them speak about the urgent need for local-level data on refugees, migrants, and citizens – including their connections to spaces beyond city boundaries. This 'translocalism' resurfaces in calls to strengthen the multi-level coordination between cities and regional government, ministries, international organizations, and researchers, as to enhance networks between cities of various regions. It also suggests sharing research and practical experiences with cities who often feel that they are facing these challenges alone. Underlying these are calls to carefully consider the meaning of participation and inclusion in what are often fragmented and fluid spaces. In this sense, inclusion translates into new modalities for urban and economic planning, with new challenges for planners to think about a mobile population. Finally, the document recommends cities become facilitators helping to collect and disseminate information to newcomers and building connections to existing populations, markets, and participatory processes.

The challenge of including migrants and refugees in small, peripheral cities

With their small population, secondary cities are those who feel the impact of sudden migration movements strongly.

Views of the small border city of Sarhan, Jordan

Syrian refugees arriving to Jordan poured into the small villages of the north, next to border crossings, often having kinship and family ties there. This led to double the urban population of some cities, with pressures on housing, basic service delivery such as waste and sewage, and ultimately an even-stronger need to create jobs. 23% of the 26,000 residents of Sarhan, a small Jordanian village bordering Syria, are Syrian refugees. Refugees also make up 20% of the 1,000 inhabitants of the small Lebanese city of Qrayeh, in southern Lebanon’s mountainous countryside. The industrial town of Sahab, close to the Jordanian capital but administratively separated, saw its population rising from 40,000 to 160,000 in ten years. In 2016, it was hosting 80,000 migrants, half of them Syrians. Similar examples can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, where small peripheral cities were turned into trade centres and cornerstone of migratory movements. In Kenya, the small trading centre of Kalobeyei has been transformed by the presence of Kakuma, one of the longest-standing refugee camps in the world. Jigjiga, in Ethiopia, has become a crossroads for people trading, fleeing conflict, and transiting from multiple origins and with various destinations.

Despite the recognition of the important – if not pivotal – role of local authorities, small municipalities often do not have the resources to implement recommendations set out at the international policy level.

These include typical resources such as municipal finance and technical skills of municipal staff. Small local authorities also feel a lack of visibility to donors and international actors (sometimes even a lack of national visibility), and express feelings of being abandoned to face the arrival of foreigners alone, with their efforts going unrecognised. All this can lead to a vicious cycle where the lack of resources brings additional difficulties in undertaking actions for migrants, which in turn feeds lack of recognition, and eventually leads to a poor political will and bad socio-economic outcomes for hosts, refugees, and migrants. That many smaller cities have lost their working age population to larger municipalities or, alternatively, have population growth rates that far outstrip economic opportunities, raises the spectre of social disharmony and semi-permanent economic marginalization.

Small cities are often less experienced than big cities with crisis management and coordination and feel the pressure deriving from changes in population and the need of growing urbanization. In this respect, reactions differ from city to city.

Leaders of small cities can either adopt a negative reaction to the pressure felt, or turn it into proactivity.

Those who fall in the first category often portray refugees and migrants as a burden. They lack a political will for inclusion, leaving no space or willingness to experiment with innovative actions, resulting in, instead, an unsustainable reliance on external aid. In Jordan, the small town of Zaatari saw the establishment of the biggest refugee camp for Syrian refugees in the country, located just a few miles away from the urban area. The proximity to the refugee camp brought high pressure but also visibility to the small municipality, as donor and technical organizations are working in the camp and its surroundings. However, when participating in a workshop on including refugees in Local Economic Development (LED) planning approaches, the head of the Local Development Unit could not think of any stakeholder to partner with for its economic planning, reflecting a sense of resignation, knowing that donors would soon knock on the door.

The small size of some cities may also however present the opportunity to test out innovative approaches. The small size also means municipal leaders can have more personal interaction with residents – hosts, refugees, and other migrants. It is common in Middle Eastern small cities to see mayors visiting a neighbourhood where refugees live. As a result, those cities are more likely to adopt whole-of-society approaches that target all their residents, and not just one portion.

In most cases, staff or representatives from small cities showed the highest empathy and the strongest efforts to find solutions for the socio-economic integration of all their inhabitants. The Mayor of Sarhan personally tracked down and contacted a Syrian refugee who wanted to move (physically and legally) his food processing factory from Dara’a, in Syria, to Jordan. He convinced him to relocate his business in Sarhan offering a municipally-owned land for free for the first two years of rent. The economy of scale that resulted provided some 750 jobs, for refugees and Jordanians. During the COVID-19 emergency, the Mayor was personally distributing food and water to poor local families – Jordanian, Syrian, or other migrants - who were unable to go out because of the full lockdown.

These cases show something different than what is usually seen in big cities: migrants and refugees become part of the community, and the negative discourse gradually gives way to a sense of solidarity and an interest in working together to improve the city’s conditions.

However, peripheral municipalities are the ones who face the biggest challenges. Assessments have shown that these cities are usually not equipped for complex crises. The city of Qrayeh never had a Local Economic Development unit or staff able to plan for the development of the city’s economic infrastructure. Elsewhere staff from Jordanian municipalities have long expressed their lack of skills in economic planning, a topic which became urgent with the arrival of refugees and the rise in their population. Meanwhile, in Arua, a growing city in Northern Uganda, municipal authorities have worked closely with international organisations and civil society to begin a remarkable process of assessing populations and planning for the future. Rather than positioning new arrivals as threats to local prosperity, the city has instead recognized the potential of an expanding population with translocal and transnational connections to foster trade and development.

To add to all this, small municipalities are often dependent from fiscal transfers from central government, which may represent over half of total revenue and mostly goes to salaries and service delivery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, fiscal transfers were delayed in Jordan while pressure on medical waste management grew. This inevitably restricted the number of possible emergency actions to be pursued at the city level. Meanwhile, the impact was sudden and strongly felt, with hundreds losing their jobs because of business closure or impossibility to carry out daily, informal jobs due to lockdown measures.

Our recommendations

 Efforts pursued at the international level to support migrants’ and refugees’ inclusion locally must take into account the important yet challenging role played by secondary cities. While small cities can implement some of the recommendations offered by research and policy, in some instances they are practically unable to undertake others given structural issues faced. This poses a major obstacles to multi-sectorial, coordinated actions and reduces the incentives for small cities to adopt whole-of-society approaches rather than focusing on their habitual residents only.

In light of this, we lay out here a set of considerations coming from our work with peripheral municipalities hosting refugees, IDPs, and other migrants:

  • Build trust and communications with small municipalities.

Lack of trust sometimes leads to lack of collaboration and non-disclosure of important municipal data that could help researchers to assess needs. Trust could be built with participatory approaches that include municipal leaders and staff in development projects and research, including impact evaluation. Likewise, small municipalities could leverage on their closure to the population to act as gatekeepers for data collection; however, they should see what they would get in return for collaboration.

  • Bring a whole-of-society approach in specific local actions to accelerate refugees’ and migrants’ socio-economic integration.

Small municipalities should be guided toward actions that represent a “win-win” for both refugee and local communities. One of these is entrepreneurship. Small shops, firms, and local industries have a huge potential to create jobs and support socialization between communities. Refugee-led SMEs create employment, new markets and foster supply chains, as we’ve seen in Turkey. Despite their traumatic experiences of conflict, refugees can be innovative and entrepreneurial . They can be the engine of bottom-up innovation and business creation, even in remote and rural areas.

  • Support training of municipal staff.

This is important especially in those municipalities with already limited budgetary and technical resources. Training also involves raising awareness on issues linked to refugees and migrants, like countering xenophobia, and training staff on migrant- and refugee-specific needs.

Perhaps most importantly, it is to foster planning at multiple scales. While public bureaucracies are often spatially bound, movements of people and goods are not. By adopting a ‘corridor and catchment’ approach to planning, municipalities can engage with neighbouring villages and towns and others further afield who are, de facto, part of the urban fabric.

  • Share research findings with municipal leaders and staff and include peripheral municipalities in regional or global networks, knowledge exchanges, and partnerships.

This would contribute to solving many challenges: it would give municipalities more ownership, build trust, help recognize them for their efforts, and make them aware of effective approaches that can be adapted to their context.

We must recognize that municipalities – whatever their size, but especially those with limited resources – cannot work alone. All cities prosper through connections, both near and far. The places provide the people and products that enable municipalities to thrive. As urban populations expand, sites that were once rural or remote, are increasingly integrated into urban housing and labour markets.

Migration and mobility mean that for effective urban management and migrant integration, municipalities must collaborate in multiple ways. This is not only about sharing positive examples and best practices, but to learn from each other’s failures and shortcomings. It is also to present a unified front to regional and national authorities about their need for financial, human, and technical resources.


About the authors:

Gilda Borriello is a part-time DPhil student in Migration Studies at COMPAS. She researches refugee entrepreneurship in Jordan and Turkey and is also a consultant for the Center for Mediterranean Integration and the World Bank working with local authorities and private sector actors on economic inclusion of refugees. Loren Landau is Professor of Migration and Development at the Oxford Department of International Development and Associate Professor with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Photographs taken by the authors. Header image: a Jordanian employed in a factory owned by a Syrian refugee, Jordan.

Woman refugee in pickle factory, Jordan