Cities of Welcome: Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees in Urban Areas

    Cities of Welcome: Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees in Urban Areas
    by Julia Blocher


    • Prof C. Cindy Fan, Professor in the Department of Geography and Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
    • Prof Ayse Caglar, Professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Vienna
    • Prof Loren Landau, South African Research Chair for Mobility and the Politics of Difference, African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand
    • Dr Megha Amrith, Research Fellow, United Nations United Nations University Institute on Globalisation, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM)

    Full report available here


    • Dr James Cockayne, United Nations University (UNU) Office in New York


    This panel gathered experts from diverse backgrounds to explore questions related to the inclusion and integration of migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugees in cities around the world. Panellists were asked to consider questions such as: What is the role of local government and governance in migration – how do cities sustain ‘cultures of welcome’ in the face of hostile national and international rhetoric?

    Panellists discussed examples of cities looking to cultivate a ‘culture of welcome’. This term loosely refers to a culture that fosters an appreciation of and empathy for the situations asylum seekers and refugees find themselves in, provides them with safety, and seeks to welcome them into active participation in community life.

    Independent of national prerogatives, cities play a role in terms of welcoming documented and undocumented migrants and ensuring their access to urban life, community spaces, and services. Fostering a ‘culture of welcome’ is not a simple matter of enacting policies to protect the human rights of migrants. The panel also considered the characters of urban society and of ‘urban citizens’, and the many facets of urban societies in which migrants play important, and variable, roles.

    The World’s Cities: Front Lines of Migrant Inclusion and Integration

    At the outset of the event, panellists sought to lay out a number of different perspectives on the theme in question, drawing from different disciplines and academic debates on inclusion of migrants and refugees in urban spaces.

    Migration both within and across international borders is a story that plays out tangibly in the world’s cities. Migration is not an abstract concept, it represents the integration or inclusion of people into a new community, and very often into urban areas where the opportunity of employment brings people of all backgrounds. Movements to cities may in part reflect vast regional and global inequalities, but also represent new livelihood possibilities, and opportunities to develop solidarities that cut across national, ethnic or religious lines.

    Yet, experiences of urban migration are diverse and situated within a wider global perspective. Cities do not make policy choices in isolation; they are also affected by dynamics at the national and international levels. Services offered by local authorities are often dependent on funding streams approved at provincial or federal levels. Yet even in the face of restrictions and budget limitations mandated at the federal level, local authorities are responsible for meeting the needs of resident migrants’ basic services, long-term and adequate housing, employment and education. In addition, the toxic rhetoric against migration extends beyond geographic boundaries in our highly-networked world, meaning external actors have the potential to drive opposition to cities’ innovative policies.

    In many contexts, local governments are influential actors, positioning themselves as open to migrants and actively developing policies of inclusion in opposition to state rhetoric. In other contexts, municipalities are under-resourced or absent, and grassroots movements and migrants’ social networks play more important roles in negotiating belonging; albeit in fragmented ways, as migrants continue to confront everyday borders and invisibility in urban spaces.

    Migrant families are sometimes separated by distances, and those distances may be within or across the political borders of a state. This was raised in the frame of translocal and transnational families. The realities of local/translocal experiences of migration on the ground, panellists argued, urge us to move beyond a purely state-centric lens on migration governance. Families negotiate distance and boundary lines (e.g., the rural-urban divide) in maintaining and imagining ‘family’ – and, by extension, ‘community’. The family members that migrate as well as the family members left behind (although this term is a contentious one) must be considered in a holistic fashion to understand how migration processes contribute to social and economic change. The nexus between the migrants and those left behind, and the ties that bind them – i.e. social and family ties, economic ties via remittances – is a useful analytical framework to consider migration and refugee movements to cities.


    All Cities Were Built by Migrants

     Panellists noted that migrants connect or re-connect the world’s cities, contributing significantly to the connecting and strengthening of networks of power. Migrants do this in many ways, and perhaps most clearly because migrants will typically use small urban areas as springboards to larger cities, or to cities abroad. Cities, as mentioned in the introduction to the event, are the primary hosting places of migrants and refugees.

    Migrants and refugees re-empower cities, especially declining cities, by attracting new investment, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. Migrants are often the drivers of urban regeneration, in part because they settle in areas that were previously in decline. Importantly, they consume goods and services, create businesses, and strengthen or create new trade networks – for example through the so-called ‘nostalgia trade’. Migrants are sometimes characterised as entrepreneurial by definition.

    Overall, panellists underlined migrants were the initial builders of cities and today drive urban regeneration. They further emphasised the point that how leaders frame welcoming and unwelcoming in cities is very important. Studies have shown the multiple ways in which migrants contribute to the multi-faceted city-making. There are numerous social and economic dividends earned from diversity and inclusion.

    The panel considered migration as it contributes to the social and economic transformation of cities, as well as their ‘re-empowerment’. One panellist provided evidence that in cities around the world, migration-friendly narratives are closely enmeshed with business-friendly narratives. In many cities, various programmes and initiatives were predominantly designed to promote start-up businesses. While migrants were not necessarily entrepreneurial by culture or background, these initiatives provided migrants the ability to become entrepreneurs. Migrants become important to business-friendliness of cities – and, in so doing, must fight against negative narratives.

    The fault lines between ‘locals’ and the ‘other’ very often are more visible in ‘disempowered’ cities. In cities, migrant-friendly narratives did not devolve into policy, but the business-friendly narratives did devolve into relevant policies: tax cuts, integration activities, inter alia. Building of  migrant-friendly and business- friendly cities depends very much on public funding. There is no correlation between public revenue streams and urban regeneration; indeed, regeneration projects can leave cities with even fewer resources for public services. This is because when migrants, refugees and impoverished people become assets to access funding, those finances are channelled into the coffers of developers and public-private partners. The result is an increase in poverty and inequality.

    However, migrants and refugees often find commonalities with displaced and dispossessed native residents. Their lack of resources and common marginalisation helps open spaces for collaboration due to common situations of precariousness.

    Many of these points were adopted into a discussion on the specific case of African migrants in South Africa. Panellists noted that governments do very little to promote inclusion in spite of the fact that massive cultural diversity is the norm in many African cities, while at the same time, there tends to be exclusion among ethnic groups in other public spaces.

    ‘Migration’ has, for many, become an umbrella term that includes refugees as a sub-category. However, that may not hold up empirically in some parts of the world, especially across much of Africa; for whatever reason you flee, or even if you just choose to live in cities, you end up often in the same conditions. Refugees, as international migrants and often with significant resources, are not necessarily an especially vulnerable group. In South Africa, for example, migrants (who come from the rural hinterland) are far more vulnerable than the international migrants (who are usually not expelled and may not face the same levels of destitution).

    Inclusion for whom?

    Panellists noted that the term ‘host population’, often used in relation to migrants and refugees, is misleading and open to interpretation. In African cities, the majority of the population are from rural areas or from other provinces. The concepts of ‘inclusion and ‘integration’ as they are usually being referred to in policy debates are rendered reductive, as populations are building new ‘places’ at the same time as ‘including’ more newly arrived people from elsewhere.

    Panellists pointed out the questions of scale in inclusion and integration in cities, namely that people exist in multiple public spaces simultaneously. The city community is one level, while people also associate with each other at smaller levels, such as in their neighbourhood. It is important to be aware of the sub-city level: some districts are either ignored or out of the control of governments. Some are places of violence and disorder (e.g. some slums, ghettos) while some are extraordinarily peaceful and organised (e.g. some favelas). Overall, there are deeply heterogeneous rules and regulations at the sub-city level that have implications for inclusion and integration. Integration policies should therefore be targeted at different scales and sub-city levels, as proposed by many municipal governments and by UN-Habitat.

    Migration to urban areas, panellists noted, is often related to the draw of employment. In many parts of Africa, this is of particular importance as cities were not originally built to house Africans but to hold the colonial structure and institutions, i.e., they were places of work and not living spaces. This dynamic partially helped account for anti-urbanisation campaigns in some countries until recently.

    A key case study of migration of Chinese citizens from rural to urban areas, and the barriers that they face in doing so, was cited. The panel noted that since China’s State Council announced in 2014 that new hukou (Household Registration) aimed at enabling 100 million rural Chinese to settle in towns and cities, rural migrants’ response to hukou reforms have been less than enthusiastic. On the contrary, most migrants opt for straddling and circulating between the city and countryside rather than giving up their rural hukou and settling down in cities. Panellists argued that China’s urbanisation policy should take multi-locality seriously and should focus on migrants’ livelihood and well-being in cities rather than on hukou conversion alone.


     Ultimately, inclusion is a term that requires better definition. The concept has some normative and philosophical foundations which don’t necessarily correspond with what city residents and migrants want. It was underlined that many migrants either don’t self-identify as such or prefer not to be identified as such, and thus shy away from programmes targeting migrant inclusion. They may prefer to remain invisible. In addition, migrants often invest in the place where they are from or where they plan to go to, and do not intend to settle down and participate in plans to integrate or include them, no matter what the ultimate outcome is.

    Considering these points, panellists suggested policies for inclusion and integration look at places rather than people. Transnationality and multi-locality should be embraced, not just as a fact but as a positive, enriching element of citizens’ lives and of urban identities.  National and municipal governments can work to build stronger communities, solidarities and convivial spaces among all inhabitants, in places where migrants live, rather than targeting specific programmes to ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’.

    In addition, some thought needs to be invested in how to promote a ‘culture of welcome’ within spaces where the reach of governmental programmes may be limited, and to thus not only look at ‘the city’ as a singular entity but to work with and recognise the diversity and heterogeneity of communities, voices, actors and forms of governance at the urban level in different contexts across the world.