U.N. summit on migration crisis fails to address front-line role of cities

Newly agreed Habitat III strategy acknowledges ‘the needs of local authorities’ as ‘the first receivers of migrants’. But at this week’s first-ever event, pledges by national governments ignored this gap.

Migrants await transport to the Greek mainland after arriving by boat on the island of Lesvos, October 2015. (Anjo Kan/Shutterstock)

UNITED NATIONS — Faced with the largest number of displaced persons since World War II, world leaders met here this week to chart a way forward on the humanitarian challenge of migrants and refugees. The topic has proved politically vexing, however, as their meeting comes just weeks after diplomats hammered out a deal on a new global strategy on urbanization, known as the New Urban Agenda.

Set to be adopted at next month’s Habitat III conference, the feverish final talks on the New Urban Agenda included a difficult negotiation on how to treat the issue of migration. Yet this week’s event has done little to operationalize the agenda’s recognition of local authorities as “front-line receivers” in dealing with today’s crush of migrant arrivals.

At present, 65.3 million people have been forced out of their homes worldwide as a result of civil war, violent extremism and economic desperation. Particularly large numbers have fled Africa and the Middle East in a mass attempt to reach the European Union, where the vast majority have settled in urban areas.

Still, the situation in the European Union hasn’t been the totality of the ongoing displacement and its impacts. Asylum seekers aiming for Australia are being held offshore, in conditions that some advocates have called inhumane. Central American children at risk of gang activity in some of the world’s most violent cities have made perilous journeys to the U. S. border.

This week’s first-of-its-kind U. N. meeting on migration resulted in the adoption of the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees, a non-binding plan. Although it does not commit countries to concrete actions, the document does lays the groundwork for more-regular U. N. stocktaking on the issue, starting with a migration summit in 2018. (The International Organization for Migration officially joined the U. N. this week.)

Spurred by U. S. President Barack Obama, who convened a special summit on the issue on the sidelines of this week’s U. N. General Assembly, heads of state and business leaders made financial and humanitarian pledges. Fifty countries collectively pledged to accept 360,000 refugees this year — more than double what they took in last year — and to increase contributions to humanitarian efforts by USD 4.5 billion over 2015 levels. Separately, financier George Soros pledged USD 500 million to support migrant resettlement.

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

Where this flurry of activities leaves local leaders, however, remains to be seen. While migration policy is set and resources are allocated at the national level, migrants and refugees are most likely to be resettled in metropolitan areas where there are better job prospects. Just weeks before Habitat III puts the state of cities on the international stage, this week’s U. N. meetings largely failed to address their role in the migrant crisis.

‘Agreed language’

In the final hours of negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, migration proved to be one of the most difficult issues to resolve, according to multiple sources present in the closed-door talks. Specifically, the European Union pushed to remove a reference to the phrase “migrants, regardless of their migratory status” from the document’s text, while a Latin American coalition of countries urged the New Urban Agenda to go beyond language that had already been agreed at the international level. (See here for the final draft of the New Urban Agenda.)

“In contrast to what is generally observed at the national level, the fiscal impact of migration in local areas with high immigration tends to be negative, at least initially, largely because a disproportionate share of the services with a higher take-up by immigrants tends to be provided by subnational governments.”

2016 Migration Outlook report

“We fought to make sure that, notwithstanding human rights obligations, which we commit to and are universal, no new obligation to address the specific needs of irregular migrants (which is intended in the phrase ‘migrants, regardless of their migratory status’) would be created,” the E. U.’s chief negotiator, Isabelle Delattre, said via e-mail.

Ecuador, which will host Habitat III next month, led the other side of the debate. “It’s important that there be a coherence between recognition of migrants in previous resolutions and the New Urban Agenda,” said Ecuadorian diplomat Jonathan Viera. He said that Ecuador, which has become something of a specialist on migration with over a decade of diplomatic experience on the topic, felt that in the urban context, migrants should be protected from discrimination regardless of their migratory status.

[See: Can migration become central to the New Urban Agenda?]

The issue was particularly thorny in the Habitat III context because, unlike other hot-button issues, there has been no institutionalized debate on migration — at least, until this week. As a result, any time the issue comes up, new language on migration has run the risk of setting a precedent. Ultimately, the New Urban Agenda debate ended by breaking no new ground in this regard, maintaining the phrase “regardless of migratory status” in the document.

This flashpoint aside, the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Ioana Popp was upbeat about how the New Urban Agenda treats the issue. “We commend the New Urban Agenda, which recognizes the needs but also emphasizes the opportunities that migrants bring, by ‘enable[ing] all inhabitants, whether living in formal or informal settlements, to lead decent, dignified, and rewarding lives and to achieve their full human potential,’” she said via e-mail, citing the document.

“We particularly welcome Paragraph 28, which calls for coherence and cooperation at the various levels (global, regional, national, sub-national, and local levels) to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration,” she continued. “The New Urban Agenda recognizes the role of local authorities in ensuring migration policies that are planned and well-managed migration and calls for ‘support to local authorities … in establishing frameworks that enable the positive contribution of migrants to cities and strengthened urban-rural linkages.’”

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

With a strong endorsement in hand, IOM will launch a new tool called the Migration Toolbox for Cities on the sidelines of Habitat III. The toolbox, a set of prioritized recommendations and operational guidelines to strengthen migration management in cities, seeks to address both the emergency needs of recent arrivals and the long-term goals of refugee resettlement and integration.

‘First receivers’

Building on the New Urban Agenda, the New York Declaration includes pointed language that recognizes the urban dimension of the migration issue. “We note that 60% of refugees worldwide are in urban settings and only a minority are in camps; we will ensure that the delivery of assistance to refugees and host communities is adapted to the relevant context,” the document reads. As a result, it singles out “the needs of local authorities” as “the first receivers of migrants.”

“We’re not worried about the labour market; we’re worried about housing. We have to increase by 50 percent our building of new housing, the highest rate in very many years.”

Morgan Johansson
Justice and Migration Minister, Sweden

However, that message has not translated to the actions taken by national governments this week. In its recently launched External Investment Plan, for instance, the European Union hopes to galvanize nearly EUR 50 billion in blended finance — both public and private resources — to stimulate investment in Africa and the Middle East. The goal is to build up economic opportunities that would keep migrants from seeing Europe as their only option.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

For Patrizio Fiorilli, who directs Platforma, an advocacy organization on behalf of local and regional governments in European development programmes, the technical assistance component of the plan is misguided.

“We are baffled by the fact that the plan does not explicitly consider local governments as beneficiaries of this technical assistance,” Fiorilli told Citiscope. “This comes despite the fact that towns and regions are responsible for ensuring security of property, land planning and local procurement policies, which are essential for an enabling business environment.”

Platforma prepared a position paper in response to the E. U.’s migration plans, noting this omission.

European Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini presented the plan in New York on Monday. Speaking at a press conference, she responded to Fiorilli’s criticism. “We intend to work with local communities, local governments. For us, in Europe, this is everyday practice,” she said. “For sure we will have ways of involving local government as interlocutors in the running of the plan.”

Major local impacts

Even as European governments this week indicated their hope to stem the tide of migrants coming from abroad through investment in their home countries rather than investments in beefed-up border security, the 1 million new arrivals on the continent in 2015 are not leaving anytime soon. That is further stretching urban services already under strain.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2016 Migration Outlook for the first time specifically focused on local-level impacts of migration. It notes that immigrants are more likely to use public transportation, less likely to own their home and require more intensive education services because of language barriers.

“In contrast to what is generally observed at the national level, the fiscal impact of migration in local areas with high immigration tends to be negative, at least initially, largely because a disproportionate share of the services with a higher take-up by immigrants tends to be provided by subnational governments,” the report notes.

[See: In Berlin, a school that helps immigrant children find their place in the city]

Speaking at the U. N. this week, OECD Secretary-General Ángel Gurría zeroed in on the impacts that migration can bring to the housing market. While Canada has been praised for its rapid absorption of migrants, high rates of immigration also have contributed to housing affordability strains in Toronto and Vancouver.

“The flows just make the problems greater,” Gurría said. “It’s a question of policies. In many cases you don’t necessarily have to get money, you just hope that the policies do not exacerbate the problem more and try to disseminate in other parts of the territory where you do not have these kinds of bubbles.”

From Sweden, another migration model, Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson shared that concern. “We’re not worried about the labour market; we’re worried about housing,” he said. “We have to increase by 50 percent our building of new housing, the highest rate in very many years.”

[See: How Toronto is revitalizing its aging suburban residential towers]

As a result, he said, Sweden is planning entirely new communities to absorb its fresh arrivals. That’s a manageable task, the minister said — but only so long as migrants don’t continue to arrive at the rate of 10,000 per week, as they were at the height of the migrant crisis.

In turn, the Swedish government allocated approximately EUR 1 billion in its current annual budget to help local municipalities finance schools, health care and services for senior citizens — all sectors that are under increased strain from the flood of new arrivals. Johansson said the allocation is the single biggest item in Sweden’s current budget.

Multi-year planning

Local governments in Europe have responded to the migration influx with pleas for help at the national level. In April, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, meanwhile, issued a public petition calling on the E. U. to adopt a Common European Asylum Policy.

One example they might draw on comes from across the Atlantic. Canada aims to improve national-local cooperation by thinking long term on the migration question. “One of the things we are hoping to do is introduce multi-year planning for immigration overall,” said Deputy Immigration Minister Marta Morgan, “so that local governments can see on a multi-year basis how many immigrants are coming in and plan accordingly.”

[See: In Amsterdam, an ‘embassy’ where migrants connect with locals]

Germany, which received the bulk of Europe’s migrants over the past few years, offers a case study on necessary tweaks to the systems in federal countries, where national governments set immigration policies but local governments are responsible for providing day-to-day services. A report released Thursday by the Brookings Institute explains how the allocation of immigrants based on outdated funding formulas led to skewed results in the country.

According to the report, city-states such as Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen ended up with much higher percentages of migrants in their tiny territories than in larger federal states that could disperse the new arrivals among big cities and smaller towns. That imbalance put a strain on city services — housing, especially — although cities responded with what the report calls “spontaneous civil society”, as citizens volunteered their homes and businesses to accommodate the flood of migrants.

Such an approach, however, is no substitute for improvements to the machinery of government. “The special role played by cities in emergency response and long-term integration requires new policy reforms and institutional practices,” the Brookings report concludes. “Federal and state governments and networks of local stakeholders should explore reforms that empower cities, speed the replication of promising strategies, and give city leaders a permanent seat at the policymaking table.”

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