‘Migrants are agents of development’, says U.N. migration chief William Lacy Swing

A call for mayors to see a strong role in integrating newcomers.

William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration (Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

QUITO, Ecuador — William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration, prefers open air to a conference room. So we sit outside, soaking in the sun, with the mountains as the backdrop on a pleasantly nippy Quito morning, discussing a subject not quite viewed as sunny by a lot of people — migration.

But Swing, who is here at the U. N.’s Habitat III conference on the future of cities, has a strong message. “Migrants are agents of development”, he told me. “Migrants are not perfect. But neither are nationals. Migrants are more often than not young, dynamic. They are potentially tax-payers. In the long-run, they would expand the tax base, which more than compensates what is spent on providing them free basic services. This matters in countries with aging populations”.

The message is strong and is being made forcefully by many scholars and activists gathered to take part in Habitat III — the one time every 20 years that the world gathers to discuss its cities. The four-day summit will result in the adoption, by 193 countries, of a new strategy on how to nurture sustainable urbanization, a document called the New Urban Agenda.

Swing is happy that the New Urban Agenda addressed many of the issues thrown up by the migration phenomenon — currently a hot-button political issue in developed countries that attract economic migrants from poorer nations and have received a sudden influx of refugees from conflict zones.

According to last year’s International Migration Report, the number of international migrants worldwide has continued to grow rapidly over the past 15 years, reaching 244 million in 2015. That’s up from 222 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000. Nearly two thirds of all international migrants live in Europe (76 million) or Asia (75 million). North America hosted the third largest number of international migrants (54 million), followed by Africa (21 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (9 million) and Oceania (8 million).

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

Migration is a top urban concern, At least 75 percent of the migrants land in cities, points out Swing. The reasons are obvious. Cities offer better work opportunities; they provide better public services — schools, healthcare, housing. Domestic migrants worldwide number nearly 750 million, according to the U. N.

These numbers are not mere statistics. They raise a profound question — what does management of migration in the 21st century really mean? More importantly, what should municipalities do to address the phenomenon?

Until recently, municipalities largely have not been involved in migration policy processes and have little contact with institutions that would support them with the required expertise.

But that situation is changing.

“One in seven people in this world is a migrant”, says Swing. “And since most migrants gravitate towards cities, mayors and city administrators have to play a key role in integrating the newcomers. But the interesting thing is that mayors in many instances are more positively disposed towards migrants than national politicians. This is because they understand that migrants are key to urban growth. They bring new impulses, new ideas. They are motivated to succeed”.

[Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

Swing and other migration specialists acknowledge that not everyone buys into this image of migrants and refugees as positive change-agents. In the popular imagination in many countries, migrants are a “problem” and migration a “crisis”.

“You can fight the stereotypes only through evidence. It is important to convince people that migrants do not necessarily bring disease or are criminals. The IOM runs a campaign ‘I am a migrant’ showcasing inspiring personal stories of refugees and migrants.”

Few would contest that no matter what one’s personal view of migrants may be, migration, as a phenomenon, does throw up critical challenges for sustainable urbanization. But it is equally true that there are examples of how to deal with the phenomenon and many cities around the world are already leading by example.

One panel discussion on migrants and refugees in urban areas was organized by the German Development Institute at Habitat III.  Professor Philipp Misselwitz of the Technical University of Berlin talked about the “Kitchen Hub” experiment in his city. Run by a local NGO, it offers a space where refugees and locals cook, eat and work together. “Refugees teach cooking. We get to sample a wide variety of cuisines, from Syria, Jordan, so many places”, says Misselwitz. “It is fun and it provides refugees with a sense of agency, self-worth”. Another initiative is the urban garden, where refugees grow vegetables and fruits.

The idea behind Kitchen Hub is simple and powerful: to actively engage refugees in the co-production of urban space. Apart from cooking classes, it is used for workshops, discussions and community meetings bringing together refugees and locals.

Professor Loren B. Landau, Director of the African Center for Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg, stresses the importance of incentivizing integration of the newcomers. European cities receiving refugees is big news today, but countries in the developing world, which are closer to the conflict zones, have been dealing with migrants and refugees for decades, he pointed out — lending some context to what is seen by some as a “crisis”.

“What is really important is to build in incentives. No one wants refugees and migrants, but if they are there, local authorities should treat them as a constituency,” Landau says. “For example, the city department of health should be asked what it has done for refugees and migrants. It is also very important to have interventions which help both refugees and locals. If any one group is favored, there are problems”.

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

A background paper in the run-up to Habitat III, sums up some of the key issues succinctly. It recognizes that legal restrictions and social, economic and racial discrimination often impact negatively on the ability of migrants, internally displaced people (or IDPs) and refugees to access economic opportunity. But “city administration must work with partners including those concerned to ensure access to the tools required to promote livelihoods. This must be undertaken in such a way as to buttress and build links with the local economy.

“Migrants and refugees contribute to the social, economic and cultural fabric of their host communities, though are frequently seen as burdens rather than asset”, the report continues. “Studies confirm that migration energizes labor markets and generates new demand for goods and services, while also contributing to innovation that fuels urban centers. Migrants and refugees can become key players in city development, growth”.

The report underlines the gaps that must be addressed. It points out that “city urban plans lack the necessary practical approaches to address the challenges that municipalities face. In many destination cities, the generic urbanization model of the last 40 years has fostered segregation over integration. As cities grow due to migration they must also plan in such a way as to foster “placemaking” for all city dwellers, migrants, refugees and IDPs included”.

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Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities.