These preparations can help cities ease the impacts of migration

Refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan wait for daily work in Istanbul, July 2016. (Orlok/Shutterstock)

Mass migration is among the foremost challenges faced by cities today. The sudden influx of newcomers escaping violence or seeking opportunity can overwhelm already fragile urban environments.

When populations spike, the added strain on limited resources and ageing infrastructure often results in housing shortages, water scarcity and insufficient health care, among other impacts.

A report from the Rockefeller Foundation concludes that city leaders can prepare for unanticipated demographic shifts by incorporating human flows into urban planning.

Global Migration: Resilient Cities at the Forefront, was published in May by 100 Resilient Cities, a four-year-old initiative that aims to help cities strengthen their resilience to physical, social and economic challenges.

The ongoing shift toward urbanization creates the conditions for increased migration, the report says. Over the past 30 years, global cities have added 65 million new residents each year, many drawn by the promise of economic opportunity and better quality of life. But if they encounter squalid conditions, they may relocate to comparatively wealthier places, resulting in additional strains on resources.

The message to city leaders, then, is clear: Preparation can mitigate hasty, ill-informed decisions in reaction to events. “Resilient cities are able to plan for adversity, absorb its impact, and recover quickly. Most importantly, they adapt to new conditions and thrive, rather than merely survive,” the authors write.

[See: What refugees living in cities need]

To aid their efforts, municipalities are urged to leverage partnerships and data collection.

  • Strong partnerships: Alliances with regional, national and international authorities, as well as businesses, NGOs and humanitarian aid agencies, can speed absorption of migrants and resilience efforts.
  • Data analytics: Cities are gathering more data on population shifts so they can recognize patterns early and build platforms to disseminate the information.
  • Granular governance: Some cities are establishing offices of immigrant affairs that specialize in the integration of new arrivals. When a crisis hits, these offices already are staffed and operational.

[See: Cities must stop underestimating their need and ability to respond to migration]

While cities often scramble to find short-term solutions to spikes in migration, municipalities should not overlook long-term planning for vulnerable populations, the report states. This can be accomplished by ensuring that citywide strategies on affordable housing, mass transit, utility services and other needs accommodate these citizens.

Migration’s opportunity

As of 2015, there were an estimated 244 million migrants worldwide, according to the foundation, more than 60 million of whom had fled conflict and persecution. In addition, each year more than 21 million people are newly displaced by climate-related shocks such as floods, storms and searing temperatures.

A pervasive theme is that migrants and refugees, who in dire cases are fleeing for their lives, should be treated with dignity. Rather than view them as a burden, they should be seen as an asset, both for the diversity they represent and the economic contributions they make to their home and adopted countries.

[See: In Calgary, ‘welcoming’ immigrants is no longer enough]

In 2015, migrants sent USD 4.3 billion back to family members in their countries of origin — more than three times the level of global development aid, the report notes. Immigrants are often eager to accept low-wage jobs that locals shun.

For these and other reasons, the authors caution against the reflexive impulse to cast migration in a negative light. Municipalities that see past an immediate humanitarian crisis can seize opportunities to launch new policies and initiatives with lasting dividends.

Immigrants can infuse fresh energy into the job market and into struggling neighbourhoods. As populations age, arrivals contribute to replenish the workforce. “Immigrant-owned businesses have helped revitalize communities by employing community members, strengthening the tax base, and growing the local economy,” the report states.

[See: Healing Europe’s populist divisions depends on its cities]

To fully tap their potential, cities must empower marginalized communities, the authors advise. This can be achieved by welcoming and supporting newcomers in ways that integrate them into local economies.

For example, encouraging migrant-owned businesses may have the added advantage of helping to revitalize a troubled neighborhood. Ensuring that the “unbanked” have access to financial institutions means more purchases and more opportunities to save. Job training and placement programmes mean less unemployment.

Stark choice

Another key component to integration is social cohesion. Cities are urged to be cognizant of the potential for social tensions to flare along ethnic, religious or cultural lines with waves of new arrivals. Migrants also may need assistance overcoming language barriers and meeting requirements — such as formal CVs or educational degrees — that can restrict their ability to qualify for certain jobs.

Cities faced with steady migration have a stark choice, the report notes. They can allow population swings to erode public services and governance. Or they can find ways to promote resilience and integration by melding migratory trends into planning and priorities.

[See: In this Amsterdam housing project, Dutch youth and refugees live together — and run the place]

100 Resilient Cities provides members with funds to hire chief resilience officers, guidance on developing resilience strategies, and access to ideas, solutions and partners in a global network of municipalities. Visit to learn more.

This article is the first of a three-part series. In upcoming coverage, Citiscope will highlight lessons about migration from Athens and other municipalities, as well as  technology tools such as analytics and apps that cities use to ease migration.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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