Migration made cities – and still does

15 June 2023

“It is migration that led to cities. It is migration that led to trade. The combination of migration and trade led to cities being hubs of innovation,” announced Urban Expert Greg Clark as he opened yesterday morning’s session of the Brussels Urban Summit.

Those gathered on stage – mayors, academics and officials from national and international bodies around the world – were anxious to discuss the pressing issues that surround migration: questions of political polarisation, the rise of nationalism, jobs, housing and ghettoization. But in order to stand a chance of addressing such complex issues, there is an ostensibly simple question that demands an answer: Just what are we talking about when we talk about migration?

What we talk about when we talk about migration

As Ayse Caglar, Professor at the University of Vienna, explained, from a practical point of view migration from within the country, within the EU, or outside the EU have much in common. “Who is identified as a migrant,” she said, “and in relation to what kind of values is very much related to the political regimes of nation states.”

Migrants are often framed in, contrast to the incumbent population, as poorer and less educated, but different levels of poverty and education exist among both migrant and native-born residents. “Leaving the internal migration out is problematic and potentially dangerous: Poverty and displacement are not only related to cross border migrants,” Caglar warned, adding that this lens also creates empirical hurdles for cities trying to understand the dynamics of their populations.

Leaving the internal migration out is problematic and potentially dangerous
— Ayse Caglar

For Andriy Sadovyi, Mayor of Lviv, dealing with internal Ukrainian migrants was naturally far more pertinent than migrants coming from outside the country. “Five million internally displaced people have passed through Lviv during the Russian Occupation,” Sadovyi said, “In a population that was initially 1 million, we sometimes had 2 million living on a given day.”

Urgent provision

Mayor Sadovyi described the strain of living in a city beset by missile strikes and air-raid syrens, where daily funeral processions take up the streets. In this environment, settling the 150,000 internally displaced people that remain in Lviv has been a challenge. However, people living in the city have been very generous with their homes, where many new families have been hosted, and the city as so far built 500 municipal homes.

I’m a mayor, not a doctor
— Andriy Sadovyi

The city has also had to expand its municipal hospital, which has hosted 30,000 wounded, soldiers, children, women the elderly. Each wing in the hospital is named for a city that has contributed to rebuilding and supporting Lviv. “I’m a mayor, not a doctor,” Sadovyi said, “I must think about new jobs for my wounded, and new accommodation.”

Claudia Lopez, Mayor of Bogota, has also had to respond to a huge influx of refugees in her city. For the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Venezuela, Lopez has adopted a policy of “rapid inclusion.” This means letting adults get into work and kids get into education as fast as possible. This strategy, Lopez said, “pays off, morally, politically and economically.”

Rapid inclusion pays off, morally, politically and economically
— Claudia Lopez

Bogota uses two metrics to measure the success of their policy, an economic one and a social one. The city counts ‘social policy’ as access to health, education and work, and has already seen that ‘new Bogotanos,’ who typically have three times greater social poverty than the average, find themselves at the same level as most Columbians after just five years in the city.

Gaziantep, huge numbers of internal and external migrants have been compelled to leave their homes for the same reason: An enormous earthquake on 6 February that has so far claimed upwards of 50,000 lives. While her city struggled to rescue survivors in the immediate aftermath, and rebuild and rehouse people thereafter, Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Sahin said the city has also “taken Syrian migrants as a humanitarian responsibility.” This follows on from years of Syrian’s moving to the city to escape the conflict in their own territory.

We live together, we share the same city, so we have to give them access
— Fatma Sahin

As in Bogota, Gaziantep’s priorities have been jobs and education. The city founded a research centre for migration to determine the age, gender and job opportunities for the new population. For young people from Syria or Turkey, free healthcare and education are provided, and adults can benefit from 36 training services for all kinds of jobs. “We are neighbours,” Sahin declared, “we live together, we share the same city, so we have to give them access.”


The question of access isn’t just about what services are formally open to migrants – it’s also about how and where they’re made available. While migrants traditionally settled in the urban core, said journalist and author Doug Saunders, they are now settling in the outskirts, “in areas designed for people with cars but now inhabited by migrant populations and lacking the proper connections to the mainstream economy.”

Look at the area from a migrant’s point of view
— Doug Saunders

Ironically, the story of this challenge migrant populations are facing is also the story of their success: The urban cores which migrant populations settled in the last century, Saunders says, have skyrocketed in value due to the thriving atmosphere that they have created there.

The challenge for cities, according to Saunders, is “to recognise and fill the voids.” And the cities that have succeeded in doing this, he says, are those that have consulted and cocreated to “look at the area from a migrant’s point of view.”

Understanding the needs of diverse communities through consultation, said Thembi Nkadimeng, South Africa’s Minister for Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs, is key to reaping the rewards of true diversity – a principle enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. Cities must, she says, “understand how migrants view their inclusion, what makes a city and what makes them a citizen.”

Going with the flow

However, thinking about migrants as settled populations can also handicap your ability to engage with them optimally. Nkadimeng emphasised the phenomenon of daily migration, where people cross the border into the country in the morning and leave again in the evening, or on the weekend.  “We have borders, for example with Lesotho, that people cross every day for work, or by foot to go to school,” Nkadimeng said.

We have borders, for example with Lesotho, that people cross every day for work, or by foot to go to school
— Thembi Nkadimeng

Rafael Tuts, Director of UN-Habitat’s Global Solutions Division, explained that the optimal approach to migration was a cooperative one between cities, where all parties attended to the question not just of where a migrant ends up, but also the circumstances under which they leave their place of origin, and the conditions of their journey.

he UN’s flagship Inclusive Cities initiative, said Tuts, “brought together 20 Mediterranean cities on the roots of origin, transit and destination, bringing mayors together and enhancing dialogue,” which, he says, has seen enormous gains in the coherence and effectiveness of migration policy.

For Adama Sangare, Mayor of Bamako, just as important as providing for the many migrants that enter Mali is providing the conditions that dissuade local people from migrating away from his city. “Young people today account for 60-70% of migrants, and we need to make efforts to retain them, rather than having them migrate,” Sangare insisted.

No city alone can ever cope to control migration. We need to work together.
— Adama Sangare

Sangare also said that his city would need more support, both in terms of resources and capacity building to tackle this. “No city alone can ever cope to control migration. We need to work together. Practical work, going beyond just theoretical work.” Already, he has found collaboration with other French-speaking mayors around the world to have been a major advantage, and used the Brussels Urban Summit to express his hopes for future engagement, “Metropolis, Eurocities and the European Union can help us in dealing with migration in Africa,” he said.

Funding integration

Tuts explained that it was mayors around the world, not just in Africa, that sorely need more access to financing for this matter. “Financing and budgeting of local authorities needs to take account of their need to settle migrants,” he insisted. However, money spent on migrant integration can also be money wisely invested, he pointed out.

“Urban communities that view migrants as active and contributing members of their neighbourhoods are most likely to turn this human mobility into an engine for prosperity,” he said, “We need to make sure that migration and displacement are locally designed and budgeted for, and we need to make sure that mayors can support each other to approach these flows.”

We need to make sure that migration and displacement are locally designed and budgeted for
— Rafael Tuts

Cities are using innovative approaches to empower migrants to become economically active, meaning that initial investments can be more than compensated for. In Bogota, Lopez said, a new ‘Buddy’ programme provides part time employment to young people by the municipality. “That gives them some starting income, and it’s a way to welcome and include them and help them get to know the city,” she said.

20,000 young people have gone through this 6-month programme so far, with half of them going on to either finish school or find employment in the private sector.

When cities speak of problems housing and integrating migrants, and when communities manifest anti-migrant sentiments, explained Professor Caglar they are in fact pointing at a symptom of a larger problem which has nothing to do with migration: The spending priorities of national governments.

Cities are frontiers of wealth generation, but they have been turned into battlegrounds for scarce resources
— Ayse Caglar

“Cities are frontiers of wealth generation, but they have been turned into battlegrounds for scarce resources,” Caglar said, due to “austerity urbanism, which reduces the central government spending on local governments. This kind of urban development,” Caglar insisted, “is the crux of the dilemma, not the increase of migrants.”

As cities and urban populations grow all around the world, Tuts explained that “we need to look at migration and urbanisation as two sides of the same coin.” As urban populations swell, he said, we need to ensure that new arrivals are not pushed to the margins of society, “which can lead to violence and very severe conflict.” He called for better local data to understand the pressures on infrastructure, housing and education.

The city and the nation state

Nathalie Appere, Mayor of Rennes, underscored the division between the priorities of cities and nation states. “We are not able to integrate people correctly,” she said, “because national leaders prevent us from decently receiving people.”

National leaders prevent us from decently receiving people
— Nathalie Appere

She called for national governments to remove the hurdles that they have placed in the way of migration and integration, “We need to make sure that the migration pathway is not a pathway of obstacles and humiliation,” Appere insisted, “where people find themselves deprived of access to schools, education, healthcare.”

Appere contrasted the cosmopolitan values of Rennes with the identity politics promulgated at the national level. She lambasted the national-level illusion that creating difficult pathways to migration and hostile reception environments will slow migration flows. “When one is forced to leave a country due to suffering and pain, one does not look to see if the receiving country has a good inclusive policy,” she said, “One just leaves.”

In Rennes, bottom-up action is seeking to change the face of migration policy. A group of local 15-year-old students from the city have approach the European Commission asking them to review legislation like the Dublin Agreement that they say prevents migrants from settling and living decently. She asked readers and participants to lend their signature to a petition to that effect.

When the state removes barriers to migration, said Mayor Lopez, Bogota has found integration much more straightforward. She praised the national policy of providing a 10-year legal status for people coming from Venezuela, and cooperating with the city to provide a basic income to help them settle. However, she pointed out that the national political decision to mobilize militarily against Venezuela had done nothing but exacerbate tensions.

This whole debate on migration and diversity is too much framed from a national point of view
— Eric Corijn

Eric Corijn, Professor of Urban studies, at the Free University of Brussels, brought his academic heft behind these arguments: “My blunt message is: This whole debate on migration and diversity is too much framed from a national point of view.” Cities, he said, are focused more on connections than borders. Describing cities as interconnected nodes that coordinate and collaborate, he called for a reframing of urban issues: “We have to stop thinking of cities as places within countries, cities are closer to the world than nation states.”

Corijn pointed to the surrealism of the famous painter, Magritte, who migrated to Brussels from a nearby Belgian city. The way his surrealism has been embraced within Brussels own self-image, Corijn said, is prototypical of one of the virtues that cities have over nation states: the strength not to take themselves too seriously. “Urbanity is not nationality,” he said, indicating the cities are places where people can choose their identity, rather than having one foisted upon them.

Author Doug Saunders recommended tactics that some cities have used to circumvent national approachs. “The ability to vote based on residency rather than citizenship,” for example, “is crucial to diversity,” as is “the ability to own a house.”

Real diversity does not call itself diversity, it is much more substantial
— Doug Saunders

Saunders shared the tale of Kadir Nurman, the inventor of the Doner Kebab. Born in Turkey, this long-time Berlin resident was never able to obtain citizenship. As a result, he couldn’t patent his invention or even register his business. Instead, he died in poverty despite his creation becoming one of the most popular forms of fast food in Europe. “The inability to be part of the civic and economic life of the city precludes diversity,” Saunders declared, “Real diversity does not call itself diversity, it is much more substantial.”

Contested identities

Just as a true discussion about migration must begin by calling into question who we describe as a migrant, a productive approach to integration must ask about our expectations around identity.

Professor Caglar sought to disrupt prevailing ideas of social cohesion as the pre-existing state into which migrants need to be integrated. “Cities are not harmonious and cohesive spaces and they have never been,” she said, “They are space of contestation and conflict.”

Cities are not harmonious and cohesive spaces and they have never been
— Ayse Caglar

Migrants, like all residents, become part of these contentious dynamics. However such contestation, Caglar said, creates opportunities for us to re-think our social, political and economic identities, and develop new kinds of commonalities. “The main challenge for city leaders and policy makers,” according to Caglar, “is to support this kind of city-based frictious connectivity beyond communitarian, ethnic, political, and religious lives.”

For Mayor Appere, understanding our own identities and histories is only possible when incumbent populations “understand that we also come from very complex migration processes.” Migration, she said, provides an opportunity for people to “move away from nationalism and into citizen communities.” In Rennes, she said, “We can tell people, ‘You are inhabitants, and that’s all that matters.’” Appere warned that “there can’t be fraternity without equality,” noting that, “our cities can be breeding grounds of equality.”

There can’t be fraternity without equality
— Nathalie Appere

Other speakers seconded Appere’s gesture towards the history of migration that underpins all cities histories. Caglar insisted that, “There is no way to understand urban processes without understanding migrant processes.” She warned against characterising migrants either as a social burden or a source of labour and economic stimulation, “Migrants, situated in religious, political and social networks, are the actors and subjects of city making. They have always been so.”

A new kind of freedom

“The air of the city makes us free,” said Eric, free to choose who and how we want to be, by what activity and paraphernalia we choose to demarcate ourselves, with which tribes we want to be affiliated.

Saunders captured this sentiment, explaining that especially the second and third generations of migrants, “don’t want culture to be an umbrella that you carry around all the time.” He said that people no longer want to be labelled as, “the Moroccan kid in Brussels, or the Black South African, or whatever,” and applauded Mayor Lopez’s designation of ‘new Bogotano’ for people arriving from Venezuela – an epithet that leaves them the freedom to determine their identities.

The structures that benefit true diversity, Saunders said, are not local or national offices of diversity, or festivals that celebrate diversity, but structures that “give access to the democratic and educational and housing institutions,” that are available for all residents, new and old, to benefit from.

We have to look for a common project
— Eric Corijn

It is precisely the freedom to imagine a common future in an unbounded horizon of possibility, said Corijn, that can create unity among our communities. “We have to look for a common project,” he said. The future, he said, “has no fixed identity, it’s built together, it’s intercultural, not monocultural; You need coproduction, participation, and so participatory democracy.”

Pointing to statistics on interculturality and multilingualism, Corijn insisted that “A lot of identity debates today are there to maintain inequality, declaring that “hybridity is the new identity of the citizen.” “A good city,” he said, “is one that we make together,” and called on city leaders to, “tell a story of heterotopia, a place we are not yet, but that we will go together.”


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer