CORK – In many countries, particularly in Europe, immigration is increasingly framed as a security issue. Mainstream politicians, bowing to pressure from fear-mongering populists, are calling for tighter restrictions, and some countries are openly flouting their legal obligation and moral responsibility to provide protection to refugees fleeing conflict.
But the news is not all bad. Even as corrosive political discourse impedes effective action at the national and international levels, at the municipal level, progressive and effective immigrant-integration initiatives are flourishing.
Mayors and local administrators are building social and physical infrastructure that supports the reception of migrants and refugees into local communities. For them, the newcomers are not just statistics; they are real people – and potentially productive members of the local community. The key to tapping their potential, city officials recognize, is a well-managed integration process.
Of course, such a process is complex, and can raise concerns among residents. New arrivals often place significant pressure on urban centers, particularly cities that are already struggling with scarce resources. The challenges – from providing access to decent housing and health care to ensuring that transport networks and schools can cope with growing demand – are numerous and daunting.
That is why a proactive approach – not to mention plenty of ingenuity – is so important. And that is precisely what many city administrators are demonstrating.
With New York City’s municipal identity card, iDNYC, all residents, regardless of their status, gain access to a variety of services. In São Paulo, immigrants can contribute to public-policy discussions through a participatory council. The Barcelona municipal council, as part of a broader social-cohesion plan, launched the “anti-rumor campaign,” which uses a comic book series to combat negative stereotypes about migrants.
Collaborating with local businesses, municipal leaders have also channeled resources toward promoting entrepreneurship and work training for migrants. In Auckland, New Zealand, where one-third of the population is foreign-born, the Omega project, inspired by a Canadian initiative, matches new migrants with skilled mentors and offers paid internships. In London, the Bike Project refurbishes discarded bicycles, and gives them to migrants to serve as affordable transportation. There are thousands more projects like these, helping migrants and refugees to build new lives in their new communities.
Better still, initiatives are no longer confined to individual cities. Municipal leaders and local authorities are increasingly forming alliances with counterparts around the world to find solutions to common problems, share best practices, and turn the challenges of integration into new opportunities. For example, police officers from Toronto, a highly multicultural city, have trained their counterparts from Amsterdam in community outreach.
The Mayoral Forum on Mobility, Migration, and Development, a United Nations-supported platform, aims to advance precisely this kind of dialogue and cooperation among the world’s mayors, municipal leaders, and regional authorities. Launched in 2014 in Barcelona, the forum, which meets annually, operates on the principle that healthy and sustainable urban centers – a key component of any country’s dynamism and success – depend on the equal rights, duties, and opportunities of its residents.
The forum also encourages the international community to engage with cities as “key actors in discussions and decision-making processes on the design of migration policies.” After all, cities – which already house more than half of the world’s population, a share that will rise to 66% by 2050 – have plenty of experience integrating new residents, both from abroad and from rural areas.
The problem is that, despite devolution of power to local governments – a developed-country trend that is spreading to the developing world – many cities still operate with limited resources and authority to act. This must change – an imperative that the Vatican recently highlighted. When the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announced that it would organize a summit on refugees and migrants later this year, it stressed that mayors “must be provided with the ability to meet the needs, accommodate, and regularize all types of migrants or refugees.”
National and international debates about migration are deeply flawed, owing to their focus on security – and so are the policies that result from them. If municipal authorities – which have proved their willingness and ability to tackle the nuts and bolts of integration in innovative ways – were empowered to play a more active role in crafting immigration policies, everyone would benefit.