African intermediary cities as actors in urban migration governance. A blog mini-series by Janina Stürner-Siovitz (3)

Second post: Why would African local authorities engage in questions of mixed migration?

by Janina Stürner-Siovitz

In 2018, member cities of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) adopted the Charter of Local and Subnational Governments of Africa on Migration. Within the past years, cities such as Jijiga in Ethiopia, Arua in Uganda, Sfax in Tunisia, and Tangier in Morocco have started cooperating with Cities Alliance, the Mediterranean City-to-City Migration Project (MC2CM) and other actors to promote peer learning and to launch pilot projects addressing urban migration in collaborative ways. Building on such experience, local authorities have called for partnerships and greater support from national and international actors during the 2020 African Union Consultations of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).

At first sight, such engagement may appear surprising. Given that African local authorities hold no or very limited legal competencies on migration and often lack resources to address related issues (housing, health care, education, etc.), one could pose the quite provocative question: why should they care at all?

First, it is important to acknowledge that local authorities are not necessarily more open to hosting migrants and/or refugees than national governments. Much depends on local contexts, local-national relations, political situations, and individual engagement.

However, local authorities’ interest in social cohesion and positive urban development may make some of them particularly responsive to adopting pragmatic approaches. During research interviews conducted in preparation of the Equal Partnerships research project, city representatives from Kampala, Sfax, and Freetown emphasized that conditioning access to basic services on a person’s legal status and the resulting exclusion of some parts of the urban population from formal access to housing, health care, or social support had negative consequences for the city as a whole. In contrast, they highlighted that inclusive approaches addressing the needs of migrants, refugees, and host communities may work better in the medium to long term and called upon national and international actors to invest in such strategies while cooperating directly with local authorities. City representatives highlighted similar perspectives in the local migration charter mentioned above and advocated for these positions at the Global Refugee Forum 2019 and the GFMD regional consultations 2020.

Interestingly, many of these ideas have conceptual similarities with area-based approaches (re)discovered by humanitarian actors as highly relevant in contexts of urban migration and displacement, where group-based approaches developed for camp settings may backfire by exacerbating social tensions. Even though area-based approaches build on central ideas of urban planning and local authority buy-in has been identified as a key enabling factor, coordination with local authorities is far from standard procedure. Important exceptions and leads for future engagement can be found, for instance, in the AGORA Initiative jointly developed by ACTED and IMPACT Initiatives as well as in the work of the International Rescue Committee.

As the allocation of national and international humanitarian funding for specific sectors or target groups complicates the adoption of area-based strategies in urban migration and displacement situations, local authorities could become important allies of international organizations and civil society actors advocating for more inclusive funding approaches. In this sense, the Mayors Migration Council, founded inter alia by the mayors of Freetown and Kampala, has collaborated with a wide range of international partners to launch (and raise funding for) the Global Cities Fund for Inclusive Pandemic Response in the context of the global COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, factors that motivate some African local authorities to engage with questions of mixed migration, despite the absence of legal mandates and sufficient resources, include:

  • the acknowledgement that migration has always been a part of urban societies. Migration governance that strives mainly to restrict or to criminalize migration is considered to work (possibly) in the short but not in the medium to long term;
  • the pragmatic interest in making the city work for all its inhabitants, in strengthening social cohesion and opening up opportunities for mobile populations to contribute to local economic development;
  • the opportunity to attract national and international partners and funding for inclusive local approaches that not only benefit migrants and refugees but the city as a whole.

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