The Future of Cities and Migration: A Metropolis International Special Symposium

by Paola Buconjic & Nick Dreher

The Future of Cities and Migration: Inclusion of Precarious Migrants and Refugees special symposium brought together academics and practitioners to discuss the main challenges that precarious migrants face in urban settings as well as the approaches cities are taking to support their needs. The special symposium was part of the 25th Annual Metropolis Conference held in Berlin in September 2022.

Panelists identified the overlapping precarities hindering the inclusion of migrants and showed that cities can be important actors in fostering integration and supporting vulnerable migrants. Cities can effectively play this role when they proactively work to incorporate migrants in decision-making and engage local NGOs and transnational networks. Precarity in migration status is exacerbated by and exacerbates employment precarity, housing precarity and precarities in physical and mental well-being. An example of these interlinked precarities is seen in undocumented migrants’ inability to access health systems, as it is the case for the African women whom Virginia Wangare Greiner and her organisation Maisha work with in Frankfurt, Germany. 

Likewise, migrants face many challenges when it comes to employment and housing, some of which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Diana Gallego from the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto gives an example of precarious employment during Covid-19, explaining that while the rest of society had the luxury of practicing social isolation, it was the frontline workers that were essential for the community’s functioning, leaving them at a higher risk of getting infected. Below, we share some of the important elements of city strategies to address the precarities migrants face in different parts of the world.

Participatory Decision-Making

Jan Braat, Senior Policy Advisor on Migration and Inclusion at the city of Utrecht and Chair of the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe, addressed the problem of homelessness among denied asylum seekers. He referred to Utrecht’s comprehensive program to regularise undocumented immigrants. Together with NGOs and churches, the city provides legal support to persons living in the streets, including undocumented migrants. Besides being given shelter, immigrants were also offered activation programs in which they could work together with NGOs on the solutions. Utrecht’s collaboration program between NGOs and immigrants is one example of how crucial participatory decision-making is for migrants’ successful integration.

According to Seda Rass-Turgut, head of the Integration, Social Services and Civic Engagement Department at the City of Osnabrück in Germany, participation is a key to living together locally. If the aim is to change not only local but also national politics for the better and make for a more inclusive society, the voices and ideas of migrants in need of government support are necessary to accomplish this goal. The City of Osnabrück developed a program together with the Advisory Council for Migration and local political parties to increase the participation of immigrants in the city council. Not only is it possible to fulfill more than just the basic needs of precarious individuals this way, but it also offers migrants the feeling of belonging and a chance for active participation in the community. However, undocumented immigrants may feel discouraged to accept the offer to actively participate due to—what Marie McAuliffe describes as—a tension between simultaneous desires for visibility and invisibility. While being visible means access to needed support and services, some migrants prefer invisibility due to deportation being a daily concern.

Partnerships and Collaborations

Scholars and practitioners emphasised the importance of partnerships and collaborations across different groups as crucial in addressing the interrelated precarities migrants face and in providing opportunities for participatory decision-making in cities. Indeed, one of the chief challenges practitioners identified is a lack of collaboration between local governments and other actors. However, some models of successful collaboration can be seen in partnerships between NGOs and municipal governments. Both Diana Gallego and Nawal Al-Busaidi, representatives from Toronto non-profit organisations FCJ Refugee Center and COSTI Immigrant Services, spoke of the importance of refugee and migrant direct service organisations like their own to act as community ambassadors that inform city government and represent migrants in policy formation. An oft-mentioned challenge in the European context is the division of migrant services across disparate municipal programs and departments. In response to these silos, Asher Craig of Bristol and Jan Braat of Utrecht both advocate “one city” or “whole city” models in which municipal service providers build new partners to address the holistic needs of migrants and citizens alike.

The Cities’ Roles on Local and Transnational Levels

Local-level initiatives were the focal point of discussion, but scholars and practitioners across all regions identify value in cities engaging across scales. As Harald Bauder of Toronto Metropolitan University put it, “the local is embedded in the regional, national and global.” At the local level, cities can play an important part in direct service provision as well as in the funding of NGO programs and migrant-led initiatives. In certain contexts, like Ghana, municipal governments are responsible for implementing migration policies developed on a national level, whereas Delia Curahua from the city of Recoleta, Chile, emphasised the city’s role in resisting national level policies that restrict the freedoms of precarious migrants. But cities actively

engage on a transnational scale, building partnerships and networks to share ideas on what works, and to serve as advocates. Véronique Lamontagne from the city of Montréal provided one example of the transnational connections cities foster in the Mayors Migration Council, which reinforces the role of cities in developing and delivering policies to shape migration and integration practice and to position cities as actors alongside states on the global stage.


The symposium discussions showed that cities have an important role to play in addressing the interlinked precarities that migrants face. As Véronique Lamontagne notes: “Cities are full-fledged political actors. They are acting with policies and programs, and they have a great impact.” What that impact can be for migrants is a question for future research. Scholars identified research gaps in both the Global North and Global South around capacity and lack of knowledge and competencies of practitioners and actors in terms of managing migration and accommodating immigrants. Understanding the processes that take place while this capacity is being developed and how these processes change according to new challenges and needs the cities face, is an important item for future agenda, as is more collaboration between actors on different scales and the inclusion of voices and ideas of the most vulnerable. As the Urban Sanctuary, Migrant Solidarity and Hospitality in Global Perspective partnership project (Soli*City) enters the empirical phase of research, these questions guide scholars and practitioners working together to best support urban migrants.


This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of clavis – Magazine for Labour Market and Integration.

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