A truck passes near border customs at the World Trade Bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Photo by: REUTERS / Daniel Becerril

BARCELONA — There are a record number of refugees worldwide, and around 58 percent — or around 14.7 million refugees — now live in cities, according to the most recent estimate from the U.N. Refugee Agency.

Those cities — from Munich to Mexico City — have had to adapt to ensure all within their city limits have food, clothes, and shelter while catering to the educational, health, and other societal needs of new populations.

Some within the aid community have advocated for the need to move refugees out of isolated and temporary accommodation in camps to more integrated and appropriate accommodation in cities and towns. But that shift comes with challenges of its own.

“In many places in Latin America, the projects [for city-based refugees] are being perceived as foreign — as projects that are being developed by international agencies or multinational agencies that are not really working in the field.”

— Lucía Dammert, associate professor at the University of Santiago, Chile

“There can be a lot of marginalization with [people migrating toward urban settings] so the role that cities play in being inclusive, in catering for newcomers, trying to ensure proper settlement, and setting a tone for the public of civility, tolerance, acceptance, of diversity, is incredibly important,” said Helen Clark, former head of the U.N. Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand.

Ensuring cities can adequately cater to refugees also requires a shift from humanitarian aid alone — which helps to meet refugees’ immediate needs — to development aid that can help support them in the longer-term.

“It's, of course, good to have refuge from war and conflict, but to sit in a tent for years on end is not a life for any person or family; so ensuring that people have access to opportunity when they seek refuge within their country or over borders is very, very important. I'm fully supportive of all the development partners being involved at the earliest stage,” Clark said.

But what does that role look like for development organizations and how can they help to ensure cities are well-equipped to cater to the needs of new arrivals?

Put cities on the international agenda

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Cities as host communities to refugees have the ability to address discrimination, integrate individuals into society, and provide refugees with the necessary tools to settle. Without sufficient resources and assistance from the international community, progress may be stunted as hunger, poverty, and sanitation levels are put under strain.

Making cities safe and sustainable is the aim of Sustainable Development Goal 11, but Jorge Melguizo, an international consultant and former secretary of citizen culture in Medellin, Colombia, said more needs to be done to raise the profile of cities as a priority area for investment and attention.

“I believe that international development organizations have two fundamental obligations in relation to cities: one is to understand what is going on within them, and two is to bring visibility,” he said.

United Cities and Local Governments is one organization representing the interests of local governments on the world stage, working to increase their influence on the issue of refugees and more.

With the world overwhelmed by long-running conflicts, both Clark and Jo Beall, research professor at LSE Cities at the London School of Economics, said that funding for long-term development work — including for cities — has been sidelined.

“The development community can help not only in diagnosing and addressing the problem, but also by getting the message about the importance of cities into international debates and organizations,” Beall suggested.

Helen Clark, former head of UNDP and former Prime Minister of New Zealand talks about the role of cities in refugee response.

Share knowledge

Lucía Dammert, associate professor at the University of Santiago, Chile, thinks NGOs can also act as facilitators between local governments, helping them to exchange best practices on how their cities have adapted to refugee needs: “They can share knowledge on the performances that some policies have had in other countries, and in general they can highlight good consequences that immigration ... [has] brought in some areas of the world.”

Solidarity Cities is a refugee management initiative within the framework of the Eurocities network. Open to all European cities, it facilitates information and knowledge exchange on the refugee situation; advocates for direct funding for cities on the reception and integration of refugees, city-to-city technical and financial assistance, and capacity building; and facilitates pledges by European cities to receive relocated asylum seekers.

“Cooperation helps us in doing a better evaluation, in building better indicators, in understanding the reality in a different way and relating it to other matters,” Melguizo said. “Many times for a small city, accessing technical knowledge to improve their actions is very difficult; so development organizations have a fundamental role in that permanent pedagogic work towards the local governors but also towards the citizens.”

Beall suggested that given the amount of experience lower-income countries have in coping with migration, cities in the global north could tap into the experience and knowledge of how to meet the needs of refugees. She explained that higher-income countries have been unable to respond to increased urbanization at the rate at which people have been coming in — spurring a service and facilities deficit in the provision of housing services with informal economies emerging.

“That is so much part of the fabric and lived experience of developing countries, but increasingly, it is becoming part of the lived experience of developed countries, and cities,” she said, adding that there are lessons to learn from lower-income countries on how to tap into both formal and informal systems.

For example, Uganda — the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa — is seen as one of the most progressive in its refugee policies and spends over $323 million a year on the protection and management of refugees. Lessons could be learned from its migration management.

Build local ownership

Dammert emphasized that while conversations and exchanges must happen at a variety of levels, development organizations have to nurture local ownership in projects serving city-based refugees. The Greek Forum of Refugees in Athens, SPARK 15 in Malta, and RISE in Melbourne are all examples of projects that are not only local but are also run by refugees.

“In many places in Latin America, the projects [for city-based refugees] are being perceived as foreign — as projects that are being developed by international agencies or multinational agencies that are not really working in the field,” Dammert said, adding that with local investment, international NGOs can leave local citizens to continue with the initiative. A part of this is selecting local project leaders who can exert a positive influence on the rollout of city projects.

“Nowadays, political crises are widespread, political innovation is really not the norm but the exception, and it’s really important for development agencies to work with positive leaders in terms of bringing more openness for the discussion of migration, and how to build better lives for refugees,” Dammert said.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.