Over the past decade, there has been a growing tide of evidence on how international humanitarian and development actors can best meet the needs of the tens of millions of migrants and displaced people living in cities.
For displacement, this evidence is anchored by the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, a predominantly urban crisis which displaced hundreds of thousands of Haitians, and by the Syrian conflict, in which 95 percent of nearly six million Syrian refugees displaced since 2011 live outside of refugee camps, many in urban areas in the region. For migration, it is anchored by the growing climate crisis, which is increasingly pushing people into cities. It is now estimated that one billion people are at risk of being driven from their homes for climate-related reasons within the next 30 years. Many of these journeys will likely involve cities; already the primary destinations of international and internal migrants.
A common thread throughout this evidence on best meeting the needs of migrant and displaced communities is the importance of partnerships between international actors and city governments.
This lesson is not new. A 2016 International Rescue Committee study on livelihoods programming in urban areas of Lebanon and Jordan found that “leveraging the partnership of municipal, community-based, and private sector actors often leads to improved programming, not only for individuals facing high levels of vulnerability but entire communities as well.” The study found that partnerships between international practitioners and city governments pushed the programmatic boundaries of what each could deliver on behalf of urban migrant, displaced, and receiving communities, especially within restrictive national policy environments.
Five years later, a 2020 Oxford University study of six refugee-hosting cities in Turkey and Lebanon similarly highlighted “the importance to refugee policymakers of working with mayors and other municipal actors, whether to shape implementation of national government policies, to bypass the central government and promote more progressive outcomes, or to mitigate the effects of locally restrictive policies.”
These studies are just two examples demonstrating that international actors and city governments are stronger together. Unfortunately, the importance of international actors and city government partnerships on migration and displacement issues largely remains relegated to the pages of academic reports such as those mentioned, while international actors remain reluctant to extend partnerships to the city level into practice. While examples of international actor-city government partnerships are far more frequent than they were a decade ago, they remain outside of the norm. As we enter a new era of urban migration and displacement at an unprecedented scale, the international community must view partnership as a resource to be shared with the thousands of city governments which are and will remain at the centre of migration and displacement trends.
The case of Amman
Take Amman, Jordan, for example. Over ten years since the start of the Syrian conflict, there are now over 5.6 million Syrian refugees, the majority of whom reside in cities in neighbouring countries such as Beirut, Lebanon; Gaziantep, Turkey; and Amman, Jordan. Some refugee families have called these cities home for over five years, raising their kids and building new lives within them.
However, the international humanitarian community still speaks of Syrian displacement as if it were an acute crisis. In 2020, UNHCR’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa stated, “the Syrian crisis remains the world’s biggest refugee crisis, and frankly the situation for many refugees and host communities is worse than it has ever been.” Although the situation has persisted for a decade, the response has yet to change from one of immediate emergency relief delivered within the silos of one-to-three-year project timeframes led by international agencies to a longer-term, holistic, and coordinated solution led by city governments. While this may be linked to donor funding schedules, amounts, and requirements, it is likely that more international funding has been invested in Jordan’s refugee camps than in city government service structures, despite the prevalence of urban refugees within the country.
While unverified, according to UNHCR and the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) figures for September 2021 approximately 198,000 Syrian refugees reside within the Amman metropolitan area. By comparison, Zaatari camp is home to under 80,000 refugees8 and Azraq camp to just over 38,000 refugees, meaning the two largest refugee camps combined host fewer refugees than Amman. Yet in ten years of hosting Syrian refugees—and after decades of hosting Palestinian refugees—GAM can count its number of refugee-focused international partnership agreements on one hand. These partnerships, with the likes of UN-Habitat, the International Rescue Committee, and UNDP, are crucial to GAM’s ability to contribute to the self-reliance of Amman’s refugee residents, but they are too few and far between. As a capital city, Amman has real potential to show leadership not only locally but nationally. As Mayor Yousef al-Shawarbeh—who is also engaged in international migration governance through his role in the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council—has said, “Amman is committed to protecting the rights and opportunities of refugee and forced migration communities, both within our city and on a national level.”
Trending in the right direction
While there is still much progress to be made, the past five years have also seen a rise in international actor-city government partnerships and the increasing recognition of mayors as influential actors in the migration and displacement governance space.
In 2016, states recognized for the first time the role of cities as first receivers of migrants and refugees and agreed to strengthen cooperation with local authorities. They also committed to develop the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). Recognizing the opportunity, a group of global mayors seized upon the negotiation of the compacts to lead from the front and push for bold, ambitious goals to be included in the final drafts, often ahead of their national governments’ positions. Their investment paid off: the priorities of cities and their vital role going forward is reflected in both compacts. Within the GCM, for example, cities’ joint diplomacy safeguarded the fundamental issue of non-discriminatory access to services regardless of immigration status.
Upon the adoption of the compacts, mayors further demonstrated their commitment by endorsing the Marrakech Mayors Declaration on “Cities Working Together for Migrants and Refugees,” pledging to advance the principles and objectives of the compacts, to continue to participate internationally, and to take direct action within their communities to improve the lives of migrants and refugees.Critically, mayors agreed it was essential to advance both compacts in unison rather than addressing migrants and refugees as fundamentally separate populations requiring entirely different structures, as the international system continues to do. Moving beyond the siloes, mayors and cities are addressing the realities of people within their communities and making the goals of the compacts a reality.
To support this reality on the ground, the Mayors Migration Council established the Global Cities Fund (GCF) in collaboration with the IOM, UCLG, UN-Habitat, and UNHCR as a response to the unmet needs of cities as they support migrants, refugees, and IDPs in the face of Covid-19. By directly funding cities to implement inclusive response and recovery programs of their own design, the GCF builds precedents of fiscal feasibility in city governments within low-to-middle-income countries that are often disregarded by donors with low tolerance of risk, despite these cities’ tremendous efforts in protecting migrant and displaced residents.
The GCF has nearly doubled in size since 2020 and now provides nine cities with financial and technical support to meet the needs of thousands of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people.13 For example, the Municipality of Beirut is piloting its first municipal mobile health clinic to respond to the urgent health needs of refugees and migrants in marginalised areas of the city. As Beirut’s Mayor Jamal Itani has said, “the needs are far too great for us to meet alone, and it is partnerships such as the ones with the Mayors Migration Council and UN-Habitat that enable us to serve every resident of Beirut equally.” The Global Cities Fund project prospectus elevates 20 other mayors looking for international partnerships.
Partnership as a resource
While we have made progress, international support to local leadership on issues of urban migration and displacement remains outside of the norm. As one representative of Mogadishu, Somalia, recently told me:
the mistrust of city governments has prevented us from improving our capacity for financial management and service delivery. Until we have the resources to demonstrate and improve our capacity, city governments will continue to play a peripheral role in our core mandate of serving all our residents, regardless of status.
One resource too often overlooked is partnership. While financial and technical resources are crucial to programmatic success, partnership is the resource that brings these other resources down to the local level and leverages them for impactful and lasting success. The problem is that partnership is too often only shared between international and national actors and too infrequently shared with cities.
Not only are mayors and city governments willing to create inclusive plans, policies, and programmes on the ground, but they are willing to use their experiences and leadership to guide international governance and drive a global agenda of inclusivity. The evidence is clear: working with mayors as partners, not around them, leads to more effective, scalable, and long-lasting responses to migration and displacement in cities. Now we must act on it.