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The climate crisis is rapidly becoming a key driver of human mobility. According to the World Bank, by 2050, climate impacts could force more than 216 million people to move within their countries in just six regions. Globally, it is estimated that over one billion people are at risk of being driven from their homes for climate-related reasons within the next 30 years.
It is likely that many of these journeys will involve cities, which are already the primary destination of international and internal migrants and home to 70 percent of the world’s refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and stateless people.
Discussions on preparing for this unprecedented level of urban migration and displacement tend to focus on tangible actions that yield clear outcomes, such as creating jobs, increasing housing stocks, and augmenting social service delivery systems. For example, the World Bank’s 2021 Groundswell report on acting on internal climate migration argues for “diversified livelihoods that are not tied to climate-sensitive sectors” and “putting in place effective land administration systems that provide security of tenure, reduce informal tenure, and recognize customary land practices, as well as help manage appropriate land uses.” While these tangible actions are crucial to preparing for urban migration and displacement, central to their success is a somewhat less tangible concept: peacebuilding.
As the Groundswell report rightly states, “peace and stability are inextricably linked with resilient livelihoods, sustainable natural resource management, and food security.” Increases in already dense urban populations will not only create a need for more jobs and housing, but will also create fractures within the social stability that acts as a necessary foundation to urban life and the coexistence of diverse communities.
The fractures are already happening. In 2017, a systematic review of the drivers of violence against urban displaced found that “it is clear that urban displaced are exposed to drivers of violence unique to urban areas.” The review identified economic strain, the inability to meet basic food and shelter needs, lack of legal protections, and broad discrimination against refugees and IDP populations as examples of challenges specific to displaced populations in urban areas that contribute to the violence they experience. The review also found that there is limited evidence on effective measures to combat violence and build peace between receiving communities and their new neighbors.
A useful starting point for peacebuilding in cities among migrant, displaced, and receiving communities is social cohesion. Social cohesion is often defined as the relationships between individuals and groups in a particular environment (horizontal social cohesion) and between those individuals and groups and the actors that govern that environment (vertical social cohesion).
To clearly articulate the benefits of social cohesion, I often discuss social cohesion vis-à-vis social tension. While the benefits of social cohesion are difficult to visualize, social tension means a mother keeping her child home for school for fear of bullying, a stranger being violently attacked on the street for having darker skin, or an employee being physically abused on the job – all examples of social tension I have heard directly while researching urban displacement. In one hard-to-forget example from Dar es Salaam, a widow from Burkina Faso had her life threatened by her deceased Tanzanian husband’s family. Fearing for her own life, she asked me if I could take her two children –at risk of violence in their city of birth – back with me to America.
Social cohesion is the antidote to these acts of violence that result from social tension. But in my experience, urban practitioners too often focus on building horizontal social cohesion and not enough on building vertical social cohesion. There are many reasons for this imbalance, but one is that vertical social cohesion requires a level accountability on the part of city governments that is difficult to achieve, especially for diverse and growing populations. While shared football matches or culinary events highlighting the diversity of different cultures may be effective in building horizontal social cohesion, they are only half of the equation. To adequately prepare for future migration and displacement, city governments must play an active role in both fostering social cohesion between diverse communities (horizontal cohesion) and ensuring their own accountability to new arrivals (vertical cohesion).
In a policy note on migration and peace – building, the Swiss Platform for Peace – building argues that “peacebuilders can address migration in at least three areas: social cohesion, migration governance, and participation and inclusion.” Taking a step further, I argue that the meaningful participation and inclusion of migrants and refugees in city governance is an effective means to building social cohesion.
This is especially true in Latin America, one of the six regions estimated to see a drastic increase in urban migration and displacement. Ongoing research between the Mayors Migration Council, the Mixed Migration Centre, and the city govern – ments of Barranquilla, Colombia; Medellín, Colombia; and Mexico City, Mexico on the experiences of migrants and refugees in these three cities highlights the importan – ce of both horizontal and vertical cohesion. Though incomplete, a minimum of 30 per – cent of 408 research participants reported feeling discriminated against in their new cities, while a minimum of 59 percent re – ported feeling that their opinions regarding the functioning of the neighborhood or their city are not considered.
While incomplete, the research gives ear – ly indication that exclusion may be just as important a focus area as discrimination. When building cohesive, peaceful cities, city governments must address discrimination while at the same time creating opportunities for migrants and displaced people to meaningfully participate in city governance.
Take São Paulo, Brazil, for example. In 2017, the late Mayor Bruno Covas – a founding member of the Mayors Migration Council – established the Municipal Council of Immigrants and Refugees, which gives migrants and refugees the opportunity to participate in political actions at the city level even though they do not have the right to vote in Brazilian elections. The Council contributed to and endorsed São Paulo’s Municipal Plan of Public Policies for Refugees and Migrants, which includes a goal focused on achieving full social cohesion within Sao Paulo society. The Council itself plays a role in measuring progress towards this goal. As Mayor Covas said, “immgrants’ political participation is fundamental to building a truly universal citizenship.”
Another example is Lima, Peru. With support from the Mayors Migration Council’s Global Cities Fund, the Municipality of Lima established a new Municipal Office of Service to Migrant Neighbors in the Cercado de Lima district, which serves as a gateway for newcomers into the city. The new center offers the district’s residents and workers a suite of services related to employability, health, and case management for women at risk of gender-based violence, among other services. At the same time, the project promotes healthy interaction between long-standing residents of Lima and their new neighbors through intercultural activities within public urban spaces. As part of the project, the city established a team of Venezuelan and Peruvian community mobilizers to drive an awareness campaign combating street harassment between migrant and receiving communities. The city also formally registered seven migrant and refugee-led organizations to participate in project implementation, actively creating a role for migrant and refugee communities in city government activities. While limited to the Cercado de Lima district, the project serves as a promising example of building both horizontal and vertical social cohesion that the city hopes to replicate in other districts, especially amidst rising xenophobia in the capital city.
The evidence from these examples has yet to play out, but the early returns are promising. City officials in Cercado de Lima report seeing improved collaboration between Venezuelan and Peruvian communities alongside a reduction in violence and xenophobia. Anecdotally, a recent music competition hosted by the city resulted in residents voting for a Venezuelan winner. While city officials can’t directly attribute this success to their peacebuilding efforts, they believe it’s a small story that indicates a bigger trend throughout Lima.
Time will tell how effective these measures are. Peacebuilding in cities is a long game that is notoriously difficult to measure, but it starts with creating opportunities for everyone to play a part, including migrant and displaced communities.