Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Cities are key to regional migration solutions, but we must invest in them to succeed

The first Cities Summit of the Americas is an ideal opportunity to highlight the benefit of city-led solutions to migration.

The first Cities Summit of the Americas is an ideal opportunity to highlight the benefit of city-led solutions to migration. Image: Unsplash/Dawin Rizzo

Jaime Pumarejo
Mayor, City of Barranquilla
Vittoria Zanuso
Executive Director, Mayors Migration Council
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation

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  • Seven in 10 of the world's refugees move to cities in pursuit of employment and a safe place to call home.
  • Cities such as Barranquilla are using funding from the Mayors Migration Council to connect newcomers to jobs.
  • The first Cities Summit of the Americas is an ideal opportunity to highlight the benefit of city-led solutions to migration.

Most of the world’s migrants and refugees move to cities in pursuit of employment and a safe place to call home.

Mayors across the globe understand that migration isn’t a crisis to be solved, but rather an opportunity to unlock the potential of newcomers to contribute to the economic, civic and cultural life of their cities.

While national governments debate border and visa regimes, the world's mayors are creating investment-ready projects for migrant and refugee inclusion.

Last June, US President Joe Biden and 20 other leaders from the Americas signed a new deal promising a more cooperative approach to regional migration and new investments in migrant inclusion – the LA Declaration on Migration and Protection.

Now, the Biden-Harris administration in the US is bringing mayors from across the western hemisphere to the first-ever Cities Summit of the Americas to share city-led solutions on everything from migration, to climate change, to global health.

The Mayors Migration Council, a global coalition of mayors accelerating action on migration and displacement, and the Colombian city of Barranquilla will be at the Cities Summit of the Americas with one simple statement – that providing direct financial assistance to cities can significantly improve migration outcomes.

Cities have a direct impact on migrant inclusion and economic empowerment

In 2021, Barranquilla was an inaugural grantee of the Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees (GCF) – the Mayors Migration Council's instrument to channel international funding directly to cities to implement inclusive programmes of their own design.

With a small incubation grant of $174,000, Barranquilla expanded the city’s existing Opportunities Center to Venezuelan and other migrant populations, connecting more than 100 migrants and refugees to formal jobs, and identifying more than 6,000 migrants and refugees in need of jobs.

Using this as a proof of concept, the Mayor’s Office of Barranquilla unlocked an additional $2 million from international philanthropic donors to expand the city’s services and meet the needs of the thousands of migrants identified in the pilot phase.

Barranquilla is not alone in creating innovative city-led solutions for migrant inclusion in Colombia. Medellín secured a GCF grant to provide emergency shelter for more than 300 migrant and refugee families at risk of homelessness.

The city coupled this emergency intervention with complementary programmes to register migrants, get kids into local schools, and secure formal jobs for parents. With this comprehensive support, more than 75% of participating families found more permanent housing in the city. Medellín is now independently securing over more than $1 million to keep this project going.

These types of city-designed and city-owned solutions can have a greater impact at a lower cost than international NGOs, while strengthening local capacity and engaging affected communities directly. But too often cities have limited access to the flexible funding needed to start programmes.

Cities face systemic barriers to finance to bring migrant inclusion to scale

Despite cities' proven track record of success in responding to migration, securing financial assistance is a major barrier to city action for migrants and refugees, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

National government cash transfers to cities are often highly restricted, limiting cities’ ability to innovate and include migrants and refugees in programming. In low income countries, nearly 80% of national government cash transfers to cities are restricted in how the money can be used.

Internationally, most financial investment institutions require national sovereign guarantees or high levels of creditworthiness that cities rarely have. Just 4% of the 500 largest cities in developing countries are classified as creditworthy, restricting cities' ability to prepare projects that are attractive for international investors.

The GCF is a model of what is possible if cities can access international funding. Since it launched in 2021, the GCF has grown from one to five donors, from $1 million to $8 million, and from five to more than 25 city grantees, helping thousands of people around the world.

More than 75% of GCF projects have continued after the Mayors Migration Council seed grant, either through own-source city revenue or independent follow-on donations.

While $8 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the needs of migrants and refugees, there is a growing consensus that channeling money directly to city governments is an effective new way to unleash their most innovative ideas and demonstrate the immense potential of local action on a global scale.

This growing consensus includes Senator Bob Menéndez who called for the US government and development banks to fund city-led migrant inclusion in the Americas in his April 18 plan for immediate immigration actions President Biden should take.

Mayors are ready and able to respond to the needs of migrants and create opportunity for all in our communities, but they cannot do it without resources backing them up.

As the US government looks for regional migration solutions at the Cities Summit of the Americas, the answer is clear – unlock more international resources for more cities to support more migrants and refugees.

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