Migration: Cities at the Forefront

There are an estimated 59,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently in Greece. Many have made sites and streets within the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki their waiting rooms and a percentage of them will make Greece their permanent home. Whether or not they will remain in the country depends in part on national and European policy. But the cities are where this story will play out. It’s also where the greatest challenges and opportunities are.

The refugees and asylum seekers in Athens and Thessaloniki are part of a global trend: forcibly displaced populations are migrating to cities. While the humanitarian sector is turning its focus to adapting aid to better suit the 60% of refugees residing in cities around the worldtoo little attention is given to strategies cities themselves can take, particularly given that it is their communities, services, and systems that bear the greatest burden.

Chief Resilience Officers, migration experts and partners visit Victoria Square, a site where the crisis is well-documented in Athens, and the Athens Relocation Project, a program aimed at resettling refugees into apartments throughout the city.

In Athens alone there are 9,000 refugees and asylum seekers relying on city services and Athenian empathy, while Athenians themselves struggle with a 27% Greek unemployment rate, 65% among youth. As Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs, said, “we are being asked to do more with less.” These problems are magnified in cities such as Amman, which is currently host to over 170,000 refugees, many having fled the deadly conflict in Syria.

Despite these struggles, there is a growing body of evidence that welcoming migrant populations can benefit a city’s cultural diversity, economic well-being, and overall resilience. This is in large part due to the inherent resilience of refugees: people who have the courage, resourcefulness, and determination to leave their homes and endure traumatic journeys for the hope – and uncertainty – of a better future.

Yet refugees are only one side of the equation. They can only benefit cities that are willing to welcome them and have the vision to treat refugee populations as an asset rather than a burden.

For refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, Athens and Thessaloniki are two such cities. As Eleni Myrivili, the Chief Resilience Officer for the Municipality of Athens, said, “Athens is in a dress rehearsal for the types of migration crises cities will have to deal with in much more intense circumstances in the decades to come. Cities are increasingly at the forefront of migration, and therefore should be at the forefront of integration solutions.”

The 100 Resilient Cities Network Exchange on Migration was meant to explore solutions that best meet the needs of migrant populations in a manner that enhances the overall resilience of their new home cities. Bringing together Chief Resilience Officers of the migrant-hosting cities of Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris, Ramallah, Amman, Montreal, Medellin, and Los Angeles – along with experts from organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, the International Organization for Migration, and Welcoming America – the Exchange highlighted both the importance of using a resilience lens to achieve meaningful integration and how cities must lead the way.

Network Exchange participants discuss learnings and ideas for tackling migration in their cities.

While a forthcoming handbook will provide in-depth guidance on specific strategies cities and their partners can take to achieve resilience, high-level strategies discussed during the Exchange included:

  • The importance of establishing meaningful dialogue between national and local actors to ensure that national policies best reflect the realities on the ground while limiting the frequency of policy shifts.
  • Pursuing an integrated approach to integration, especially as it pertains to infrastructure, economic inclusion, and social cohesion and the inter-relation of these themes. This means recognizing that just as there is no one solution to city resilience, neither is there one solution to achieving long-term integration. Applying a resilience framework to integration is therefore crucial to ensure that new communities are not only welcomed, but contribute to the resilience of their new homes in diverse and beneficial ways.
  • As early as possible, doing away with the mindset that refugee populations are “temporary.” This mindset often leads to inadequate solutions that can perpetuate divisions between migrant and host populations. Even if refugee populations are indeed temporary, treating them as such does both the refugees and the host community a disservice and ignores the reality that refugees today are displaced for well over a decade.
  • Recognizing that integration is a two-way street. Solutions should provide opportunities for the incoming population while at the same time create a welcoming environment for them. For example, UNCHR’s new accommodation scheme, which temporarily places refugees approved for relocation in city housing in Athens or Thessaloniki, should also consider engagement with these refugee’s new neighbors and neighborhoods.

While NGOs such as my own certainly play a pivotal role in integrating refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in cities as varied as Washington D.C or Nairobi, the onus is on city leadership to take the lead on creating welcoming, resilient cities in the long-term. The IRC’s work resettling refugees, asylum seekers, and New Americans in the United States, for example, works with 29 cities across the country (Los Angeles among them) in finding these populations welcoming homes.

Meanwhile, the IRC’s Greece office is actively engaging with the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki in order to move from crisis response to urban integration. The aim, therefore, should be to to identify those integration solutions that are best implemented by cities and their partners – be they NGOs, civil society organizations, or the private sector. The CROs of Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris, Ramallah, Amman, Montreal, Medellin, and Los Angeles are committed to this approach and to providing the necessary leadership to shift from short-term crisis response to long-term resilience building. Thessaloniki CRO Lina Liakou, for example, is now looking for ways to incorporate new migrant community travel and economic patterns into current planning discussions underway in her city.

As these cities – and countless others around the world – have shown, it’s easy to provide a welcome mat. It takes leadership to provide a welcome home.