Author: Colleen Thouez
Guest-editor: Elaine Lebon-McGregor
This article describes the ascension of cities as key actors in global cooperation, and their related impact in shaping the global governance of migration. Over the last decade, cities have begun to mobilize strategically through greater trans-networking efforts in order to secure their representation in global decision-making circles; to inform policies such that these better reflect local realities; and to advocate for direct access to resources to implement their goals. One important outcome of these efforts is mayors’ successful advocacy in 2018 for a clause on ‘non-discriminatory access’ to public health services within the UN Global Compact for Migration (GCM). Mayors’ insistence on non-discriminatory treatment of all city residents was right and prescient in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and is further evidence of the critical need to elevate local leadership within national and global policy-making and governance.
The Rise of Cities
In today’s world we have concrete evidence of the ascent of cities as international actors. Cities are where economic and demographic influence reside; they are where innovation is more likely to take place; and they are where leadership can potentially solve international cooperation challenges at a pace and in ways that the inter-state system carries neither the flexibility nor same incentives to pursue. As the level of government most directly accountable to its residents, mayors and local authorities have the impetus to act and offer solutions, and are claiming their say in matters affecting their communities. The Covid era has elevated the pivotal role of local leadership in coordinating response, public health service delivery, and community outreach.
With its origins in the global city thesis, there is a growing body of work focused on an emerging ‘global urban governance’ across various, and increasingly intersecting, policy domains. Cities present themselves as problem solvers in a complex ‘international society’ in which the static and territorially constrained nation-state is no longer king. Some have famously suggested that mayors should replace statesmen brokering inter-state relationships and leading international cooperation across borders. Indeed, there are examples now of dedicated units within national governments that prop up city diplomacy between nations.
Cities and Migration Governance
In the field of migration governance, the importance of cities and migration cast in its broadest terms, rests on three factors: contextual – more migrants, both internal and international, are going to cities; political – a growing level of autonomy for city action is slowly emerging in most world regions; and participatory – populations tend to identify and to feel a closer affinity to their local surroundingsi. The recognition of city agency is influencing global migration governance as cities strategically mobilize for transnational political influence and succeed in shaping new global norms.
Cities’ greater participation on the global stage is buttressed by inter-city networks, what Acuto and Leffel describe as global urban governance: “in a time of uncertain national politics and shifting global markets, the horizon of city leadership is now one that extends beyond boundaries, continents and geopolitical divides.”. An estimated 300 inter-city networks, groupings of city administrations that organize nationally and globally to mobilize political and financial support, shape global agendas and disseminate good practice and urban innovation in a variety of policy areas. In the field of migration, there a number of global inter-city networks, some piggybacking on older city networks that now also cover migration (e.g. the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group). The largest number of networks is still regional (e.g. EuroCities in Europe) with the majority in Europe and North America but noticeably fewer dedicated to Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America.
United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY July 2019, photo provided by author
Such networks have evolved from knowledge sharing and other standard network practices, to more systems-changing objectives. Three recent examples are: (i) ensuring that cities’ voices are represented in inter-state deliberations, which is now the case within, for instance, the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD); (ii) direct funding from the multilateral system for cities as is the case with the UN multi-donor trust fund in which the Mayors Migration Council (MMC) advocates for cities; and (iii) through direct representation by cities when national governments withdraw from processes of international cooperation, as occurred during the negotiations of the GCM in 2018.
Oomen has described the range of functions provided by city networks as: (i) practical, (ii) symbolic, and (iii) jurisgenerative. From practical or instrumental and explicit information sharing; to more implicit, symbolic activities like showcasing, storytelling and even shaming national governments; to jurisgenerative, characterized as the most powerful of functions, by which networks succeed in changing policies and creating norms at national/regional/global levels that are more reflective of local needs, and through which “the interplay between the global and the local works toward the mutual constitution of normative frameworks.”
Cities are indeed pressing for meaningful participation in global deliberations, not as figure heads but as driven advocates such that international legislation reflect the challenges they face on the ground. An important such success was during the negotiations of the GCM in 2018, when cities from across the world mobilized to deliberate on common positions and communicate those positions to UN Member States and to the UN leadership. A central feature for cities’ advocacy around the GCM was to ensure the delivery of services to migrants regardless of migration status. The issue of rights of documented migrants vs. rights of undocumented migrants was one of the most controversial for UN Member States, with the EU, China, Australia, and others contending that migrants in an irregular status should not have access to basic services.
This issue principally concerns distinguishing how to address the needs of ‘migrants in vulnerable situations’ from those of asylum-seekers and refugees. In the absence of policy alignment, cities often struggle to navigate competing demands for immigration enforcement, on the one hand, and the responsibility to guarantee basic services and uphold fundamental rights, on the other. A growing number of mayors have insisted that they cannot distinguish between people in their cities based on their immigration status. Once in the jurisdiction of the city, mayors highlight the disjunctive effects of treating migrants in vulnerable situations (such as undocumented migrants) by different standards than those who are entitled to international protection.
In the end, cities successfully managed to introduce language in the GCM that calls for facilitating ‘non-discriminatory access’ to health services (Objective 15 (e)) and to public education (Objective 15 (f)) (United Nations General Assembly 2018). This ‘win’ could well translate over time into a norm of ‘non-discriminatory access (to public services regardless of legal status)’. Cities’ collective wisdom was prescient when taking into account today’s context: Faced with a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, it is evident that policies that would only vaccinate those with legal status would constitute an utter failure in stopping its propagation, not to mention associated humanitarian imperatives.
Conclusion: Impacts and Future Trends
A handful of national governments have publicly stated their support for cities’ ‘self-representation’ on the international stage. This is due to a growing recognition that local knowledge must inform global policy making, and as a result of cities’ more active and strategic mobilization on key transnational policy issues like migration. Cities are more deliberatively and consistently supported as allies of national governments in forging new channels of cooperation across national borders and amongst their peoples. For instance, the Government of Switzerland proposed cities’ participation in national delegations in the negotiations of the GCM, and the Mayors Mechanism was established within the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) with the political support of the Governments of Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Morocco, and Switzerland.
There is also greater recognition that to act, cities must be able to ‘self-support’. At the UN Conference of Parties (COP) 26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November 2021, important headway was made in securing direct access to financing for cities from the international system (financial institutions, national development agencies and private lenders). The impacts of Covid have made this a priority given declines of 15–25% in local government revenues in 2020, and as much as a 30–65% in local finances in certain African localities. As cities substantiate their competencies in the migration policy sphere as local actors, but also as international actors, in their own right, so too do they call for greater agency in acquiring resources – independent of the national state – in order to execute these new competencies.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that more agency for city leadership can be politically risky. This is particularly true in national contexts that are hostile to local leadership due to political rivalries and/or corruption where the delivery of good governance is manifestly not the first concern of the national government. As is the case for bold political action of any kind, it is useful to draw from the strength of numbers. Networks, trans-regional alliances, multi-stakeholder partnerships with independent funding – can all help support bold and innovative governance at the local level.
Colleen Thouez is senior fellow at the New School’s Zolberg Institute, where she directs the Global Cities portfolio. She is also senior visiting fellow at SciencesPo Paris where she advises French cities, and the Africa-Europe Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity. As the inaugural director of the Welcoming and Inclusive Cities Division at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), she conceived the Africa-Europe Mayors Dialogue (2020), the Mayors Migration Council and Global Cities Fund (2019), and the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants (2018). In 2021, she was appointed by the National Association of (University) System Heads, to assist in securing housing and sponsorship for recently arrived Afghan families on university campuses across the US. Dr. Thouez previously served for 17 years at the United Nations in leadership positions in the dual fields of adult education and international migration. She continues to advise national governments, municipal governments, regional bodies, and UNHCR, IOM, the World Bank, amongst others. Her most recent publications are “New power configurations: city mobilization and policy change” (2022, forthcoming) in Global Networks; and “Cities as emergent international actors in the field of migration” (2020), Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations. She is Canadian and French, and the mother of three.
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