Why mayors matter in the migration equation

November 25, 2019

A woman walks past a house that was heavily shelled in the nearby town of Slovyansk. An estimated 1.4 million people have been displaced by the war. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine / Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

Cities are at the centre of global mobility. Approximately one in five of today’s 272 million international migrants are estimated to live in just 20 cities. In some countries, such as China, Thailand and Rwanda, rural-to-urban migration accounts for more than half of the urban growth.

Cities and municipalities of different sizes are also host to many of the 70 million forcibly displaced people: the refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced. Projections show that these numbers are unlikely to change in the coming decades.

At the forefront of welcoming refugees and migrants, mayors and municipal authorities are largely responsible for ensuring their communities can adapt and maintaining services for all.

Faced with a sudden influx of newcomers, mayors must find quick solutions to problems that, if not addressed, can affect their communities’ well-being: how to arrange schooling for children, provide health care and jobs, manage water supplies and waste, and importantly, how to maintain harmony and minimise friction between newcomers and local populations.

Where national governments may be pressured to approach migration and displacement in terms of border control, municipalities are by circumstance pushed to engage in open discussions and pragmatic solutions to this global challenge.

Sene is one of many strong and hard-working women who had to mobilize all the skills and competencies they have to build a new life in Turkey. She fled from Hama, Syria, 5 years ago and now lives in Şanlıurfa with her family. Photo: Gözde Dogan / UNDP Turkey

So what puts mayors and municipalities at the heart of action when it comes to dealing with migration and displacement?

  • Mayors sit  at the level where people’s interaction with public institutions is vital and has the most potential for change. There can be no sustainable development or lasting peace without a social contract and trust deeply rooted in local communities. Mayors and local leaders are well placed to take a stand against inequality and work to ensure affordable, fair and inclusive services for all, including for migrants and refugees. When working on new approaches to managing migration and displacement, local communities can act as laboratories for testing solutions – indeed, many mayors and leaders are increasingly collaborating nationally and across borders, learning from each other and adapting new ideas on how to empower community-based organisations and civil society, develop partnerships with private sector and academia and promote local knowledge.
  • Global challenges to peace, equality, democracy and environmental sustainability reverberate at all levels, creating fear and anxiety. In an age where migration seems to be the big threat on everyone’s mind, local leaders have an important role in taking down stigmatising and polarising narratives, and in promoting a rights-based approach and intercultural dialogue.
  • Local authorities have direct access to their affected populations and are better able to gather evidence to change stereotypes and test assumptions around the issue of migration, starting with the voices of migrants and refugees themselves. Exploring the motivations and expectations of both newcomers and local populations can lead to better and more targeted solutions.


Giving voice to the voiceless was the premise of the recently launched UNDP report “Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe”. The study interviewed nearly 2000 men and women who migrated through irregular channels from 39 African countries to Europe, most of them residing in European cities. Going to the source itself, the study yielded some unexpected results.

Contrary to assumptions of the poor and jobless taking the journey, respondents were on average more educated than their peers and already had a job back home. Interestingly, while 70 percent of respondents said they wanted to live permanently in Europe, more of those earning, sending money back home and with a legal right to work were willing to leave Europe. Having ‘made it’ appeared to yield higher confidence and readiness to return home, with ‘mission accomplished’.

That is also to say that we need forward-looking policies that are attuned to different scenarios – to circular migration, and to the substantial increase in the number of people on the move in the years and decades to come.

This is where partnerships between cities and strengthening municipal networks has an important role in amplifying local diplomacy.

One cannot deny that mayors and municipal leaders have been able to collaborate internationally where national governments have not, and need to be supported in their leadership to advance new systemic approaches to migration. Yet more needs to be done to engage municipalities beyond the larger and politically progressive cities to fulfil this promise.

This week, mayors from around the world, as well as private sector and development organisations will gather at the Municipal Forum 2019 to showcase and exchange good practices, facilitate city-level partnerships, and contribute to the existing networks of relevant actors in the migration and displacement contexts.