Migration is a driver of city growth.

In 1950, over 70 per cent of the world’s population lived in rural settlements and less than 30 per cent in urban settlements. By 2050, 67 per cent of people are projected to live in urban areas. Most of the growth will take place in low- and middle-income countries, in secondary cities that already face high poverty rates and deficits in the provision of public services. 

Migration will be a major driver of this growth. Cities are the first point of entry for most migrants seeking work and shelter, and it is in cities where these migrants will attempt to integrate into existing settlements and realise their aspirations for a better life.

Already, the vast majority of migrants – both voluntary and forced – are found in cities. Voluntary migrants are attracted by the expectation of better economic opportunities, infrastructure, and services, while forced migrants hope to find safety and livelihoods after being displaced by conflict or natural disasters. 

Whether they do so, or live excluded from opportunities in the city, depends on how a city responds to migration. It also depends on the city’s ability to develop practical solutions that take into account how migration transforms, expands and diversifies urban areas. This is a complex task, as solutions and policy approaches to migration often need to be found in very difficult circumstances. 


Supporting cities to proactively manage migration

Typically, those cities experiencing the greatest impact from migration – including the cities in which Cities Alliance works – are often overwhelmed and unprepared to absorb the growing number of migrants. The result is that most urban growth is informal and unplanned, leaving migrants, host communities and their families with limited access to housing, employment, health care, education and social support systems. The situation can also lead to tensions between new migrants and the existing, settled population over access to services and economic opportunities.

Large or sudden inflows of migrants to cities are especially challenging for middle- and low-income cities. If not managed proactively, the rapid pace of urbanisation puts pressure on the infrastructure and the economic and social fabric of a city. In many cases, local and national governments can only cope with the consequences of urbanisation and have limited mandate and resources to plan proactively. 

Consequently, a negative tone often dominates the narrative on migration to cities that portrays migrants as responsible for overcrowding, congestion, increasing exposure to hazards, and shortfalls in basic infrastructure, services and livelihoods (IOM, 2015). 

If managed proactively, however, migrants can contribute to the city economy as employees, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and consumers. They can also benefit their places of origin through social and financial remittances.


Informing and crafting a city-focused response to migration

Currently, policy responses to migration are typically developed at the national level, and cities have limited authority or means to manage migration flows to urban centres. With the changing dynamics of migration, a new approach is needed that puts cities at the centre.

Cities need initiatives, policies, and governance that can foster labour mobility while providing labour migrants – and host communities – with the right and capacity to fully benefit from the city’s services and opportunities.  With such a framework in place, migration inflows can promote inclusive economic growth. The challenge for cities is how to create such a framework.
Recent global agreements have recognised the role of cities in development and the need to address migration, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. These agreements provide an opportunity for cities and their development partners to better understand the issue of migration, explore new solutions, and inform advanced urban migration programmes and policies. 

Cities and Migration at a Glance

There are nearly one billion migrants in the world today. 258 million are international migrants (UN DESA, 2017) and 740 million are internal migrants (UNDP, 2009). 

65.3 million are forced migrants (UNHCR, 2016); of these, 40.8 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 21.3 million were refugees in 2015. 

Globally, it is estimated that three million people move to cities every week (IOM, 2015b)

Over 60% of the world’s refugees and 80% of IDPs live in urban environments. 

Migrants contributed about USD 6.7 trillion (9.4 per cent) to the global GDP in 2015 (McKinsey, 2016).

More than half of global migrants are women. (UN GA, 2016)