Urban Thinkers Campus Series in partnership with UN-Habitat

Urban Thinkers Campus

Cities Alliance and UN-Habitat Series on

Forced Migration in Cities

Session 1: close-up on Latin America  



On 22 October 2020, Cities Alliance and UN-Habitat launched an Urban Thinkers Campus three-part series exploring Forced Migration in Cities. The first session focused on how Latin American cities are managing the impact of forced migration, with examples of policies and approaches that are working to integrate migrants into the social and economic fabric of the city.


The virtual “Campus” featured speakers from local authorities representing São Paulo (Brazil), Cucuta, Colombia, and Cuenca, Ecuador as well as Cities Alliance, UN-Habitat, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).


Migration and displacement are at historic levels in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), resulting in pressure on land, housing, and services. In recent years, some 5.5 million Venezuelans have migrated to cities throughout Latin America, in addition to an equally dynamic migration flow through Central America and Mexico to and from the United States and, even though in lesser extents, rural-urban migration. The COVID-19 pandemic is adding an additional layer of complexity, with closed boarders across the region, increased demand in health services and declining economies. COVID-19 has also put a spotlight on existing inequalities, across the regions and countries, but also within cities and with vulnerability levels increasing, due to loss of livelihoods and job, many migrants are being pushed into homelessness and precarious living conditions.  


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Speakers agreed that migration can be a positive force for cities and an economic, cultural and social asset. Partnerships and dialogue between different government levels, sectors and stakeholders (including civil society and private sector) are critical, and so is the need to look beyond migration as a humanitarian issue.  While cities have in many contexts taken the lead during the recent crisis, for including migrants in service provision, food distribution and housing/shelter solutions, cities need inclusive policy environments, tools and frameworks to integrate their migrant populations.

Anaclaudia Rossbach, Cities Alliance Regional Adviser for LAC, said that for cities to integrate migrants successfully, they need a national legal framework.

Migration can turn into an opportunity for cities, but we need to have an enabling environment. National laws need to recognize the rights of migrants to access social services, education services, economic opportunities, and housing. This is the main bottleneck we have in most of the countries in the Global South, Ms. Rossbach noted.


Elkin Velasquez, UN-Habitat Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, noted that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) already provide a framework for the socio-economic integration of migrants based on the right to the city. He stressed that interventions targeting migrants must be accompanied by support for the host communities to prevent xenophobia.  This approach also speeds up impact:

Every time we see an integrated package of policy support to migrants in hosting communities with an area-based perspective, meaning focusing on neighbourhoods and specific areas of cities, the positive impact comes faster. That we have measured, and we know from evidence, Mr. Velasquez said.

He highlighted UN-Habitat’s ability to bring different urban actors together for changing urban systems that improve the living conditions for all and foster social inclusion, with city leaders playing a crucial role.


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The city of Cucuta, Colombia is one example of a city on the frontline of migration. With high levels of poverty and unemployment, the city struggled to accommodate a large number of Venezuelans, who by now form around 18% of the city’s population. Juan Diego Peña, Deputy Social Development Officer for Cucuta, introduced the city’s development plan that incorporates migration with an emphasis on equity and social inclusion. Cucuta offers free courses and vocational training for both locals and migrants for enhancing self-reliance of people in vulnerable situations.

We have to change the narrative on migration. Migration can be seeds and we can harvest development, Mr Peña highlighted.


Fatima Fernandez, Project Officer at UCLG, noted that migration is a major item on the agendas for local governments, and as the representative of over 250,000 municipalities, UCLG is working to ensure that they have a voice in the global migration discussions, including global mechanisms such as the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMC), the UN Migration Network or the Global Refugee Forum.

Local governments not only deserve to be there but when they are there, they do change the conversation, about the dynamics about migrants but also what is needed to govern human mobility for the benefit of everyone, Ms. Fernandez said.


The city of Cuenca, Ecuador has taken action to integrate migrants through municipal legislation and public policies designed to integrate to migrants. Sofia Arce B, Director-General of International Relations and Cooperation for Cuenca, shared how the city’s Migrants House programme (Casa del Migrante) is linking migrants with care programmes and public-private entities to get them the needed services, even during COVID-19.


In the case of São Paulo, Brazil, local policy on migrants has helped shape a national policy. Patricia Dichtchekenian, Coordinator for the São Paulo Secretariat for Human Rights and Citizenship, said that São Paulo’s Municipal Law of 2016 provides public services to all, regardless of immigration or documentary status, and it became the model for Brazil’s National Migration Law of 2017. This is a good example of how local and national level laws influence each other and how to innovate local level solutions shape national legislation. The city has also established a municipal council for migrants to involve them in the political process, as migrants lack political rights. 


Nina Astfalck, Deputy Director for Cooperation of the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) in Honduras, shared the experiences of the Cities Alliance “Cities and Migration Programme” in Guatemala. In Amatitlán, the programme is helping the city capitalize on growth by integrating labour migration into city planning.  In San Marcos, it focuses on channelling remittances into formal savings; so far, US $700,000 in remittances have already been formalized out of a goal of US $2 million, although COVID-19 is expected to impact remittances.

This intervention shows that an area-based approach often suggests that cities take a look at migrants as residents with equal rights on their territory, irrespective of the migration status. That does not mean that specific protections are not considered and addressed, but it brings the agency of the migrants to the forefront and stresses the potential of migration for sustainable development, Ms. Astfalck underlined.


The session concluded with Ms. Rossbach stressing how knowledge exchange through communities of practice can be a strong tool for cities; even during the webinar, participants were connecting and requesting more information about the experiences presented. UN-Habitat’s focal point for migration and displacement, Stephanie Loose, who moderated the session underlined the importance of integrated approaches to the multi-layer challenges faced by cities for harnessing the positive impact on migration to urban areas.


Watch the recording of the event:



The second Urban Thinkers Campus session will focus on refugees and will take place on 12 November 2020. The third session, on 10 December, will put internally displaced people (IDPs) in the centre.