Khalid Koser: Cities and the Case for Migration

July 28th, 2014

citiesofmigration-day1-5838Khalid Koser is Deputy Director and Academic Dean, Geneva Centre for Security Policy. This article has been adapted from  his keynote speech on Cities and the Case for Migration at the 2014 Cities of Migration Conference in Berlin on June 5.

The Cities of Migration Conference stands out for at least three reasons.

First, it provides focus – today and tomorrow on cities. Too many migration events are too general, and narrowing our focus is important if we want to go beyond a talking-shop and actually try to achieve something.

Second is its sense of purpose. The program is interactive and solutions-oriented.

Third, I am impressed by how inclusive this meeting is. Bringing together a wide range of stakeholders, from government, civil society, the business sector and so on is the best way to generate new ideas. And I think it is important that our discussion here is not exclusively about rich cities, or the urban elite, or highly-skilled migration alone.

What frustrates me most about the migration debate today is a lack of vision, and I hope that our deliberations at this meeting can be visionary.

Because make no mistake, new thinking is required. This meeting takes place in the heart of a continent where migration has become a toxic issue. Governments have failed to make the case for migration in Europe, and allowed far right parties to hijack the debate. Migrants continue to die in deserts and drown in the sea in their efforts to come here for protection or to work. Governments are increasingly securitizing migration, with the risk that this will legitimize and normalize extraordinary responses. The international community has become gridlocked by 60 year old mandates and institutional rivalries.

The theme of my presentation, and I think of this meeting, is that cities have the potential to make a difference – to the discourse on migration, to migration policy, and to the lives of migrants themselves – and not just in cities, but globally.

Cities represent the best and worst of migration: migrant entrepreneurs and migrant exploitation; innovative migrants and irregular migrants; diversity and discrimination; hope and hatred.

Faced with these extremes of the migrant experience, cities again and again have been able to move the needle from negative to positive, from challenge to opportunity.

If cities in all their complexity can realize the potential of migration, then states, and the international community don’t have far to look for the success stories and best practices that can help generate a new approach.

But I would argue it is not just up to states and the international community to learn, it is also up to cities to teach. With rights come responsibilities. Cities have benefited from migration; it is time that migration benefited from them.

Policy areas for cities to pursue

Let m outline three policy areas in particular where I think cities can – and should – take the lead on making a difference.

The first is migration governance. We know that with very few exceptions governments struggle to manage migration. They need to resolve competing priorities; they are subject to public and media scrutiny; they are trapped by electoral cycles in short-term policy and planning.

There are also significant shortfalls in the global governance of migration. No dedicated UN agency; no consolidated legal framework; few binding agreements beyond the bilateral and regional levels.

It seems to me that cities are relatively unencumbered by some of the obstacles to governance that confront governments and the international community.

The most important is sovereignty. The main reason that states continue to try to manage on a unilateral basis what is by definition a transnational issue, is that migration strikes at the heart of sovereignty – identity, economic competitiveness, security.

In contrast cities can be – and are – more single-minded in their interaction with migration, and increasingly cities interact to manage migration at the city level.

A second policy area where cities are taking the lead – although more work is required – is on engaging the business sector.

One of my roles is to chair the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Migration, and our priority has been to engage businesses and governments in migration policy. This has not been easy. Government and business have different priorities; they speak different languages; they are trying to satisfy different stakeholders; they define success differently; and they work to different schedules.

At the city level, in contrast, the dialogue between business and mayors is much more fluent and effective. And one reason may be that unlike our national politicians, many local and city politicians have direct experience of working outside politics.

A third area where I look to cities to take a lead is on promoting an objective debate on migration.

Space for objective debate

One of my main concerns about migration today is that the space for a sensible, honest debate is shrinking. There is a polarization of views, between those at one end of the spectrum who champion migrants and those at the other end who demonize them.

Migrants open businesses and generate employment and wealth; but they also can be over-dependent on welfare. Migrants are on the whole hard-working tax payers; but some are criminals. Diversity excites some people; but it overwhelms other people. If we can’t have an open and critical debate on migration, then don’t be surprised that the media doesn’t.

And it seems to me that cities are best placed to convene this debate. You can find the entire spectrum of views within a few blocks in most cities. Cities have the venues and the community organizers. And whatever their perspectives on migration and migrants, city dwellers tend to be open to debate and exchange.

While states are building walls; cities are building bridges. While states are launching patrol boats; cities are launching ideas. While states are unilateral; cities are transnational.

Cities have a responsibility to promote good governance; engage the right stakeholders; and preserve the space for an objective debate.

Click below to watch Dr. Koser’s plenary speech in Berlin, June 5, 2014: 

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