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Local Narratives on Migrant Integration: Cities' Strategies Could Gain Momentum after COVID

Global Insight by Anna Piccinni
A medical tent at a migrant camp in Mexico during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light an opportunity for moving societies towards inclusion and social cohesion, rather than xenophobia.

As movement has been restricted worldwide1 due to COVID-19, cities along new and existing migration routes re-confirmed their essential role in responding to migrants’ most immediate needs—as well as their long-term integration paths. Between the end of April and early May 2020, the Manila Metropolitan area provided for the immediate return and quarantine of 2000 Filipino nationals returning every day as they lost employment options and income sources in their countries of residence. In Ciudad Juárez, authorities found solutions to meet the immediate shelter and protection needs of an increased number of asylum-seekers as the United States–Mexico border closed. In the coming months, local communication will merit special attention as a key tool to combat discrimination and turn the COVID-19 challenge into an opportunity for moving societies towards inclusion and social cohesion, rather than xenophobia. 

The vast differences in the presence of migrant populations and their social and economic impact across metropolitan and non-metropolitan regions matter. OECD, Working together for local integration of migrant and refugees, 2018). Differences in the social, economic, and health status of migrant groups are high according to where they live. For instance, the income gap between migrants and native-born is particularly pronounced in urban (densely populated) areas. Relative housing conditions, which directly affect individuals’ well-being, are worse for migrants in urban areas, too. The perception of the role played by migrants in society can vary in different types of regions. Migrants are more likely to be seen as providing an important contribution to the local economy in regions with larger migrant communities and with lower unemployment rates of native-born population. The pandemic has not only highlighted these asymmetries, but also according to the contribution of migrants to the local economy, drew attention on how migrant support our globalized economy. 

Cities are increasingly aware of the need to invest in local integration and raise their voices in international fora to advocate against exclusionary policies and for migrants’ access to services. Local leaders might have now an occasion to influence the impact migration will have in their territories by investing in local policies for inclusion and by shifting public perception through their communication. A recent More in Common polling reveals the strong unifying sentiment that the pandemic created with 90% of Americans interviewed feeling we are all in this together and 82% say we have more in common than divides us.

They can start by building on existing local migration narratives, including:

Protect the invisible and actively combat xenophobia

The virus has shown that having migrant groups living at the margin of local communities is not only a violation of their rights, but also detrimental to public health. Having invisible groups that can neither be tested nor treated represents a risk for the entire community and is incompatible with the need for tracing the population. This realization and the direct need for migrant workers in critical sectors of the economy induced several governments (e.g. PortugalItaly) to discuss how to grant residence permits to irregular migrants or those who had pending applications. Local authorities reached out to migrants and to the invisible by providing information on the virus in several languages and experimenting with different channels such as WhatsApp (Vienna, Altena, Uppsala, etc), audio recordings (Catalunia), and webcasts (Skane). In addition, to contrast the increase in discriminatory acts against people of foreign ethnic background, many local governments have reinforced existing initiatives against racism and started campaigns to spread factual information. For instance, within the last several years Barcelona, as well as other Spanish municipalities, has trained municipal staff and members of civil society in techniques to deter rumors on the negative effects of migrants’ presence in the city Anti-Rumour Strategy.

Emphasize our globalized economies depend on migrants

As the crisis unfolds, many sectors would collapse without migrants working as doctors, nurses (see infographic below on the share of immigrants among health-care workers), riders, supermarket employees, or agricultural workers. Increased public awareness of migrants’ contribution to society could lower the trade-offs that policy leaders usually face when publicly communicating about migrants. As cities develop local recovery strategies, they might be more willing to include long-term objectives related to supporting and including migrants into official strategic documents and formally acknowledge their contribution to society. 

Past experience can also inspire how to enshrine the role of migrants into official local development strategies. For instance, Berlin's Participation and Integration Act aims to ensure that all people, regardless of their origin, have the same access to all city services, making it binding criteria for approving any city council’s decision. Similarly, Gothenburg is committed to 30 actions for "reducing inequality in living conditions and creating good opportunities in life for everyone." 

Again, past experience can inspire bolder post-COVID-19 communication that recognize migrants' role in the city. For instance, Berlin has presented itself over the last two decades as a welcoming city and advertises its diversity as a distinguishing feature to attract tourists and skilled migrants from all over the world. Recently, the city developed a campaign to encourage foreign citizens (citizens-to-be) to undertake the necessary administrative steps for naturalization. Small cities such as Altena in Germany communicated migrant integration as a key priority and an opportunity for fighting population decline and fostering the city's economic and societal development. In 2016, the city hall repeatedly encouraged all citizens to help integrate newcomers. Additionally, in Glasgow the Head of the City Council highlighted during several public interventions in 2017 that in some city schools the presence of refugee pupils increased the average results of all students, thus boosting the motivation of native Scottish-UK students.

Recognize "in-it together" sentiment

The COVID-19 experience might have strengthened a sense of community across origins: neighbors working and volunteering side-by-side, complying with the same restrictions, living in small spaces. During the lockdown, the social distance between natives and migrants living in the same neighborhoods might have seemed shorter, reducing prejudice. This sense of shared vulnerability and engagement has a local dimension that can be galvanized through communication, thus preventing the crisis from undermining social cohesion. Many cities have a long-standing experience in disseminating positive narratives of bi-lateral integration processes between migrant and receiving communities.  For instance, Milan launched a campaign about pro-active citizens’ initiatives that support migrant inclusion. Additionally, many initiatives that communicate on migrants’ role in public life are led by migrant and refugee communities themselves, such as the Migrants Organise platform that was established two decades ago in the UK by refugees and migrants to "open up spaces for relational, organised participation of migrants and refugees in public life". Cities should be vocal about the work of native and migrant volunteers who increased local capacities to assist all vulnerable groups during the peak of the COVID-19 emergency and recognize those places where volunteers worked together. In Paris, the consortium managing the refugee center “Les grands voisins” works to create a communitarian dynamic in the heart of the capital city that endured throughout the pandemic. During the last four years this consortium multiplied communication initiatives and events, including a recently produced a film, which turned the shelter into a trendy hangout for all Parisians. 

The COVID-19 context makes communication efforts both more necessary and potentially more successful. In some areas, the lockdown created a sense of belonging within neighborhoods and emphasized that a person’s origin should not be a reason for social and economic exclusion. In this context, new or existing communication efforts can shift ordinary citizens’ perceptions of migrants. Instead of being seen as a threat or a burden, migrants can be acknowledged as neighbors who contribute to helping the local community stand together, especially in times of crisis.

This contribution is based on the OECD report "OECD (2018), Working Together for Local Integration of Migrants and Refugees, Published by the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, OECD Paris.

Any additional opinions expressed or arguments employed herein are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD or its member countries.

  • 1 In April 2020, 93 percent of the world population lived in countries with restricted travel according to the Pew Research Center.
About the Author
Anna Piccinni
Policy Analyst, OECD