The surge of migration-related city networks around world: between militancy or co-optation

Thomas Lacroix

In December 2018, a delegation of mayors from various parts of the world attended in Marrakech the signature of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migrations. Their presence was not random: the compact acknowledges local governments as a key level of implementation of its objectives. Cities were largely absent from the international discussions on migration only a decade ago. They are now regarded as a central player of global migration governance, along with states and civil society organisations. This influence is directly related to the surge in the number of migration-related city networks around the world. These networks are lesser-known than their leading mayoral figures such as Marvin Rees in Bristol, Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, Luca Orlando in Palermo or Valérie Plante in Montreal. But, together, they form a web of interconnected cities advancing a progressive agenda for the welcoming and integration of immigrant populations. In a recently published article of Local Government Studies, I provide a picture of their extend, types and activities. This work draws on a database mustered through internet search between Spring 2019 and July 2020, compiling information on their members, date of creation, activities and funding. Three key findings emerge from this analysis.

First, the surge of such groupings is a relatively recent phenomenon. If city networks are far from being a novelty, their concern for migration issues has been spreading since the early 2000s. Out of the 64 included in this database, 45 have been founded since 2000, and 24 since 2011. Three drivers account for this. In the first place, local authorities occupy a growing place in the agenda of international organisations. A larger share of development aid is geared towards cities (deemed as trustful and less prone to corruption than state administrations). In parallel, local authorities fill a void on issues such as climate change and migration where intergovernmental cooperation is in a deadlock. In consequence, inter- and supranational organisations support the creation of city networks on these strategic issues. In the second place, the wave of decentralisation reforms undergone by Southern and Northern cities since the early nineties have left local authorities with a broader range of responsibilities (including on integration issues), but no more financial resources. Municipalities turn towards alternative sources of financing: project-based funding bids, city to city partnerships, engagement with the private and third sectors. In the third place, the security approach to immigration in receiving countries has affected cities: the growing pressure and precariousness undergone by immigrants hinder their integration prospects. In reaction, many cities develop narratives challenging this security approach. They hail immigrants as economic actors of a vibrant cosmopolitan city or as human beings in need for welfare, education and health support. This engagement has propelled the multiplication of grassroots networks of like-minded cities in want of promoting an alternative management to immigrant populations.

From this follows a second finding, i.e. the distinction between co-opted and grassroots networks. The former, sponsored by external funding bodies, adhere to their agenda. This is true for the URBACT network which stems from the Urban Agenda of the European Union. The latter are spontaneous organisations formed by local authorities in want of sharing a space for common concerns. In the field of migration, this is illustrated by politicised networks opposing state policies: the sanctuary policies movement in the US, the ANVITA association in France, etc. Of course, these categories are porous. Eurocities is a grassroots European network created in the late eighties which is now largely funded by EU institutions. However, the initial conditions of their creation explain the divergent orientations of their activities. Both types foster exchange of experience and best practices, but co-opted organisations have more financial means to support projects while grassroot ones are more likely to engage in lobbying and awareness-raising activities.

Amérique du Sud4117
Amérique du Nord 921
Océanie 213

Third, this surge of migration-related city networks is a global but unevenly distributed phenomenon. 36 are them are located in Europe and North America. If we add to those the 12 world networks connected to these spaces, one counts three quarters of city networks including major immigration country localities among their members. The types and scales of these networks vary in different parts of the world. In Southern countries, they are almost exclusively organisations sponsored by international organisations: Sello migrante network, a group of cities developing welcoming policies for refugees in Latin America and supported by the High Commission for Refugees, is a case in point. In contrast, in North America, they are mostly grassroots networks gathering cities in reaction to policies targeting undocumented migrants: beyond the sanctuary cities movement, Welcoming America and City for Actions are but a few examples. Europe displays a mixed landscape, with co-opted networks supported by the EU or the Council of Europe for the promotion of local integration policies and more recent grassroots organisations reacting to restrictive migration policies.

Image Source: Alpha Stock Images –
Original Author: Nick Youngson – link to –

Thomas Lacroix is CNRS research director in geography affiliated to the Maison Française of Oxford. He works on local migration governance, city networks and the formation of the transnational state. He recently published with Amandine Desille “International Migrations and local Governance” (Palgrave, 2018)

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