The settlement of migrants in ‘global cities’

According to the IOM’s 2015 World Migration Report, approximately 1 in 5 international migrants live in the world’s top 20 ‘global cities’ (notably cities that are advanced producers of services, have large economies, and function as major political and cultural activity hubs). These twenty cities are listed as Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Vienna and Washington DC.

As noted, migrants are drawn by opportunities for work in cities, both in the lower and highest places of the labour market. They often follow the linkages of transnational ethnic networks that foster chain migration from a same locality in the sending country. They are also attracted by the cultural and religious diversity as well as the anonymity of large cities. They represent an asset for cities in many respects, but they also have an important impact on urban governance and the provision of services at the city level.

First of all, they have an impact on housing. Providing affordable and adequate housing to migrants is an important challenge, especially where land is scarce and particularly expensive. In some of the fastest growing urban areas in the Global South, such as Mumbai or Johannesburg, migrants are largely concentrated in slums, where housing is particularly poor and inadequate and where basic services like sewage, electricity and running water are in short supply.

Migrant workers also alter the labour market structure of cities. They offer a plentiful and relatively cheap labour force for jobs that natives are no longer willing to do in sectors such as cleaning, caring, catering, construction and other menial jobs. However, they create competition with those natives who previously occupied such positions. This competition may become exacerbated at times of economic downturn when jobs are scarce and local workers return to the less desired sectors of occupation out of necessity. It is interesting to note though, that studies have also shown that sometimes the existence of a cheap and flexible migrant labour force may allow for less competitive firms to survive in the market (e.g. in the textile or food sector) and hence migrant workers may thus help preserve the jobs of natives working in these firms.

Migrants affect also the local education infrastructure in cities, in particular when there is a sudden influx of migrant or refugee children, and local schools can struggle to adequately address issues of poor linguistic skills and the diversity of educational backgrounds. In this regard, the role of non-governmental organisations in supporting conventional schools is very important for the provision of support and induction classes as well as lifelong learning activities and retraining.

Despite the fact that migrants tend to be younger and healthier than the local population they bring challenges to the health system. Health issues are particularly acute when migrants come to live in slums in conditions that exacerbate physical, mental and social health risks. Migrants may also have different attitudes towards health and illness and there is a need for culturally trained medical and paramedical personnel to ensure the appropriate provision of health services. While cities may be better equipped with specially trained health workers (who in North America and northern Europe are often of migrant origin themselves), they may, nevertheless, face important strains because of high levels of demand.

Migrants affect the provision of public utilities such as energy or water but also the organisation of transportation and urban mobility. Urban mobility, for example, is crucial for employment and housing too while water and energy provision intertwine with issues of health.

Last, but not least, migrants bring into question social cohesion and community integration. While they enrich the urban fabric and may provide a much needed labour force they may also make locals feel threatened as they see the urban landscape changing fast. Misunderstandings may arise from linguistic barriers, or because of different traditions and habits. Migrants may also face discrimination and xenophobia and be excluded from basic urban services as they also have a limited knowledge of the environment and of the language. Affluent and highly skilled migrants may also pose challenges for social cohesion, as they may fence themselves off in luxury neighbourhoods and gated communities and only use their own national language without integrating with local residents. These are all important issues that city governments need to address in order to make migration beneficial for all.

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)