Migrant Integration Polices: The Local Dimension

The integration of migrants in a host society is a multi-faceted phenomenon. It can be operationalised in three dimensions: socio-economic integration, which largely coincides with labour market insertion, legal-political integration, which relates to participation in public life and political rights and security of status, and finally the socio-cultural integration which relates to the recognition and acceptance of migration-related diversity in the host society.

In addition integration involves two levels: the individual and the collective. Do people feel integrated? Do they have a job? Do they go to school? Do they have the right to vote? In addition, are there migrant organisations? Does representation exist at the collective level, for example, in trade unions or in political organisations? How do mainstream civil society organisations react to migration?

Migrant integration also has a particular temporal aspect: it takes place over time but is not necessarily linear. More years spent in a host country do not necessarily translate into better integration.

Last but not least, integration happens locally. Hence cities as places where migrants are concentrated are the natural spaces where integration happens and where integration challenges need to be addressed.

What, then, is the interaction between local policies and the three levels of integration outlined above? The legal-political dimension may appear to be less important for cities because it is governed primarily at the national level. Decisions about inflows of migrants, the regularisation of undocumented migrants and citizenship acquisition are all decided at the state level. However, as such policies have an important impact on cities, local authorities may find ways to circumvent national legislation and issue, for instance, local identity cards, or decide that certain services normally available to citizens or legal migrants should also be provided to undocumented migrants.

City authorities have an important function in fostering socio-economic and cultural integration. First of all, they can play a significant role in terms of housing, both in terms of providing migrants with access to adequate housing but also in avoiding the ‘ethnic enclaves’ that can sometimes develop in rundown or less desirable districts of a city.

Second, cities are heavily implicated in planning migrants’ access to health services and education –for migrant children integrating into local schools as well as for adults who need to learn the local language and/or retrain in order to find a job.

Third, cities often organise initiatives aimed at facilitating the labour market insertion of migrants and their families.

Bound by national migration policy frameworks, cities may experience pressures from national parties and political leaders. However, they retain a degree of autonomy as they need to serve the needs of both their native and foreign residents and to address issues that may affect the general quality of life and security of all citizens.

There are competing approaches – or ‘frames’ – through which cities defend and promote their migrant integration policies. They may use a humanitarian or rights framework on the basis of a wider human rights culture and legislation. They may instead adopt a security and public interest approach: i.e. healthcare is provided to prevent the possible spread of disease, housing is provided to avoid homelessness on the streets, etc. They may also adopt a discourse of ‘deservingness’ according to which migrants who show a high degree of cultural (level of language proficiency and interaction with natives) or socio-economic integration (stable work and accommodation) are considered more worthy of assistance than those who do not.

By prioritising local concerns about, for instance, homelessness, ensuring children receive an education, and reinforcing social cohesion, cities at times go the extra mile in delivering tailor-made services both to legal and irregular migrants In such cases, as we will see in the next two videos on Utrecht, cities can even act against the priorities of national governments or sidestep them by using their local budgets and services to provide services for migrants.

Cities may organise day clinics or mobile health units to reach out to newcomers or disadvantaged migrant neighbourhoods and facilitate access to health services, in particular for preventive services like vaccination or maternity care.

Local authorities may organise job fairs and with the support of relevant stakeholders, such as chambers of commerce and migrant organisations, facilitate the insertion of migrants in the labour market.

Cities can also take initiatives in creating local representative bodies to involve migrants in the social and public life of the city by making public premises available for gatherings or funding for migrant associations. They may also integrate migrants into the cultural life of the city by facilitating the organisation of relevant cultural or religious festivals, or by involving them in exhibitions and workshops.

Religious life is a sphere where local policies for integration can play an important role as cities decide where places of woship can be opened and religious festivities in the city life celebrated (e.g. by providing permission or making special traffic arrangements to allow the public celebration of Eid in Piazza Garibaldi in Naples. Cities therefore play a very important part in making migrants feel welcome.

Local policies for integration are multi-faceted and can range from covering basic needs (such as food and shelter) to labour market integration and to the proactive recognition of different cultures and languages as integral parts of the socio-cultural fabric of the city.

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)