The future is urban? The city-scale of international migration

Migrants both experience and contribute to the transformation of contemporary cities and their economies. But they also play a fundamental role in the interconnections that increasingly exist between cities.

These urban interconnections are not just about the financial flows or international flight links that have increased in recent decades as a result of globalization: they are also the result of people moving between places and the economic, social and cultural networks that they create during the process.

Let’s look at an example of intra-urban migration in the Global North.

Over the last two decades numerous young, university-educated and often under- or unemployed Italians, many of whom from the south of the country, have moved to Berlin, Barcelona or London, drawn by their vibrant lifestyle and by the relative availability of low- and middle-income jobs in services or information technology.

Before leaving Italy, many of these young people are already urbanised as a result of their university studies and work experiences in Italy’s major cities and therefore already possess connections with local social networks in the cities of destination. These networks consist largely of other Italians who have emigrated in previous years but also of non-Italians who previously resided in their same city in Italy who have since moved abroad to cities with greater employment prospects, as the ones mentioned above.

Over time, many of the Italians who have moved to Berlin, Barcelona or London have become more or less integrated into the social, cultural and sometimes even political life of each city. Some, at a certain point, have decided to move temporarily or permanently to one of the other cities due to employment opportunities or personal aspirations and this has been facilitated by the transnational networks of fellow (and increasingly less Italian) urbanites that have developed over the years.

At the same time, these Italian migrants have limited experience of the rest of Germany, Spain or United Kingdom, or little interest to move to another part of each country. As EU citizens who are resident in another member state, they are entitled to vote in local administrative elections but not in national elections.

Some of those who have decided to permanently settle in a particular city may apply for dual citizenship, also in order to participate more fully in the national affairs that affect their specific place of residence. Otherwise, national events beyond their control can have ramifications upon the evolution of their migratory project: none more so than Brexit in the United Kingdom, which has led not only Italians but also other young EU citizens in London to move to other cities in Europe.

Migrants’ urban networks may also extend at a wider global level. This is reflected in the Somali diaspora which has established connections between cities and sometimes even between specific neighbourhoods around the world. This case will be discussed by Vivian Gerrand in the next video.

A close and interdependent relationship may also develop between a sending city and a destination city. For example, many of the Moroccans who have migrated to Milan originate from the city of Beni Mellal, as a result of chain migration and the later period of emigration that directed the city’s inhabitants towards Italy (those from other locations who left in the 1960s and 1970s migrated to France, Belgium and the Netherlands). After years of working in Italy, numerous Moroccans have invested in businesses in their hometown, sometimes in partnership with Milanese entrepreneurs, and have opened establishments that recall their links with a city 2,000 kilometres away, such as “Bar Porta Romana” and “Ristorante San Siro” (both named after neighbourhoods in Milan). In 2014 a small airport was opened close to Beni Mellal: the only flights are to Casablanca and Milan Malpensa.

In order to fully grasp the increasing intricate nature of these urban networks, we need to move away from the traditional approach that sees migration as occurring between nation states. The two scholars Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Çaglar have defined such an approach as “methodological nationalism”. Not only does the nation state function as the dominant frame for interpreting migration, but it also provides the context for understanding the city and the multiple transformations that take place in it as a result of migration. Hence, while there have been many important studies of migration in cities, these have often been conceived as shedding light on more general national processes.

Similarly, research on migration has been commonly conducted through the lens of clearly defined national or ethnic groups. This perspective has obscured the highly complex, internal diversity of these groups (as we saw last week in the case of the residential distribution of the Bangladeshi ‘community’) and it has overlooked the different affiliations that influence migration. In fact, transnational urban networks are not necessarily based on the same national or ethnic group, but can be built on the basis of religion, profession, political persuasion or even age and choice of lifestyle as in the case of the multinational connections between Barcelona, Berlin and London.

Glick Schiller and Çaglar therefore call for far greater attention to be paid to the particular locations of migration and to the multiple types of human mobility that connect them.

In your opinion, how might a greater focus on the urban networks of migrants reshape the way we perceive and represent global migration?

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)