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What Role for African Cities in Urban Migration Governance?

Janina Stürner-Siovitz and Lionel Nzamba Nzamba

At the 2015 African Union-European Union Summit, the city network United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) called upon national governments to include local authorities in regional migration dialogues. Three years later, African city leaders discussed local contributions to the UN Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees at the Africities Summit 2018 and adopted the “Charter of local and subnational governments of Africa on migration.” At first sight, such engagement appears surprising, given that the great majority of African local authorities lack legal mandates, resources and capacities to address questions of urban migration and displacement. As migration policy represents a traditional domain of national competency, African local authorities are rarely considered (relevant) partners or recipients of funding by national and international actors. Nevertheless, a rising number of migrants and refugees settle in African cities and towns, and local authorities need to address social and economic consequences of climate-related migration, conflict migration, and rural-urban movements (Teye 2018; Angenendt 2021). Being closer to the realities on the ground than their national counterparts, some local authorities emphasize that exclusionary policies and attempts to halt inter-African mixed movements do not result in sustainable solutions and may even spark social unrest and urban conflicts. Instead of conditioning access to social and economic life on a person’s legal status, representatives from cities like Arua (Uganda), Freetown (Sierra Leone), or Sfax (Tunisia) are promoting a more pragmatic approach. Highlighting potential benefits of inclusive strategies addressing the needs of migrants, refugees, and host communities alike, city representatives call upon national and international actors to invest in cities as cooperation partners and to join forces in addressing urban migration and displacement (UNOG 2019; interview Freetown, 2020; interview Sfax, 2021). Drawing on migration studies’ “local turn”, we pose the question of how (some) African local authorities came to claim agency and act in urban migration governance. The first part of this essay sets out a city migration governance paradox to illustrate the research puzzle further, and highlights a city focus in migration studies’ “local turn.” Drawing on a qualitative research design, part two analyzes how (some) African local authorities came to claim agency and act in migration governance processes at the local and transnational levels. As reasons for human mobility are diverse, we adopt an inclusivist perspective on “migration as a global phenomenon and policy field that also includes refugees” (Carling n.d.). The essay concludes with leads for future research on cities as actors in urban migration governance.

Presenting the city migration governance paradox

A growing number of African cities experience a city migration governance paradox. As cities gain in importance as spaces of origin, transit, destination, and return, local authorities are increasingly impacted by the consequences of mixed migration movements as well as by national and international policy-making on these issues (e.g., Landau et al. 2016; Angenendt et al. 2021). While urban residents and national governments expect local authorities to cope with these situations and ensure that the city continues functioning for its residents, many local authorities have limited capacities and resources. Local authorities also often lack political mandates to address mixed migration in cities, even in situations where there is political will to engage. Furthermore, local authorities are missing channels to feed their local experience back to the national and international levels, where decisions on migration and asylum policies are made that directly affect cities on the ground (Stürner-Siovitz 2022a).

Developing municipal strategies to address national and international migration movements poses a great challenge to African local authorities, in particular when confronted with incomplete decentralization reforms, outdated population data and limited access to fiscal transfers or international humanitarian funding (Stürner and Nzamba Nzamba 2021). In this context, many local authorities do not consider migration and displacement as priority areas of municipal engagement (e.g., Wanjiku-Kihato and Landau 2017). Nevertheless, a small but growing number of African cities have started coming together in city networks like UCLG Africa and the Global Mayoral Forum to share ideas among peers to overcome these limitations (UCLG Africa 2020; Mayors Mechanism 2020).

Overall, it is important to highlight that we do not argue that local authorities are necessarily more open to questions of migration than national authorities. Much depends on local contexts and individual positions within local governments and administrations, as well as on civil society’s interest and capacity to advocate for rights of migrants and refugees, and human rights more generally. Local authorities are often more directly confronted with the negative consequences of restrictive migration policies than their national counterparts and may therefore be more interested in developing approaches that recognize (1) that migration cannot simply be stopped and (2) that there is therefore a need to find inclusive solutions for the benefit of migrants, refugees, and local populations (interview Freetown, 2020; interview Kampala, 2020; interview Sfax, 2021; interview Sousse, 2021; UCLG Africa 2020; Mayors Mechanism 2020). Driven by pragmatic interests in expanding funding, resources, and mandates, a small number of African local authorities are thus seeking to engage directly at the local and transnational levels with local, national and international actors working on mixed migration in cities.

In recognition of this growing urbanization of mixed migration – not just in the African context but worldwide – migration studies have taken a “local turn” as off the late 2000s. This “local turn” allowed shifting the scholarly focus from municipalities as spaces of migration towards municipalities as actors of local and multilevel migration governance (e.g., Caponio and Borkert 2010). In particular, cities receive increasing attention among “local turn” scholars and in debates analyzing horizontal and vertical interaction between local and national authorities, city networks, NGOs, foundations, and international organizations (Zapata-Barrero et al. 2017; Caponio et al. 2018; Scholten et al. 2018). Drawing on migration studies’ “local turn” as well as on urban studies, we theorize cities, understood as local governments and authorities, as actors capable of agency and action (e.g., Caponio and Borkert 2010; Acuto and Rayner 2016; Pinson 2019). But how do African local authorities claim agency and how do they launch action in the field of urban migration governance?

To explore these questions we combined a qualitative structuring content analysis (Kuckartz 2016) of official declarations and statements issued by African cities and city networks between 2015 and 2020 with an analysis of 25 expert interviews conducted with representatives of African cities, city networks, research institutions, and international organizations between 2019 and 2021. Among the interviewed actors were representatives from the cities of Freetown, Kampala, Oujda, Sfax, Sousse, as well as the city networks UCLG Africa, UCLG, the Mayors Migration Council, and the Mayors Mechanism. A most-important-case design was applied to select cases, with a particular focus on cities and city networks engaging in local and transnational migration governance. As an approach of theoretical sampling, this case design prevents research results from being generalized, but has proved useful for exploring city action in urban migration governance as an emerging phenomenon (Friedrichs and Kratochwil 2009).

Local authorities as actors in urban migration governance?

Drawing on the interview and document analysis, we found that representatives from African cities and city networks engaging on questions of migration often bring forth two lines of argument: (1) that local authorities are particularly well placed to address global challenges through local action; and (2) that national and international actors can only deliver on their mandates if they take local expertise into account (Lukwago et al. 2018; Thaller and Silver 2019; Aki-Sawyerr and Plante 2019). They are thus adding a global dimension to local authorities’ local role, thereby transforming the local into a glocal role.

What does this look like in practice? At the Africities Summit 2018, participating local authorities highlighted that cities had become local frontline actors in addressing international migration and displacement. While recognizing national competencies, local authorities argued that global questions of migration could no longer be treated as solely the remit of national and international actors. Rather they highlighted the need for multi-stakeholder approaches integrating local authorities into global strategies, given that (inter)national policy-making on global challenges should be based on and respond to local potentials and needs (UCLG Africa 2018b, 2019). City representatives have presented similar positions at the African Union consultations of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in the summer of 2021 and in the Rabat Process, a migration policy dialogue bringing together European and African states, in autumn 2021 (Mayors Mechanism 2020; Rabat Process 2021).

The idea that cities as glocal actors may be able to connect global challenges and local action draws increasing interest from international organizations, research institutes, and philanthropic actors (IOM 2019; Cities Alliance 2020; Spindelegger et al. 2020; Rosengaertner 2020). Many of these actors could potentially play the role of door openers or gatekeepers when it comes to city agency in urban migration governance. At this point, we therefore move on to the second research question: How do local authorities try to enact this glocal role? Our inductive analysis revealed two main forms of action: (1) promoting transnational city diplomacy and (2) engaging in multi-stakeholder collaboration at the local level.

Promoting transnational migration city diplomacy

City diplomacy may be understood as “processes by which cities, or local governments in general, engage in relations with actors on an international stage with the aim of representing themselves and their interest to one another” (Van der Pluijm 2007: 6). While the engagement of African local authorities in regional and global migration governance is a rather recent phenomenon, diplomatic action is steadily increasing (Angenendt et al. 2021; Stürner-Siovitz 2022b; 2022c). In order to strengthen municipal positions in regional and international policy deliberations, African cities have participated in city side-events dovetailing intergovernmental summits, have adopted joint local commitments as well as statements addressed to the heads of governments and states, and have made migration an important topic for regional and international city organizations.

As such, some African local authorities are among the founding members of the GFMD Mayors Mechanism and the international Mayors Migration Council (MMC). Both organizations strive to strengthen the participation of local authorities in intergovernmental processes of regional and global migration governance (Thouez 2020; 2022). In the words of the Mayor of Freetown, who is among the founding members of the MMC: “At a time when more than 55 percent of the world’s population live in cities, governments and international frameworks cannot afford to make choices without consulting city leaders” (AkiSawyerr 2018).

Regarding migration governance between Africa and Europe, African local authorities have called upon African and European governments at the 2015 AU-EU Summit to integrate “associations representing the local authorities as rightful stakeholders in the Europe/Africa political dialogue on the issue of migration and in the definition and implementation of the strategic actions aiming to addressing the issue of migration” (UCLG Africa 2015: 3).

At the pan-African level, the African city network United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) made migration a priority topic as of 2014 and has dedicated an important part of the triennial Africities Summits in 2015, 2018 and 2022 to questions of migration and displacement. Central topics include free circulation of Africans within the continent, universal access to basic services, immigrant detention, and the controversy of establishing migration hotpots in African countries (UCLG Africa 2018b; 2019; 2020). This engagement led to the adoption of the “Charter of local and subnational governments of Africa on migration” in 2018, signed in early 2022 by over 30 African local and regional authorities (UCLG Africa 2018a).

Developing multi-stakeholder collaboration at the local level

Promoting city-to-city exchanges and obtaining a voice in political dialogues is not considered a goal in itself, but rather a means towards mobilizing funding and gaining allies for collective local action. For instance, the participation of the city of Sfax in the Mediterranean City-to-City Migration project, co-led by UCLG, UN-Habitat, and the ICMPD, enabled the municipality to receive support for strengthening a local multi-stakeholder coordination structure bringing together NGOs, migrant associations, international organizations, national and local authorities (IMCPD 2021; interview Sfax, 2021). Cities participating in the Africa-Europe Mayors’ Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity, championed by the Mayors of Freetown and Milan and supported by the MMC, the Overseas Development Institute, the Open Society Foundations and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, strive to make use of peer-learning and cooperation with a wide range of actors to develop partnerships for sustainable initiatives that benefit migrants, refugees, and local populations (Rosengaertner 2020). The interest in establishing real partnerships for inclusive strategies is also clearly articulated by a representative from Kampala, speaking about the Kampala Coordination Forum for Displacement, Migration and Urban Refugees. Launched in 2018, the Forum brings together local authorities, government agencies, development and humanitarian actors, NGOs as well as community level actors:

“Essentially, the reason for the platform is that there are so many actors that organize a lot of interventions concerning refugees, but it is mostly very ‘siloed’. […] So, the platform aims to bridge some of these gaps by saying ‘How can we work in a more coordinated way?’ But also by saying, ‘Fine, there are refugees and migrants who are persons of concern for a lot of these organizations involved in the refugee response, but they live side by side with very poor Ugandans.’ And so, the aim is to integrate the host communities, as they call them, into some of these initiatives. So, the idea is to adopt a broader program, broader in terms of scale geographically, but also in terms of target groups. So, to look more at area-based approaches” (interview Kampala, 2020).

Given that (humanitarian) actors working on urban migration and displacement are increasingly (re) discovering area-based approaches, originating in concepts of city planning, cooperation with local authorities may prove an invaluable asset (Saliba and Silver 2020).

Conclusion This essay has shown that some African local authorities confronted with the consequences of urbanizing migration are connecting global challenges with local action, thus positioning local authorities as glocal actors in urban migration contexts. Drawing on this perspective, some local authorities aim to broaden their scope of action by (1) promoting transnational city diplomacy and (2) engaging in local multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Despite the recent growth in municipal engagement, it is important to highlight that both migration city diplomacy as well as local action for multi-stakeholder cooperation remain fluid and emerging phenomena. As such, their sustainability is often threatened by a lack of local resources, capacities and institutional learning – on the side of local authorities as well as on the side of potential national and international partners (Stürner-Siovitz 2022c). Moreover, local authorities striving to engage on questions of urban migration at the local and/or transnational levels currently face two major challenges – on the one hand the COVID-19 pandemic with its direct and indirect effects on migration movements, urban inequality and municipal budgets, and, on the other hand, the reluctance of national governments to recognize local actorhood on migration. Both of these challenges should be addressed in future research zooming in on limits, challenges and potentials of local authorities as actors in urban migration governance.

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