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Welcoming Migrants: Cities offer a Beacon of Hope

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Jun 02, 2014 / 0 Comments

By Manjula Luthria*


When US-born 24-year old aspiring physician Ms. Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America in September last year, she inspired a celebration of beauty, brains, ambition and America’s diversity. At the same time twitter exploded with angry tweets protesting the crowning of a “foreigner, terrorist, Miss 7-11.” In January this year, the annual Superbowl event featured a one-minute Coca Cola advertisement featuring children and adults from all walks of life – mostly immigrants - across the country, singing "America the Beautiful" in multiple languages. The advertisement sparked outrage with detractors swearing to never buy a coke product again, and supporters calling these people xenophobic and bonkers. In February this year, the Swiss - known for their inherent language diversity with German, French and Italian spoken in different parts of the country -  held a referendum to impose quotas on the movement of people between the EU and Switzerland which won by a narrow margin. And last week’s European Parliament elections showered gains on euro-skeptic and anti-immigration parties.


To those of us who work on migration, events like the above pose a mystery.

Our data show that the gains to global welfare through migration are astoundingly large, yet tweets and votes show a repeated rejection of the idea of more migration. This disconnect is one to worry about. If this disconnect is cause for worry, survey results from the World Values Survey are cause for outright depression.  These results showed that negative perceptions against migrants are on the rise. In OECD countries the number of people rejecting migrants as neighbors rose from 1 in 12 in 1980 to about 1 in 8 in 2010, a 34 percent increase. The results also point to the fact that anti-migrant sentiments correlate with the stock of migrant population, meaning that antipathy rises as the proportion of migrants in the population rises.  Hmmm……given the fierce push and pull pressures in international labor markets caused by demographic and economic shifts, we need to get set for more, not less migration flows than we have yet. Migration is likely to become a dramatic and volatile demographic process and one of the most potent forces of social churning, creating new challenges for citizens and policy makers alike (see, Inclusion Matters) So with larger migrant flows imminent, perhaps it’s time to start thinking seriously about how these migrants will be received in host societies, inserted into unfamiliar labor markets, and integrated into social systems more broadly in their new host countries. 


And here there is some good news! While the disconnect above is cause for worry, there is another disconnect worth celebrating. It’s the disconnect between what we hear at the national level, versus what is actually happening on the ground at the city level. Urban centers are the largest recipients of migrants and it is in these transitional spaces that either violence can erupt or new arrivals can be turned into vibrant economic assets. Tilting outcomes towards the latter means special attention needs to be paid to inclusion in various spaces – economic and social – by identifying and tackling the impediments to migrant participation in these spaces. 


Many city leaders around the globe have got this message, taken careful notice and innovative action.


Barcelona City Council launched a clever campaign to help shed the prejudices that many local people held about minorities and immigrants. Inspired by a similar project in nearby Vallès, this initiative identified the main stereotypes and prejudices that were circulating in Barcelona. “Immigrants are invading, Immigrants receive more financial aid to open their businesses…”Immigrants are overcrowding our health services…”“Immigrants don’t want to integrate or learn our language…” Next, they put the power of human contact in changing people’s minds to work. How? by putting a human face on the message, and the messenger by recruiting and training ‘anti-rumor agents’ with accurate information and techniques for addressing misconceptions with nimble situation-based action at work, home or in the street. So, when someone complained that ‘subsidized apartments go mainly to foreigners’, the city anti-rumor agent could quickly interject: “Today only one in 20 immigrants receive such a benefit. ”  Also recognizing that the greatest challenge was not framing the message, but getting it out into Barcelona’s streets, the city launched its campaign through a network of 80 local organizations that work in the field of social cohesion and coexistence.


In 2010-11, the German city of Celle took part in a pilot project focused on the initial stage of hiring – the job application - where research shows the biggest bias to exist. During the pilot, the participating employers tried a variety of methods to try to prevent these biases from influencing the review of applications – including blacking out personal details. In the end, using standardized forms proved to be the most efficient method, even though the head of the human resources department was skeptical at first. The Mayor of Celle, Dirk-Ulrich Mende says, “We are now looking more at qualifications during the hiring process. This is the case for both leadership and apprenticeship positions. Many people who we’ve hired wouldn’t have been chosen before. And all of them have succeeded.” The pilot was so successful that the city of Celle decided to continue using anonymous application procedures after the pilot ended. And this idea has now spread to Göttingen, Hannover, Mainz, Mannheim, Offenbach and Nürnberg and to eight German states.


To promote social inclusion of refugee youth, the city of Auckland is using sport. The initial focus was on soccer as it was seen as the sport that would appeal to the most people while addressing issues that had been identified as the barriers preventing refugees from participating in community activities, such as cost of services, language and cultural difference. Soccer is being used as a deliberate and strategic tool to reduce the social isolation of young refugees and to help them feel a sense of connection and belonging – both with each other and to the wider community. More than 400 youth have participated in the program and show better levels of integration into wider society.


And while this is only a quick smattering of some of the innovations happening at the city level rather than a comprehensive listing it would certainly be incomplete without a mention of the Canadians . With one eye on expanding the customer base and another on removing the obstacles to migrants’ financial inclusion, Canada’s Scotia Bank will get you set up with a bank account, build credit history, obtain a credit card and even organize a mortgage all before you leave your country of origin! With this program, immigrants can increase the rate at which they integrate by acquiring a sense of confidence and institutional connection upon arrival. And upon arrival, in the City of Calgary for instance, trained bank employees will welcome you in a total of 42 languages.


And lest we give up on the Swiss, take a second look at the voting figures and it becomes clear that the vote represents a split between the western half of the country and the more rural east.  The northern cantons around the country’s largest city, Zurich, aligned with the west on this point, revealing the fact that all of Switzerland’s major urban regions, from Geneva, Lausanne, Berne, Basel, through to Zurich and Winterthur, voted to maintain open borders. Don Flynn’s analysis provides an insight “What the Swiss referendum seems to have revealed is a pattern of anxiety that exists in many parts of the continent, including the UK.  People living in regions where migration has made only a marginal impact are more likely to register fears than those in the places where it as actually happened and the business of living with diversity has become a part of daily life. In the towns and big cities where the migrants have settled, after the initial period of turbulence associated with immediate arrival, local communities consistently find that they have resources which allow people to find a way to live together in relative peace.”


These are the experiences we need to celebrate, learn from, and help disseminate. Not merely to prepare and cope with more migration, but to prosper from it. The International Labour Mobility program at the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) is now partnering with city level officials, private foundations and urban planners to take this important step forward.



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