Urban migration and COVID-19: Cities on the frontline of an inclusive response and recovery

By Samer Saliba, Head of Practice, Mayors Migration Council

Photo: Manoej Paateel / Shutterstock

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The international community is not doing enough to financially support those who are doing the most for migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people during this global pandemic: city governments. While many cities have the mandate to serve people in vulnerable situations, including migrant and displaced residents, they often do not have enough financial resources to meet the increased demand and need of new arrivals. Lost revenue due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 will further curtail cities’ ability to deliver critical services to their residents this year. Some estimates suggest city governments could see revenue losses of up to 25 percent in 2021, precisely when their spending needs to increase to pay for recovery efforts and continuously growing populations. In a recent survey, 33 municipal finance officials in 22 countries across all continents reported already seeing a 10 percent decrease in their overall revenue and around a five percent increase in expenditure. This “scissors effect” of local government revenue and expenditure will be most felt in cities in developing countries. African cities, for example,  could potentially lose up to up to 65 percent of their revenue in 2021.

While the international community is paying more attention to municipal finance in relation to climate change, sustainable development, and urban development in general, the same cannot be said of urban migration and displacement. Few municipal finance mechanisms focus explicitly on financing for urban migration and displacement, despite the fact that the majority of migrants and displaced people reside in cities. Moreover, donors with low risk tolerance often disregard city governments in low to middle-income countries. In response to the unmet needs of cities, my organisation, the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), recently launched the Global Cities Fund on Inclusive Pandemic Response supporting five cities to implement inclusive response and recovery programmes of their own design.

“African cities, for example, could potentially lose up to up to 65 percent of their revenue in 2021.” #DevMatters

Along with Beirut (Lebanon), Lima (Peru), Freetown (Sierra Leone), and Mexico City, Barranquilla (Colombia) was one of the first five cities to receive a Global Cities Fund grant. With Colombia now home to nearly two million Venezuelan refugees, eight percent of Barranquilla’s population is foreign born, the majority of them Venezuelan.1 Venezuelan refugees in Barranquilla face multiple barriers to finding employment and achieving self-reliance, including limited job opportunities, unfamiliarity with the new job markets, and a lack of social networks to help them navigate the city. While Colombia’s recent decision to grant regularised status to nearly one million Venezuelans provides crucial relief to their ability to find formal work, these barriers persist nonetheless and are compounded by COVID-19’s impact on the local economy, further isolating Venezuelans and other newcomers to Barranquilla.

Barranquilla is representative of countless cities being asked to do more with less in this age of urban migration and displacement, COVID-19, and economic downturn. The city’s budget is approximately $1,000 per capita2 and most international support is focused on short-term humanitarian interventions responding to the displacement of Venezuelans. While humanitarian assistance is necessary, Barranquilla views migrants and displaced people as an opportunity to strengthen the city’s economy, focusing on long-term, economically driven programmes that benefit both newcomers and the city at-large.

Acting on this belief, the Municipality is using the Global Cities Fund to help refugees, migrants, and internally displaced Colombians overcome barriers to accessing the formal labour market and increase their chances of earning an income. Todos Somos Barranquilla offers a comprehensive suite of services to 100 people – including refugees, women, youth, victims of armed conflict and persons living with disabilities – providing them with specialised vocational training, psychosocial support, legal documentation, and direct access to 200 employers in Barranquilla.

“While the city has welcomed the decision to grant protection status to Venezuelans … local governments in Colombia will likely have to provide more comprehensive services to this population, but without additional financial resources.” #DevMatters

While the city has welcomed the decision by the national government to grant protection status to Venezuelans, it implies that local governments in Colombia will likely have to provide more comprehensive services to this population, but without additional financial resources to do so. Most newcomers view Barranquilla as a final destination rather than a point of transit, which is why the city needs the support of the international community to fund, scale and refine its inclusive approach. International initiatives like the Global Cities Fund or the Inter-American Development Bank’s support to foster urban integration in five Colombian cities, including Barranquilla are a good start but more should follow. With over 2,550 cities affected by COVID-19 worldwide and in need of financial support, the Global Cities Fund’s “model behaviour” needs to become business as usual globally, so that other cities can benefit too.

This is why the Mayors Migration Council and our partners in IOM, UCLG, UN-Habitat, and UNHCR are calling the international community to support an inclusive Covid-19 response in at least 22 cities by the end of 2022: 22 for 2022.3


1. Data shared by the Barranquilla District Municipal Government with the Mayors Migration Council.

2. Ibid.

3. To learn more and become a partner, contact fund@mayorsmigrationcouncil.org. .