Aerial view of Saint-Louis, Senegal. Photo: Getty Images

Migration in African intermediary cities: why multi-stakeholder partnerships are key to inclusive action

By Janina Stürner-Siovitz, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and Lasse Juhl Morthorst, Research Fellow, The Equal Partnerships Project1, Research on Migration, Displacement and Integration University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

Intermediary cities in Africa are becoming major hubs of mixed migration, but local governments often lack legal mandates and resources to include migration questions in urban planning. Multi-stakeholder partnerships open opportunities for inclusive and context-sensitive urban migration governance.

Tents have sprouted in Kisumu, Kenya, as 11 000 representatives from all over Africa gather at the largest-ever pan-African city meeting to discuss the roles of African intermediary cities in the continent’s development. It is Africities 2022. At a workshop debating partnerships between local, national and international actors to address migration in cities, a young mayor from West Africa, reacting to the experiences of the cities of Sfax and Sousse in Tunisia, bursts out with the question: “But, how come your national governments allow you to engage on questions of migration?”

The urban migration governance paradox

That question strikes to the heart of the urban-migration-governance-paradox: Africa’s intermediary cities are experiencing the growing effects of mixed migration movements (a broad concept including migrants, refugees, victims of trafficking, etc.) and of national migration policies. Intermediary cities, often hosting between 50 000 and 1 million inhabitants and connecting rural areas and smaller towns with capital cities, account for the highest relative share of urban conglomerations among African cities, a trend forecast to continue in the future (Figure 1). Along with natural population growth, intra-African migration is a major contributor to urban expansion. While the transformation of Africa’s intermediary cities into cities of origin, destination and transit offers many opportunities, migration movements may also reinforce pre-existing structural challenges including the provision of accommodation and basic services, access to (informal) labour markets, and ensuring social cohesion. Yet, not only do local governments lack the human resources, funding and legal mandates to engage on mixed migration, their perspectives are hardly included in national and international decision-making on migration and asylum, despite the direct impact of resulting policies on urban areas.

Figure 1: African intermediary cities shape Africa’s urban landscape

Africa intermediary cities figure 1

Source: Global State of Metropolis 2020.

Tackling the paradox through partnerships

To tackle this paradox of becoming de facto migration actors without de jure mandates, some African cities have turned to co-operative action with a variety of domestic and international partners. Take Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest municipality, a university and industrial city, less than 200 km from the Italian island of Lampedusa and a diverse hub of human mobility. Local government representatives are keen to tackle both the opportunities and challenges of mixed migration, but their main legal mandate when it comes to foreigners is issuing birth and death certificates. Given the absence of a national migration strategy, this does not come as a surprise, but it represents a major challenge for context-specific action.

Sfax therefore reached out to a local network of civil society actors, migrant associations and international organisations, initially based on a collaboration between the International Organization for Migration and Terre d’Asile Tunisie. To obtain funding for joint co-ordination and projects, the city draws on relations with international partners such as the Mediterranean City-to-City Migration project. These multi-stakeholder partnerships enabled local actors to provide sensitisation trainings to media representatives, plan a municipal migrant orientation desk, and distribute hygiene kits during the Covid-19 pandemic.

National governments should encourage co-operative urban migration governance

The example of Sfax shows that, even in contexts of limited devolution, African national governments should not only allow local governments to engage in co-operative urban migration governance – they should encourage them to do so. Intermediary cities recognise that migration and asylum policies are prerogatives of national governments, but they stress that national policies can never be spelled out in as much detail as to fit every local eventuality, and are often based on outdated census data. Local governments, civil society and migrant-/refugee-led associations, with their on-the-ground knowledge, are uniquely placed to engage with national actors in multi-stakeholder partnerships to promote inclusive approaches that benefit migrants, refugees, and local populations.

It is worth noting that local governments are not necessarily more (or less) open to mixed migration than their national counterparts. However, as entities responsible for making their city work, they often take pragmatic stances, aware that exclusionary policies will not stop migration and may even have negative effects on social cohesion, whereas inclusive approaches could benefit the city as a whole.

Building partnerships for urban migration governance in intermediary cities: four recommendations

  • Let local governments be more than just (inter)national implementers: International agreements highlight the importance of local authorities as first responders to mixed migration. However, local governments in Africa can be more than just implementers. Their expertise makes them invaluable contributors to the design of African migration strategies. The same goes for donor engagement: development agencies from the “Global North” could increase their impact by including local perspectives into the development of calls for projects.
  • Build joint visions between public and civil society actors: Co-operative urban migration governance needs both institutional actors and civil society, including migrant- and refugee-led associations. However, particularly in highly politicised migration contexts, they tend to mistrust each other. Research institutes perceived as mediators can promote dialogues for co-operative migration governance.
  • Create co-ordination one-stop shops: Improving urban migration governance not only demands more funding but also better co-ordination of existing resources, knowledge, and capacities. Cities could benefit greatly from one-stop shops connecting public, private, and civil society actors, providing up-to-date information on ongoing activities and opportunities for co-operation and funding. Such centres could also be first access points for potential (inter)national partners.
  • Identify opportunities for change: The periods where local governments renew their budgets or development plans are windows not to be missed to make migration governance in cities more inclusive. It is during those periods that the Equal Partnership Project holds mapping and workshop activities with partner cities to ensure that local ideas are taken into account.

1. The Equal Partnerships Project, co-led by the University of Nuremberg, UCLG Africa, Samuel Hall and IDOS, and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, is working with six African intermediary cities – Garissa (Kenya), Gulu (Uganda), Kumasi (Ghana), Oujda (Morocco), Saint Louis (Senegal) and Sfax (Tunisia) – to enhance knowledge and develop practical ideas for multi-stakeholder partnerships on urban migration governance.

Photo: Arial view of Saint-Louis, Senegal © GettyImages