There is no cohesion without social protection

by Lauren Stabler, PhD student at the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University

Alfredo Zamudio, Director of the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, issued an inspirational call to action at today’s special feature plenary. Mr. Zamudio began his keynote speech with a personal account of his experience as an unaccompanied minor at age 13, after being displaced following Chile’s military coup of 1973.

His story were accompanied by staggering figures of current day displacement that remind us of the non-voluntary nature of migration. Figures like 40.8 million – the number of persons displaced in the year 2015 due to armed conflict – does not even include the 20 million people per year that are displaced from natural disasters. Nor does it include the millions of people who migrate each year to escape decapacitating living conditions that result from social and economic exclusion (the millions we refer to as “voluntary migrants”). In his critique of such terminology, Mr. Zamudio said to the audience, “When vulnerable people are uprooted, they don’t leave because there is a job in the city to be a taxi driver.” Rather, chronic poverty pushes them to migrate out of rural areas, into the city and even across borders.

Zamudio also reminded us that the sources of social and economic exclusion – corruption, lack of accountability and inadequate legal frameworks for the protection of human rights – not only drive social and economic disparity but ultimately destroy social cohesion. Such environments breed violence and conflict and, in the worst cases, result in massive displacement of entire communities. In a sobering remark, the keynote speaker asked the audience to think about countries where social and economic legal protections are weakest, where people are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and where population growth is occurring at the greatest rate. While we may not be able to predict exact migration flows in the future, we can say with great confidence that this trend will only augment.

As the scale and timeframes of refugee crises intensify, cities – the main destinations for refugees and so-called “voluntary migrants” – will need to respond to realities on the ground. The reaction cannot be to simply ignore this reality, as we all share a legal obligation to provide refuge.

In the developed world where capacity is greatest, cities rise to the challenge. In his contribution to the plenary, Rüdiger Wagner, Executive Director of the city of Bonn’s Family, Health and Legal Affairs Division, and former head of Bonn’s Environmental Planning Division, said that the ongoing refugee in Germany spawned problems of management, organization and timeliness, but certainly not of capacity. This is even more true when we adopt a broader concept of capacity to one that includes contributions from civil society. To elaborate, Zamudio mentioned the example of Norwegian local governments reaching out to residents via social media, resulting in the placement of refugees in more than 7,000 private homes.

Moving forward, we must commit to work tirelessly to eradicate the main sources of displacement. Until this is achieved, cities should work to embed response strategies to forced migration in urban planning. Perhaps local governments will find more creative ways to draw on the various capacities of civil society and thereby improve urban resilience. Furthermore, there remains untapped potential of inter-city networks to disseminate knowledge between municipal governments. Clearly there is much to be done, but there is cause for hope. All around the world urban leaders, such as our guest speaker Mr. Wagner, are paving the way in welcoming refugees and strengthening the social fabric of resilient cities.

The contents of this article reflect the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.