Three lessons about cities and refugees, according to experts

Last week, as world leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, scores of Rohingya Muslims took flight from Myanmar, seeking safety from ethnic violence. About half of all Syrians remain displaced by the conflict there, more than five million of them abroad.

Against this backdrop, Brookings convened a conversation on the role of local leaders in addressing the needs of refugees, as well as host communities. The session featured Former Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alex Aleinikoff; Deputy Mayor Lefteris Papagiannakis of Athens; Vice Mayor Ann-Margarethe Livh of Stockholm; Lord Mayor Marvin Rees of Bristol; and State Secretary Wolfgang Schmidt of Hamburg.

From the discussion, a number of themes emerged.

First, when it comes to addressing the needs of displaced people and the communities that host them, local authorities are critical actors. That’s because so many of the engines of integration — housing, school, skills training, and social services — are designed, delivered, and financed at the local level

Many of the engines of integration — housing, school, skills training, and social services — are designed, delivered, and financed at the local level.

Today only about 30% of the world’s refugees reside in camps. The rest seek safety in rural settlements, and crucially, in cities – where many live a marginal existence. Second, cities are not just governments; they are networks of public and private sector leaders and institutions that include philanthropies, universities, and businesses. “There’s a power network there,” Rees observed. That network – its energy and dynamism – can be leveraged to design and implement constructive interventions.

Third, cities are fast learners. When one city innovates, others begin to adapt and tailor solutions that work to suit their own contexts. Rees continued: “the quick to learn, nimble, governance of cities… is a place that we can go to find new kinds of ideas to respond to the world the way it is.”

The event was followed by a high-level working group — organized in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and the International Rescue Committee — that brought together representatives from municipalities in Europe and the United States, international organizations, the private sector, major philanthropy, and academia to elicit best practice recommendations for local communities grappling with displacement-related challenges.

While local leaders often do not have the mandate to change national laws or reverse budget cuts, they can lead for change by advocating for better policies and funding support, creatively using their own mandates, and improving coordination with humanitarian actors and the private sector. With displacement at a record high and national governments struggling to respond, it is more important than ever that they do so.