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What cities like Geneva are doing to welcome migrants and refugees 

Geneva
A unique move in Switzerland: canton Geneva legalised several thousand undocumented migrants. The project was largely viewed positively. (c) Sam74100 | Dreamstime.com

Swiss cities like Bern and Zurich are pledging to reinforce the integration of migrants. They are part of a growing number of cities worldwide that want to become a more welcoming space for foreigners, as a recent conference in Geneva shows.

More than half of the global population lives in cities. That proportion is only set to grow, according to the United Nations, which also reports that 70% of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) seek refuge in cities. Most labour migrants also try their luck in urban areas. 

National governments decide who is allowed to stay in a country, and who is not. But it is usually the local authorities that look after accommodation and integration of migrants. Negative attitudes towards this population group may be widespread, but other voices are making themselves heard. Some cities, for example, have developed ways to support refugees and other migrants.  

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In Switzerland, cities like Zurich have offered to take in more refugees than the federal and cantonal governments allocate to them. They have more capacity than smaller municipalities, they argue. But the federal government responded by saying this was not their decision to make.  

Canton Geneva went a step further when it offered permits to long-term undocumented migrants in 2017 and 2018. Earlier this year, the capital Bern became the first Swiss city to declare itself a “safe harbour” for refugees. 

Cities from around the world network in various organisations. Most recently, they presented their innovative approaches at the Summit of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD)External link in Geneva.  

SWI swissinfo.ch attended the conference to learn more about some of these projects. 

Housing for undocumented migrants in Poitiers 

France, Vienne, Poitiers
View of the Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers, western France. Alamy Stock Photo/Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

The French city of Poitiers, population 90,000, has adopted a migrant-friendly policy. Together with aid organisations, the city arranges accommodation for vulnerable people who do not have a residence permit.  

“Our priority is families with children who are starting school here,” says Khalid Rhimou, who is responsible for implementing the policy in Poitiers. The children are now making significant progress at school, he adds, as a proper home gives them stability. 

Poitiers is a member of the National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories (ANVITA), which is fighting against a stricter French migration law that recently came into force and caused controversy. The Constitutional Council, the highest constitutional authority in France, has declared part of the law unconstitutional – including the provision of fewer benefits to foreigners.  

Since 2020, 12 families (about 50 people) have benefitted from the housing project in Poitiers. ANVITA co-director Léa Enon Baron says the number of beneficiaries is remarkable for a city that does not have a budget for such projects. In France, the national government is responsible for accommodating migrants, no matter which country they are from. School enrolment, on the other hand, is the responsibility of the municipalities. 

Connecting companies and refugees in Barranquilla

Around Colombia
The old market of Barranquilla, northern Colombia. Getty Images/2019 Kaveh Kazemi

Work integration is high on the agenda of the Colombian metropolis Barranquilla, which wants to integrate refugees, mainly from Venezuela, and Colombian IDPs into the formal labour market. Apart from vocational training and psychosocial support, the Todos Somos Barranquilla (We are all Barranquilla) project grants direct access to numerous companies that work with the city. As the name of the project suggests, the refugees are legal residents. 

“Barranquilla is avant-garde,” the city’s migration advisor, Daniela Cepeda Tarud, says with pride. “Our goal is for people to become independent and no longer need support.” Since 2021, the now completed pilot project has provided jobs for more than 100 people. The pilot was funded by the city organisation Mayors Migration Council as well as international philanthropic donors. Barranquilla is now working on making it a permanent programme. 

Improving working conditions for migrants in Accra 

Accra
The Makola market in Accra, southern Ghana. Bloomberg via Getty Images/© 2023 Bloomberg Finance LP

Several international city networks have launched a Call to Local Action to promote the implementation of the Global Compact for MigrationExternal link and the Global Compact on RefugeesExternal link. The appeal is supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). A compilation of projects from over 100 cities worldwide was presented at the GFMD. 

One of them was implemented in the Ghanaian capital Accra. Most refugees and IDPs live in low- and middle-income countries. Accra has pledged to improve the working conditions for migrants in the informal waste-management sector in poor neighbourhoods.   

The waste collectors are legally employed, so they have access to the country’s healthcare system. The city is now setting up day-care centres for the children of the waste collectors, which will provide them with a safe and clean space. 

Social participation for all in Zurich

Zurich
View of Zurich city from the Uetliberg mountain, in canton Zurich, Switzerland. KEYSTONE/imagebroker.com

The city of Zurich has also joined the Call to Local Action for Migrants and Refugees. It wants to improve municipal services for vulnerable people, including irregular migrants. The city, for example, has committed to guaranteeing healthcare for anyone without basic health insurance. It’s also developing the Züri City Card, which is due to be launched at the beginning of 2026. The card will enable all residents, regardless of their status, to open a bank account or buy a mobile phone subscription.  

In 2022, Zurich residents voted in favour of this local identity card. The NGO Swiss Refugee Council sees it as a chance for migrants to participate in society. But, the NGO adds, the card will not protect the holder from the risk of deportation, such as following a police check. 

Advising emigrants leaving Quezon City 

Manila
Ttraffic in Quezon City, Philippines. Alamy Stock Photo/Credit: Matyas Rehak / Alamy Stock Photo

Quezon City, the biggest city in the Philippines, has a completely different approach. As many people leave the island state to seek employment abroad, the metropolis is supporting Philippine migrant workers in cooperation with the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO).  

“Quezon City has people-centred concepts,” says Djohanna Delia Ravelo, head of the city’s migrant resource centre. The municipality informs citizens about their rights abroad, organises training courses to help them find a job, and offers support to those returning.  

With such comprehensive information, migrant workers are better prepared to protect themselves against exploitation. The city also wants to encourage emigrants to stick together when they are abroad as, according to Ravelo, this gives them a sense of belonging and mutual support in a foreign country. 

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At the end of the conference, representatives from cities, UN agencies and other organisations called on all interest groups, such as governments, parliaments, regions, cities, NGOs, universities and the private sector, to work together and respect human rights. They explained that the mobility of persons must be guaranteed. This requires more legal migration and escape routes, just as is set out in the two, non-binding global UN compacts. 

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Edited by Benjamin von Wyl. Adapted from German by Billi Bierling/Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi

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