Operação Acolhida is the humanitarian response and reception provided by the Brazilian Federal Government in response to a historic influx of migrants arriving from Venezuela. Image Source: IOM/Gema Cortes
According to United Nations data, 26 percent of the world’s migrant population lives in the Americas, which means that migrants make up 7 percent of the region’s total population as of 2020. Of this total, 58.7 million are in North America, and 14.8 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to UNHCR’s 2022 Global Trends in Forced Displacement Report, by the end of 2022, at least 108.4 million people had been forcibly displaced globally. In the Americas, 9.2 million people moved across international borders. This figure represents an increase of 950 percent in the last ten years. Why do people move across the Americas?
The push factors are multiple and observe variations from country to country. However, in general terms, people migrate or are forcibly displaced due to increasing levels of violence and citizen insecurity, the forced recruitment in gangs, drug trafficking, and organized crime activities. Widespread sexual and gender-based violence and community violence are also important factors which particularly affect women and children. Added to this are persistent economic and structural causes, such as a weak rule of law, corruption, high poverty rates, low levels of economic development, exclusion and inequality, lack of opportunities (especially for women, young people, and other vulnerable groups), food insecurity, and more recently the effects of climate change. This increase in human mobility across cities of the Americas poses opportunities for receiving countries but also challenges, and it is often local governments the ones responsible for providing the first response.
A recent study published by the Organization of American States and other partners entitled “The Role of Local Governments in the Reception and Integration of Migrants and Refugees in Cities of the Americas” confirms these trends. It proposes that there are opportunities for the reception and integration of migrants and refugees, and it shows that local actors can play a key role in the reception and integration of this population. Despite numerous challenges, the cases presented in the study demonstrate that with political will, innovative ideas, respect for human rights, and the support of international organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia, and the media, progress can be made at the local level to ensure a successful reception and integration of migrants and refugees in the region.
Based on the results of 231 interviews in 109 localities in 25 countries, the study proposes at least four lessons to capitalize on the work being done by the local governments facing these arrivals. Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that local governments do not operate in a vacuum when working on the reception and integration of migrants and refugees, but there is an important influence of national governments on local actions—both in positive and negative ways. Migration policies are usually established at the national level, and local governments must respond with these in mind. It is, therefore, no surprise that for most local governments, coordination with national policies represents one of their main challenges. Another factor that also influences their work (and often supports it) is that of civil society and international organizations. They play a key role in most of the localities studied, and fill institutional gaps to meet the needs of migrants and refugees.
A second lesson from the study refers to the variation in local structures and capacities across cities in the Americas. Indeed, the study confirms that there is significant diversity in the structures and capacities of the 109 localities studied in the report. On one side of the spectrum, there are localities with a long migratory history and with resources which have stable structures designed to provide services to migrants and refugees. As documented in the study, some examples include the Mayor’s Office for Migration Affairs in New York City in the United States and the Coordination of Policies for Immigrants and Promotion of Decent Employment of São Paulo in Brazil. Other cities are facing new migratory dynamics, which has pressured their governments and have had to rely on international organizations as they develop local response initiatives, such as seen in several non-border localities in Colombia, Chile, and Brazil.
At the other end of the spectrum are border localities that are generally isolated and have few resources to respond comprehensively to the needs of migrants and refugees. These include border or rural cities that are in people’s migratory trajectories. One example is the locality of Darien in the border between Colombia and Panama. Lastly, in terms of capacities, although there are still significant gaps, training programs for local officials on issues of reception and integration of migrants were reported in 47 percent of the localities assessed. It is important to emphasize, however, that 42 percent of these programs are based on normative and rights issues, and do not focus on practical aspects of policy design and implementation.
Thirdly, the report also indicates that most local government actors prioritize socio-economic integration, followed by reception, although needs and priorities vary by type of locality. This suggests that upon arrival, cities really need to provide access for migrants and refugees to goods and services—including employment—to meet their basic needs and those of their families. The pre-condition for this access is providing them with regularization options or legal pathways. It is worth highlighting that for border localities in particular, the priority was reception, although this was often understood as the rapid processing of people and not as the comprehensive provision of services for the population. Lastly, in some of the newer destinations, in the absence of sufficient social networks that can provide support to migrants and refugees in host communities, there is greater awareness, urgency, and need for local actors to provide adequate reception and socio-economic integration services. One common challenge for cities evaluated in the report is counting on disaggregated and updated information on migrants at the local level to facilitate the creation and access to appropriate reception and integration services.
One last lesson the study points to refers to political integration and the often-ignored aspect of migrant and refugee integration. In this regard, the study confirms that there is still a long way to go to achieve political integration. In most of the localities studied in the report, there are almost no mechanisms for the political participation of migrants and refugees. Access to identity documents was identified as the main hurdle in this area. Concerning identity documents, it is important to highlight very innovative practices coming from cities to provide identification to these arrivals, who may not always carry a passport or ID with them. The study shows different models of municipal identification that have been adopted in Mexico City and in localities across the United States. Regarding political participation, in cities such as Bogota and São Paulo, permanent spaces for political participation have been developed for migrants and refugees. However, there is a long way to go and a pressing need to adopt an official narrative that presents migrants and refugees as neighbors, newcomers, and citizens and also to encourage social cohesion not only within migrant spaces but in other broader community spaces.
Although the focus on the local level is not entirely new, this report provides one of the first regional perspectives at a continental scale on migration and protection institutions and policies in the Americas, thanks to its comprehensive and diverse voices. What is novel is that it covers a wide variety of localities in a region that is profoundly diverse in terms of structures, institutional frameworks, and capacities, It reflects the perspectives of individuals on the ground who are directly involved in the challenges and opportunities posed by the reception and integration of migrants and refugees. The common denominator that emerges from the analysis is that these cities have been creating positive innovations to provide protection and better opportunities for the populations settled in their territories. It is precisely these positive innovations of receiving, protecting, and integrating that should be replicated and promoted at the hemispheric level.
The opinions in this article are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian is the Director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity within the Organization of American States (OAS). As Director, she oversees the OAS’s efforts to promote social inclusion and access to human rights, with a particular focus on vulnerable populations. Additionally, Betilde is a founding member and coordinator of the Network of Latin American Female Political Scientists, known as #NoSinMujeres. This project aims to promote and empower women’s work in Latin American Political Science. Betilde holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of South Florida and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Florida International University.