H3 Policy Brief: Planning for Migration – Policy Recommendations for Cities from Habitat III

By Cara Mazetti Claassen


This policy brief discusses human mobility and displacement as long-term realities for cities which need to be accounted for in urban planning and local level public administration frameworks. It is not a comprehensive account of the challenges and opportunities presented by migrants and refugees to cities around the world. Neither is it a complete account of the strategies that have been, and can be, implemented by cities globally to plan for human mobility. Instead it serves as a potential starting point for further discussion into the recommendations on the issue of migration and refugees which emerged from the United Nations Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable urban development in Quito, Ecuador in 2016. These recommendations are applications of the New Urban Agenda’s mandate for sustainable and inclusive cities with respect to migration and refugees. They focus on changing the attitudes and behaviour of governments, media and the public towards migrants and refugees. This is to ensure planning for migration and refugees in every sector of city management in a way honours the human rights of these people.

Migration and Refugees – A Reality for Cities

There is a fair amount of contestation over the distinction between what is meant by the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ which are often problematically treated as interchangeable. In dominant policy discourse, however, the distinction is largely based on the mobility choices available to these people. Commonly, refugees are understood to be people who are forced to flee conflict or persecution in search of sanctuary with the understanding that they do not have the choice of returning home. On the other hand, migrants are perceived as having more choice. They are understood to be people who choose to move in order to improve their lives (often by finding work), or in some cases for education, reunion with family, or for other reasons. For a broad range of reasons increasingly more people (both refugees and migrants) are moving out of their home towns and cities and into cities elsewhere in search of safer and better lives.

Once in the new city, migrants and refugees often become part of the urban poor. Refugees typically arrive at refugee camps with little to no financial resources or material possessions; making them vulnerable newcomers. Whilst the group of people who constitute ‘migrants’ is varied, a significant proportion of these people move in search of work as a result of their experiences of poverty in their home countries. This makes them similarly vulnerable upon arrival. Refugees and migrants often end up living in under-resourced areas, such as refugee camps or slums (many of which are on the urban periphery). Here they struggle to access networks of support, jobs and basic services, living lives of geographic, economic and social isolation. The trend of human mobility and displacement is therefore also an important dimension of the broader global trends of rapid urbanisation and the urbanisation of poverty.

Cities all over the world are faced with the reality of rural-to-urban, regional and international migration. The movement of large numbers of people into cities poses challenges to the infrastructure and management of cities. Consensus at Habitat III among panellists including Jill Helke (International Organisation for Migration), Jean-Louis De Brouwer (European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department) and Hubert Julien Laferrière (mayor of the 9th district of Lyon, France) was that this reality of migration and refugees is one which is unlikely to change in the long-term. Temporary emergency measures for dealing with the migration and refugees are therefore unsustainable responses. Short-term views of the migration and refugee ‘crisis’ have in some countries been coupled with negative, fear-based sentiments towards newcomers at times manifesting in racism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia and other forms of discrimination by some sectors within government, the media and the public.

Participants at Habitat III, including Mayor Hubert Julien Laferrière, called on governments to lead the change in discourse on migration and refugees and city governments, in particular, to integrate strategies for managing migration and refugees into their urban planning and public administration frameworks.

The New Urban Agenda’s Mandate on Migration and Refugees

The centrality of migration and refugees to cities is echoed in the New Urban Agenda.  According to point 28 of the New Urban Agenda, governments should ensure full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants, regardless of their migration status. This, according to point 20 of the agenda, should be achieved by addressing the discrimination faced by migrants and refugees and ensuring access to full, productive and decent employment and public goods and services. This requires the elimination of legal, institutional, socio-economic, and physical barriers to access. This in turn relies on the city-level implementation of dedicated migration policies that enable the positive contribution of migrants and refugees to cities. Panellists at Habitat III agreed that a necessary condition for ensuring that the needs of migrants and refugees are met (particularly the latter, who are likely to seek permanent citizenship)is to engage them, and involve refugees in particular in the decision-making processes relating to integrating new citizens.

Recommendations for Cities made at Habitat II

During the conference, governments, migration-related organisations, researchers and policy professionals discussed how the New Urban Agenda’s mandate on migration and refugees could be implemented by cities. Their policy recommendations are divided into attitudinal and behaviour changes.

Changing Attitudes towards Migrants and Refugees

It is important to recognise that there are global examples of the positive integration of migrants and refugees into cities. Despite this, fear-based othering of newcomers continues to manifest in different aspects of urban life in some cities. Continued cases of racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and other discriminatory rhetoric (by the media, politicians and the public), exclusion and violence towards newcomers points to the need for a focus not only on addressing migration policy, planning practices and service provision, but also addressing the broader discourse on foreigners. President Donald Trump’s executive order in January 2017 to halt all refugee admissions into the United States of America and prohibit the entry into the country for people from seven Muslim-majority countries is a prime example of continued discrimination against groups of vilified ‘others’.

A renewed critical focus on global migration and refugee policy is necessary firstly because, as pointed out by Jill Helke at Habitat III, negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees are often ill-informed; they are often based on ungrounded prejudiced views and do not factor in the positive social and economic contributions newcomers make to urban life. Secondly, negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees by the media, public and politicians often translate into exclusionary policy practices making these parties an obstacle to effective planning for migration.

According to Theodore Liebman (Fellowship – The American Institute of Architects), in the spirit of the New Urban Agenda and Habitat III, it therefore is prudent for governments to see migration and refugees not as a temporary humanitarian crisis, but as a development challenge and opportunity for cities which demands a response in line with the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Canada and the city of Madrid were acknowledged by Theodore Liebman and a representative from the Madrid City Council at Habitat III for measures taken to send messages of welcome to migrants and refugees. Madrid has fitted a sign reading ‘Refugees Welcome’ to one of its state buildings while the Canadian government has chosen simply to refer to immigrants as ‘new Canadians’. These are small steps (fairly non-committal in reality) in the right direction towards more inclusive and embracing responses to migration and refugees.

Changing Policy: Planning for Migration

It was argued by Loren Landau (African Centre for Migration and Society) at Habitat III that it is not enough to merely recommend that national and city governments be the frontrunners in changing attitudes towards migrants and refugees. City governments, in particular, are often preoccupied with the challenge rather than the opportunity posed by migration and refugees. Along with national governments, they also generally want to maintain favour with their constituents so criticising publicly held prejudice can be seen as politically risky. The argument follows that it is therefore necessary to incentivise national governments to develop policy responses to migrants and refugees and to incentivise city governments to explicitly plan for migration through developing tailored urban planning and public administration frameworks.

Humanitarian and non-governmental organisations have a potential role to play in this by tying aid and investments to progressive urban planning and public policies. In this way city governments are rewarded for good migration policy and practice with public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals or libraries which may win them favour from communities allows migrants and refugees to be associated with communal gains as opposed to losses.

Once there is commitment from national and local governments to plan actively for migration and refugees, what remains is deciding what to plan for and what the planning process should involve. The New Urban Agenda outlines a set of public goods and services which migrants, regardless of their status, should have access to. These include:

  • Affordable serviced land
  • Housing
  • Modern and renewable energy
  • Safe drinking water and sanitation
  • Safe, nutritious and adequate food
  • Waste disposal
  • Sustainable mobility
  • Healthcare and family planning
  • Education
  • Culture
  • Information and communication technologies

In particular, Habitat III paid substantial attention to the need to provide access to flexible housing for migrants and refugees. The City of New York, as an example, was acknowledged by Jill Helke for its provision of cards for all city residents which enables immigrants to access to city services. Mention was made by Floris Alkemade (Chief Government Architect, the Netherlands) to the importance of ensuring that housing options for newcomers are within proximity of other social services and facilitate integration rather than spatial, social and economic exclusion from urban life as is often the case with much existing shelter provided for migrants and refugees.

An organisation called Mieux (Migration EU Expertise), as well as Mediterranean City-to-City Migration and Jill Helke presented resources available to governments to help them plan for and manage migration and refugees. Support is provided to city governments in the form of policy advisory, partnership building between experts and practitioners, and knowledge – and experience sharing through dialogue and training. Diane Archer (International Institute for Environment and Development) and Aisa Kirabo Kacyira (UN-Habitat) spoke to the importance of recognizing the agency of migrants and refugees. As indicated by all of the speakers mentioned here, in order to best meet the needs of migrants and refugees there needs to be meaningful engagement between government and their newcomers.


Human mobility and displacement are realities affecting cities across the world. They are realities which present both long-term challenges and opportunities for cities and therefore require long-term, localised strategies. These strategies should address existing negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees on the part of the media, public and politicians in the interest of implementing urban planning and public administration which meets the needs of migrants and refugees in all aspects of public life. Although more comprehensive research is required, this policy brief outlined several recommendations from the Habitat III conference about how urban and national authorities can plan for migration and in doing so mandate for sustainable and inclusive cities with respect to migration and refugees.

Policy Recommendations

  • Human mobility and displacement must be recognized as long-term realities for cities so that governments can plan and manage cities accordingly.
  • Governments should be at the forefront of changing negative attitudes and related forms of discrimination towards migrants and refugees which are often ill-informed, violate the human rights of migrants and refugees, and hinder the integration of newcomers into their new cities.
  • Humanitarian organisations should incentivise governments not immediately willing to recognize the positive contribution of migrants and refugees, or to plan for human mobility and displacement, by tying public investments and aid to formulating and implementing planning policies which recognize and meet the human rights of migrants and refugees.
  • Long-term strategies for managing migration and refugees should be integrated into all areas of public administration and city management.
  • Governments should ensure that the human rights of migrants and refugees are respected and that these groups are able to access basic public goods and services including affordable serviced land, housing, modern and renewable energy, safe drinking water and sanitation, safe, nutritious and adequate food, waste disposal, sustainable mobility, healthcare and family planning, education, culture, and information and communication technologies.
  • Governments and migration-related organisations should recognise the agency of migrants and refugees. Migrants and refugees should be involved in formulating cities’ plans for managing human mobility and displacement.



International Organisation for Migration, World Migration Report 2015, (2015)

Mutuma Ruteere, Report Of The Special Rapporteur On Contemporary Forms Of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia And Related Intolerance, (2016), accessed October 27, 2016, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Racism/A-HRC-26-49.pdf

United Nations, Habitat III: New Urban Agenda Draft outcome document for adoption in Quito, October 2016, (2016) accessed October 27, 2016, https://www2.habitat3.org/bitcache/97ced11dcecef85d41f74043195e5472836f6291?vid=588897&disposition=inline&op=view


About the author

Cara Mazetti Claassen is studying a Masters degree in Cities and Global Development at the University of Sheffield. She is a Chevening scholar from South Africa. She attended the Habitat III conference as a policy analyst from the University of Sheffield. Before commencing her Masters she worked as an assistant researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society in Johannesburg, South Africa.






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