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Reception and integration of migrants and refugees in cities across the Americas

May 08, 2023

A new report released by a research consortium led by the Organization of American States, and including CERC Migration, examines the increasingly complex role of the cities and local institutions that are on the front lines of responding to the migrants and refugees who are crossing their borders in search of a better way of life. The report,  (PDF file) Reception and Integration of Migrants and Refugees in Cities Across the Americas (external link) , provides one of the first regional reviews of local migration institutions and policies in the Americas.

Over the past decade, the Americas have experienced rising levels of migration driven by factors such as socio-economic, political and environmental crises. The International Organization for Migration estimates there are 73.5 million migrants in the Americas, including millions who are internally displaced or seeking asylum. Local communities are on the front lines of receiving the mass influx of newcomers and are called on to assist with everything from the short-term needs of shelter, food, emergency health care and transportation to longer-term requirements, such as intercultural and social programs that facilitate migrants’ integration. Communities have vastly different levels of resources and capabilities to meet these service needs and to manage the changes in their society.

The Organization of American States and its consortium has recognized the urgent need to better understand the responses of local governments and civil society organizations as they face new challenges and assume new responsibilities in the reception and integration of migrant and refugee populations. While the project aimed to identify gaps, equally important was the goal of identifying the solutions and good practices that are arising in the communities and that can be widely shared among local actors.

Differentiated experiences, common trends

While the collection of local experiences is varied across the Americas, the report summarizes common trends of progress, opportunities and challenges. A key finding was the common disconnect between national and local government policies in which the national government has the influence and authority yet remains remote while the local government carries the burden of service provision with limited resources. In 65% of the studied localities, there is a lack of financial resources to effectively respond to migrants and refugees. In all regions studied, socio-economic integration was identified as the main need, followed by reception services. The report identifies six key components for successful reception and integration at the local level: adapt, train, include, communicate, link and regularize.

The report synthesized 231 interviews of individuals working in service roles (i.e., in government, NGOs and community-based organizations). Interviews were conducted in 109 locations in 25 countries over the course of 2021.

Lessons from Canada

CERC Migration Researcher Berti Olinto managed Canada’s contribution, conducting interviews in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton and Moncton.

“While Canada’s context is quite distinctive from the receiving countries in South and Central America,” said Olinto, “we have had good success with local programs that offer potential models for other countries to consider.”

Olinto added that the purpose of the report was not to compare or contrast experiences but to promote research-based knowledge on how cities in the Americas are facing complex migration phenomena, including their challenges, failures and achievements over the last decade.

The use of federally funded Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs) is one of the Canadian examples examined in the report., While the approximately 80 LIPS that are operating in cities across Canada have varying roles, most focus on connecting actors in the community to undertake research and strategic planning as well as on connecting migrants to local support services. Case studies such as the LIPs, the Employment Integration Program for Immigrants and Visible Minorities in Quebec and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrants Affairs in New York are analyzed to provide other localities with recent examples of inter-agency working groups that are addressing immigration issues.

Olinto noted other important findings from the Canadian study, such as the lack of sufficient culturally relevant services for migrant groups at the local level, particularly for those who are arriving due to crisis; a lack of awareness of the state of crisis from which migrants have fled; and the lack of migrants’ involvement in developing policies and programs.

“While we have many great services for migrants in Canada,” said Olinto, “seeing our results relative to that of other countries underscores that there is room for improvement here too. The Latin American community, particularly Venezuelan newcomers, for example, has had a very distinct experience that led them to Canada, and they now have specific settlement needs. We can do better in understanding the differentiated issues and challenges facing migrant groups as they progress on their path to integrate into Canadian society.”

Reciprocal learning

Research and migrant organizations in North America can also learn more on how local structures have been created in Central and South America with the support of municipal governments, civil society and community-based organizations mainly as a result of the influx of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, which has prompted the design and formulation of public policy for the reception and integration of migrants in traditionally immigrant-sending countries.

“Perhaps the most pressing conclusion of this study is that at the local level, there are opportunities for the reception and integration of migrants and refugees, and that local actors can play a key role in the reception and integration of this population. Despite numerous challenges, the cases shown here demonstrate that with will, innovative ideas, respect for human rights, and the support of international organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia, and the media, there are important advances at the local level that can serve as the foundations for future progress on the successful reception and integration of migrants and refugees across the Americas.”

Concluding comments from the report, Reception and integration of migrants and refugees in cities across the Americas (2023, p.84)

Participating organizations:

  • The Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity of the Organization of American States through the Department of Social Inclusion
  • The International Organization for Migration
  • The Pan American Development Foundation
  • The Migration Team of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • The International Labour Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University
  • Club de Madrid