• misty

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

One of MISTY’s areas of inquiry is how people living in cities accommodate to emerging transformations, including those shaped by the movement of refugees. Current interest in refugee participation in documenting and describing change is high, and many projects on placemaking now include “refugee voices.” But which stories about refugees grab our attention, and why? A recent Q&A session with celebrated author Dina Nayeri raised my awareness of some common assumptions around movers.

Nayeri’s book The Ungrateful Refugee: What immigrants never tell you (Primrose Press) tells of her own experience leaving Iran with her mother under great duress, moving through several places and lengthy periods of time before arriving in the United States. Nayeri alerts us to the crushing expectations placed on movers to “posture gratefulness” as a means of making their presence somehow acceptable to those already there.

What’s behind our expectation that refugees and other migrants should be grateful for joining a community? Some of this has to do with our naturalized assumption that people in our communities are—or should be—members of the same nation. Our current system of national belonging is built upon a broad difference in rights and resources between those deemed to be ‘local’ and those who are seen as ‘newcomers’. Despite the outrage expressed at the US president’s recent tweets which racially marked a subset of Americans as outsiders, this dynamic is perpetuated in myriad ways in local—and global—discussions of refugee integration.

Much refugee and immigrant integration thinking casts receiving communities as relatively static, and newcomers as obliged to adapt. Our policies and practices measure levels of adaptation of immigrant and refugee movers to community expectations, like language learning levels, or encourage inclusion and diversity in our workplaces, public services, and elsewhere. As Nayeri notes, we expect gratefulness to accompany newcomer efforts to adapt and be included.

But communities are not static, and border-crossers are not the only mobile newcomers. Most communities include members who have shifted residence—people may move house locally, but additionally may send their children away to boarding schools, or attend university far from their families, or relocate to other places for work. Newcomers to communities thus take many forms—but crossing a border seems to make the biggest difference to the form of welcome granted.

Perhaps the stories well tell ourselves about refugees as “out of place” underlie the

assumptions around mobile newcomer and stable society. Many common refugee narratives unwittingly follow an arc from national exclusion and expulsion, through flight and exile, and waiting for a chance to “make home” in a new country. Indeed, this trajectory is common, and Nayeri talks about how she and her family members felt “crushed by the waiting.” But it was “the look that well-meaning people gave them seeking acknowledgement” for the welcome that helped her understand the neverending expectation of gratefulness for being allowed into the national space.

While mobility for some people is easier than ever, moving to safety for people threatened by political upheaval has resulted in longer and longer periods of waiting at borders. This humanitarian story relies on the meaning we attribute to borders and territories, and our requirement of “gratefulness” on its political implementation.

This article was written by Anita Fabos, Clark University.

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Panel members, including the Minister of Disaster Management. Photo © Mr Mohammad Talha/RMMRU. Researchers and policy makers from city and national planning agencies in Bangladesh met with researchers to discuss the insights and the challenges faced by migrants in rapidly growing cities of Bangladesh.

Power of Partnership for impactful research

There are diverse pathways to improve migrants’ experience in large urban centres in relation to sustainability, security, integration and wellbeing. At a recent event, researchers from ESRC-DFID funded projects: Safe and Sustainable Cities: human security, migration and wellbeing (led by University of Exeter); and Supporting the Social Mobility of Trapped Populations - see also Migrants on the Margin - (led by University of Sussex) – co-hosted policy dialogues with key stakeholders in Dhaka to maximise the impact and disseminate their research findings to policy makers, practitioners, researchers, NGOs and international donors including DFID and UNICEF.

The workshop on safe and sustainable cities, jointly organised by country partners Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), attracted over 120 participants and received significant media coverage from both national and specialised media. Community leaders and migrants from Chattogram provided direct testimony of their concerns related to security and wellbeing.

The Minister for Planning, Mr MA Mannan, and the Minister for Disaster Management and Relief, Dr Enamur Rahman, emphasised the need for evidence on new migrant populations and praised the international collaboration efforts of ICCCAD and RMMRU. Other key speakers included the Chief Assistant of the General Economic Division of the Planning Commission, Mr Shimul Sen, and Chief Town Planner of Chittagong Development Authority, Mr Shaheenul Islam Khan, as well as representatives from DFID, UNICEF and others.

The second impact and dissemination activity, a Learning Hub Event with the General Economics Division of the Planning Commission, was organised by ICCCAD and brought together researchers and policy and planning officials to discuss migration in the context of planning in Bangladesh.

Food for thought: bringing lived experiences to the policy arena

Presentations by Safe and Sustainable Cities PI Neil Adger and Supporting the Social Mobility of Trapped Populations researcher Meraz Mostafa summarised the findings of the two projects. Narratives of two Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) migrants, who shared their lived experiences of Chattogram with the help of powerful visual images, provided food for thought and stimulated reflections from policy stakeholders present at the National Dissemination event.

Migrants’ photographs made the challenges affecting migrants in Chattogram more tangible and relatable. They spoke about everyday struggles of balancing long working hours and pursuing education to gain skills for enhanced employment and income prospects, while enduring poor housing, limited access to basic facilities, and multiple health and safety hazards characteristic of low-income neighbourhoods: "I go to a computer class after I come from work. After I come back from there, I have to cook food, but the gas supply is really poor as there is a scarcity for it. I also have to study. All this is very tough for me”.

In response, a representative of UNICEF proposed sharing these findings with the private sector, especially the garment industry, which employs many migrants in Chattogram. Mr Sen from the GED agreed that there is a need to engage the private sector in order to create sustainable cities.

Hazardous and overcrowded foot bridge during commuting hours. Photo credit: Mr Dheeman Chakma (Chattogram migrant)

A community leader and migrant drew policy makers’ attention to the unsafe road conditions and the frequent occurrence of water logging in the neighbourhood: "you can see that the roads go under water when high tide comes, without any rain. This road is near the school and this is an everyday scenario." Some of the low-lying low-income neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Chattogram’s Karnafuly River especially suffer from the consequences of water logging.

Dr Enamur Rahman, Minister for Disaster Management, agreed that "we are facing many challenges while providing urban facilities, including housing, water supply, sanitation and transport, to the dwellers of mega cities like Dhaka and Chattogram." Mr Shaheenul Islam Khan from CDA stressed that "while planning for cities, it is important to keep accommodation arrangement for people in accordance to their place of work." Housing should be integral to industries; they should provide accommodation to their employees. Additionally, discussants voiced that at the moment, the resilience of residential homesteads is not considered in current planning and design. This is only of concern for public dwellings.

Challenges and opportunities in urban planning

Participants at the events were unanimous about the urgent need for sustainable solutions as urban population continues to increase, mainly driven by climate change and economic factors. Ministers were keen to emphasise existing initiatives that should hopefully, with time, address some of the issues raised by the two projects. Dr Rahman highlighted that "the current government is doing its best to provide education and health services to all industrial workers including those engaged in garments sector." Mr Mannan agreed, and added that "in the last 10 years, we could manage to bring changes to many things in our country. The country’s people want better cities, better water supply and we are trying to fulfil their basic rights." However, Mr Sen pointed out that while indeed there are already several policies in place, many lack implementation due to a lack of coordination between different ministries. He went on to argue that improving coordination will be a key first step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing existing urban challenges.

Towards sustainable cities

Participants discussed several pressing concerns which have important implications for meeting SDGs, in an effort to explore pathways to improve urban governance towards sustainability. Migration to large urban centres in Bangladesh will continue, with some projections suggesting that around 26 million people will move from their places of origin by 2050. The Planning Minister Mr Mannan, in his concluding remarks, highlighted that internal migration has been a key feature of the urbanisation process in the country. "We can't stop it. We would like to help make better towns."

Regarding the impact of research from both projects, the Minister for Planning stated that the Bangladesh government is ready to welcome policy-level contributions from international collaborations, with the ultimate goal of improving sustainability and urban governance. "We would like to coordinate, and change things so that at the end of the day, city dwellers, new migrants, [and] old migrants… can live in peace," he added. Lessons that emerged from research findings and discussions will be relevant for development of policy that accounts for the urban challenges faced by new migrant populations in the country.

Research for policy and practice

Direct engagement with policy makers and practitioners was key to maximise research uptake. The Learning Hub Event at GED provided a platform to demonstrate the policy relevance of the work conducted by the Safe and Sustainable Cities team. Discussions at the LHE suggest a number of lessons for policy and practice around complex socioeconomic and environmental challenges affecting security and wellbeing of urban populations in rapidly growing cities of Bangladesh. Speaking to these challenges, Mr Minhaj Mahmud, division chief of GED and chair of the event, highlighted the importance of the findings to develop interventions and policies to address urban sustainability challenges and suggested further engagement with researchers from ICCCAD, RMMRU, Exeter and Sussex for input towards Bangladesh’s 8th Five Year Plan (from 2021 to 2026).


This article was written by: Ricardo Safra de Campos, University of Exeter; Lucy Szaboova, University of Exeter; Neil Adger, University of Exeter; Tasneem Siddiqui, University of Dhaka and RMMRU; Saleemul Huq, ICCCAD; Michael Collyer, University of Sussex. 


Read/download ESRC-DFID Research for Policy and Practice: Urban community resilience to find out more about the Safe and Sustainable Cities project, and other projects focusing on this theme, enabled by the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation.

Read related news article 'Climate change major challenge for building sustainable cities' published by United News of Bangladesh (UNB) on March 13, 2019.

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

The City of Los Angeles- Photo: Ron Reiring / Flickr /CC BY 2.0.

The human security link

The sustainability of cities depends on the human security of new migrant populations. Human security, in this context, means the ability and real prospect of living a meaningful life. A shorthand for human security is ‘freedom from want and freedom from fear’. Many migrant populations globally face significant insecurity in their material wellbeing as well as social exclusion and exposure to crime, environmental hazards and other dimensions of precarity. Freedom from want and fear encapsulates, therefore, many of these aspects of the human security challenge in growing cities.

Our hypothesis that sustainability of cities is related to the human security of migrants is based on two principal observations. First, it is the population dynamics of migration that drives urbanization processes in rapidly growing cities. Second, migrant populations are critical because they are potential agents of change, even in circumstances where they are economically and politically marginalised.

Do cities grow because of migration? The large majority of people currently living in the most rapidly growing cities, ranging from Lagos to Dhaka to Manila, were not born there, but they moved there either as individuals or with their parents. These people are known as lifetime migrants: up to ninety percent of the population of some large metropolises are in effect in this category. Population estimates of growing mega-cities across Asia and Africa have very significant uncertainty. Estimates come from decadal censuses and nightlight estimates, but are notoriously unreliable. In effect this is because migrants move to cities at rates that are difficult to measure. For Dhaka in Bangladesh, for example, population growth rates suggest that perhaps 1000 extra people arrive in Dhaka every day that were not there the day before.

Why are Migrants Critical to Sustainability?

Most domestic migration to cities from rural areas or smaller settlements across the world is in effect voluntary decisions taken by working age individuals, often in the context of family and households, to realise economic opportunities.  They have much to gain from such moves. And they have much to gain from building communities in places they move to. But migrants tend not to have deep roots, and are often economically marginalised and discriminated against. As documented in greater detail here and here, migrants in low income neighbourhoods and slums have been shown to have poor health outcomes, increased incidence of chronic diseases, lack access to public space, and to preventative health care as well as clustering in places exposed to environmental hazards, from poor water quality, to risks from landslides and floods.

Observing Insecurity in Chattogram

Our research collaboration has focused on Chattogram, the second city of Bangladesh and its commercial and port hub. We have investigated the sources of human insecurity in migrant populations and engaged in action research on bringing new populations into planning processes. Chattogram has grown from approximately 1.5 million to approximately 5.5 million residents in the past generation. We have collected data using survey methods among new migrants from different populations, including ethnic minatory Chittagong Hill Tract people, focussing on how insecurity is manifest and how it affects their material wellbeing and their mental wellbeing. The core elements of human security in this context are captured in attachment to place, security and stability of sources of material wellbeing and employment; fear of violence and crime; and mental health outcomes.  Our preliminary results show that key sources of insecurity include fear of eviction and other elements of precarity.

We have engaged with planners and migrant populations to attempt to build empathy between them. In effect we test whether integration is possible and what small steps can be taken to bring migrant perspectives into city planning. We gave cameras to a cohort of migrants and a cohort of planners with a simple instruction: take photos of what constitutes safety and sustainability for your lives. Each person took hundreds of photographs each, many with deeply held meaning and insight into their own lives and those of their neighbours, families and communities. And they explained these photographs through in-depth narratives that reveal the interactions between elements of precarity and stability.

We brought these two groups together to allow them to compare their stories and images, and to realise the similarities and resonance. In effect, taking the perspectives of each other built empathy between these groups. We believe the visual nature of the often overlooked elements of human security really helped to facilitate this process.

Precarious livelihoods and fear of eviction undermine human security of migrant communities. Bola slum, Dhaka. Photo: Neil Adger.

Human Security and Urban Futures

Human security infuses the Sustainable Development Goal focused on urban settlements. But the dimensions of human security related to the urban experience can usefully be expanded, for example, to incorporate understanding to place attachment and the role of community resilience, and the impact of urban living on mental health.

It is often assumed that the challenge of sustainable urbanization rests with the planners of cities: those that decide on public infrastructure, on fiscal incentives for one type of development over another, or regulate zones for different land uses. Our work in Chattogram is revealing that participatory processes have the potential to incorporate perspectives of the lived experience of those new populations for whom the city is their future and indeed can reflect the lived experience of the planners themselves.

Migration flows to cities result from the myriad of individual decisions about where best to pursue one’s life. Such decisions are taken continuously across the world, and the reality of this fluidity and mobility needs to be part of the human security calculus.

Neil Adger is Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter, UK, and Principal Investigator of  Safe and Sustainable Cities: Human Security, Migration and Wellbeing funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development. Chattogram migrant survey report.

Ricardo Safra de Campos is Research Fellow in Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, UK and co-Investigator of Safe and Sustainable Cities: Human Security, Migration and Wellbeing.

Tasneem Siddiqui is Professor in Political Science at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Founding chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit. She is co-Investigator of Safe and Sustainable Cities: Human Security, Migration and Wellbeing.

This text was first given as a lecture at an event at the Department of Conflict and Peace Research, Uppsala University, organized in collaboration with the CLIMSEC project at PRIO, funded by the European Research Council. For a fuller conceptual discussion of the sustainability or migration, consultthis PRIO report.


  • Twitter