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GREAT insights Magazine

Stopping urban migrants no solution for urban poverty

June 2015

Tacoli, C. 2015. Stopping urban migrants no solution for urban poverty. GREAT insights Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 4. June/July 2015.

Rural migrants are often a disproportionate share of the urban poor, but stopping them does not address the root causes of income and non-income urban poverty. Inclusive urbanisation requires informed and proactive planning accountable to all groups.

Rural-urban migration is a growing concern for many governments in regions with rapid urban population growth, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Among 185 countries with available data in 2013, 80% had policies to lower rural to urban migration, an increase from 38% in 1996. But by and large these policies are ineffective, and, rather than stopping migrants moving to the cities, in many cases they have a negative impact on most low-income residents, making urban poverty worse.

The difference between urbanisation and urban population growth

At the root of these policies is often some confusion in understanding the difference between urbanisation (the share of the national population living in urban areas) and urban population growth (the absolute number of people living in urban areas). Internal rural-urban migration is a major driver of urbanisation. On average, however, rural-urban migration accounts for less than half of urban population growth, as natural increase (the number of births exceeding deaths) can be high, especially in countries with high fertility rates.

In most cases, urbanisation is closely linked to sustained economic growth, as nations’ share of GDP and employment move from agriculture to industry and services, sectors which benefit from agglomeration in urban centres. In countries where most of the population is rural, agricultural production systems are increasingly based around large-scale, mechanised farming, and inadequate access to credit and technology put a strain on the capacity of smallholders to adapt to droughts and climate variability. Rural-urban migration is the result of these transformations, which reflect both new opportunities and growing constraints.

While providing infrastructure and services in densely populated urban centres is generally cheaper than in isolated rural settlements, it must be recognised that rapid population growth is a huge challenge for many cities in the Global South facing severe housing, infrastructure and service deficiencies, as well as various forms of congestion. However, restricting migration is not the answer, since the problem is not so much rapid urban population growth but rather the lack of proactive planning (and political will) to accommodate it.

Migrants and urban poverty: income and non-income dimensions

Migrants are often blamed for increasing urban poverty, but not all migrants are poor. Migrants moving to urban areas looking for formal employment and education are often the wealthier rural residents, although there is also a growing number of poor rural residents who are forced to move, often on a seasonal basis, because of the increasing difficulties to make a living out of farming and to repay debts. In many cities, migrants are a disproportionate share of the urban poor with whom they share income and non-income disadvantages, including difficulties in finding adequate housing and in accessing services, and high levels of food insecurity. But there is also a severe lack of data on migrants in urban areas. The conventional sources used to measure and monitor many aspects of poverty, such as the Demographic and Health Surveys and national household surveys, do not usually include migrant status. Censuses report on migration, but in most cases the information is not disaggregated at the city level. And at best, censuses are conducted every ten years, and so miss the often large number of temporary migrants, in many cases the poorest ones.

This reflects the overall lack of data on urban poverty. Where these exist, they highlight the importance of both income and non-income factors. For most of the urban poor, living conditions are often dreadful: inadequate shelter and insecure tenure, often in unsafe neighbourhoods and areas exposed to hazards such as floods and landslides and with limited access to water and sanitation makes them extremely vulnerable to disease and accidents. Limited access to transport, distance from workplaces and services increase social isolation. This is exacerbated by inadequate protection of their rights and entitlements, and limited representation and power within political systems and bureaucratic structures, which are especially severe for poor migrants.

The importance of non-income dimensions is reflected in the high levels of food insecurity in many cities of the Global South, where while inadequate incomes are the root cause, poor people living in informal settlements often lack space to cook and store food safely so have to rely on street vendors who prepare and sell food in limited public spaces exposed to high levels of environmental hazards such as solid waste, often including human and animal excreta, open sewers and inadequate surface drainage to channel rainwater resulting in frequent flooding. Combined with a lack of electricity and safe storage spaces and limited access to clean water for traders and consumers, this means that food safety is a major concern. Another important concern is the rapid increase of the ‘double burden’ of malnutrition, where high levels of chronic malnutrition among children coexist with overweight/obesity among adults within the same community and often within the same household and is related to the growing reliance on street food.

Non-income urban poverty also has a distinctive gendered dimension as it puts a disproportionate burden on those members of communities and households who are responsible for unpaid carework such as cleaning, cooking and looking after children, the sick and the elderly. At the same time, cash-based urban economies mean that poor women are compelled to also engage in paid activities. In many instances this involves work in the lowest-paid formal and informal sector activities which, at times of economic crises, require increasingly long hours for the same income. Combined with cuts in the public provision of services, higher costs for food, water and transport, efforts to balance paid work and unpaid carework take a growing toll on women.

Nevertheless, urban centres increasingly attract women as they offer more opportunities to earn an income than rural areas. This is reflected in changing urban sex ratios. Sex ratios (the rate of males to females in a population) in urban areas largely reflect gender selectivity in rural-urban migration. As a result of changes in urban labour markets, the proportion of women living in urban areas has been steadily increasing in most parts of the world. In Latin America and Southeast Asia, employment in export-oriented manufacturing has attracted female workers for decades and in specific sectors such as garments they constitute 70 – 90% of the workforce. But the feminisation of the labour force has coincided with a growing informalisation of work and an erosion of working conditions and pay.

Managing migration or addressing urban poverty?

Given the lack of data on migration, it is difficult to implement policies to lower rural-urban movement. More common are policies that aim to discourage migrants from settling in cities, but this often means limiting the provision of basic infrastructure to ‘illegal’ settlements, and can easily be read as an attempt to discourage all low-income groups, regardless of their migrant status. In many cities of the Global South aspiring to the status of ‘world city’, widespread evictions of low-income households are increasingly commonplace.

One important disadvantage for migrants is the lack of registration with local authorities in destination areas. This affects access to basic services and social protection programmes, as well as the ability to vote in local government elections. But lack of full civic rights in many cases is linked to where people live, rather than to their migrant status. Living in low-income informal settlements makes it difficult to prove residency and therefore to access official documents and this affects all residents, migrants or not. And since registration is often used to control and limit rights, its central aim needs to be that of providing equitable access to rights to all groups.

Hence inclusive urbanisation that addresses the needs of diverse low-income groups, be they migrants or long-term residents, remains elusive in many fast-growing cities of the Global South. There are however several examples of initiatives and programmes to reduce urban poverty that build on the capacities of the residents of low-income settlements to work with local governments in providing the necessary but generally missing information. One example is that of enumerations – effectively local censuses – conducted by local grassroots organisations. These include temporary residents, people sharing accommodation and all those who are typically ‘invisible’ in official censuses and surveys – that is, a large proportion of migrants. Collaboration between organisations of residents of low-income urban settlements and local governments is also essential in the long term with regards to the provision of adequate and affordable housing and basic services to reduce deprivation.

Overall, however, perhaps the most important element of successfully managing fast-growing cities is ensuring full citizenship rights to all groups. This is often a key disadvantage for migrants; but it is also a root cause of the marginalisation of many low-income groups.

This article draws on a background paper by Cecilia Tacoli, Gordon McGranahan and David Satterthwaite available at: prepared for the World Migration Report 2015 Migrants and Cities: New Urban Partnerships to Manage Mobility.


About the author


Cecilia Tacoli is principal researcher in the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied).

Photo: Carrying water  home. Every dry season, entire villages migrate with their livestock to find water. Such migration prevents the establishment of schools, health clinics, markets, and a general social infrastructure. Credits: Water for South Sudan Inc.

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 4 (June/July 2015).

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External authors

Cecilia Tacoli