Stopping rural people going to cities only makes poverty less visible, and stripping migrants of rights makes it worse

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18 March 2015

Amid concerns rural migrants transfer poverty to urban areas, Cecila Tacoli makes the case for citizenship rights and proactive planning for urban growth to reduce disadvantage and poverty

Jakarta: migrants from rural villages sleeping in an area that they rent for Rp 1.000,- (10 cents Euro) per night per person. There can be more than 50 people living and sleeping in this area at one time (Photo: Henry Ismail, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The number of people moving from rural areas to cities, particularly in the global South, continues to attract much interest, but also growing concern. The number of national governments that have policies to reduce rural to urban migration has doubled since 1996. They include many in regions with rapid urban population growth, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. 

Yet these policies are largely ineffective, and can have damaging consequences. In many cases when urban governments try to reduce or control rural-urban migration, this also affects low-income residents and not just migrants.

This raises the question as to whether policies that specifically target migrants in urban centres are either desirable or practical. A recent paper prepared as background for the forthcoming World Migration Report 2015 Migrants and Cities: New Urban Partnerships to Manage Mobility asks just that. 

Rural-urban migration, urbanisation and urban population growth

There is often confusion 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), which can lead to inappropriate policies. 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 also be high, especially in countries with high fertility rates. 

Rapid population growth is a huge challenge for many cities in the global South which have severe housing, infrastructure and service deficiencies, as well severe overcrowding. But a growing urban population also has advantages. 

It is hard to find sustained economic growth without urbanisation, mainly because agglomeration helps to increase productivity. Providing infrastructure and services (eg water, sanitation, education and health) in densely populated urban centres is also generally cheaper than in isolated rural settlements. 

Given these advantages, restricting migration is not the answer. In fact, 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

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. 

In many cities, however, migrants make up a disproportionate share of the urban poor and face similar disadvantages, including difficulties in finding adequate housing and in accessing services. 

Like the majority of the urban poor, low-income migrants work long hours in low-paid, insecure and unsafe jobs and are exposed to a wide range of environmental hazards because most low-income and informal settlements lack basic infrastructure and are located in dangerous areas where land is cheaper. 

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 – the Demographic and Health Surveys and national household surveys – do not show much interest in migration.

Censuses report on migration, but in most cases the information is not disaggregated at the city level. And at best, they are conducted every 10 years, and so miss the often large number of temporary migrants, in many cases the poorest ones, who continue to move between rural and urban areas. 

This reflects the overall lack of data on urban poverty, and on the diversity of the forms and severity of disadvantage experienced by different poor groups. When poor people set their own poverty lines (PDF) they highlight the importance of both income and non-income factors, and how these translate into several different levels of poverty. 

Poor migrants in many cases must send money home to repay debt and to support their families, and this makes it difficult to invest in housing and education in the city. For poor migrants coming from rural areas affected by drought and irregular rainfall, moving to the city can often mean living in informal settlements, where environmental hazards are extremely high. 

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 areas considered as '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 arises because they cannot register as residents 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 this lack of full civic rights in many cases is a result of 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.  

Better data, such as the enumerations conducted by local grassroots organisations, and full citizenship rights are key to reducing the disadvantage of migrants, and also the marginalisation of many low-income groups. 

Cecilia Tacoli is co-head of IIED's Human Settlements Group and team leader for rural-urban research.

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