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Do misplaced migration controls undermine the poverty reduction and growth potential of urbanisation?

Urbanisation is happening on a huge scale in developing countries, and is set to continue – in part driven by rural-urban migration. If planned and managed well, both urbanisation and migration can benefit both sending and receiving areas, delivering benefits to economic growth and poverty reduction. Remittances sent by urban migrants to the countryside might actually make their family comparatively wealthy in an area of rural poverty.  Migration can also contribute to labour market transformations that many people view essential in driving forward economic growth.

However, governments around the world often take a pessimistic view of migration to cities and institute policies that actively seek to discourage it. Many seem blind-sighted to any potential benefits of migration by the overwhelming challenges set by rapid urbanisation: overcrowding and pollution, rising unemployment and underemployment, urban violence and other social problems, etc. Municipal governments often lack the capacity to deal effectively with these problems, preferring instead to control migration to their cities through draconian measures.

This anti-migration stance of receiving governments does little to stop the movement of migrants but much to reduce the quality and productivity of their lives in cities. Migrants are often at a disadvantaged position in these urban areas; they are often willing to take on jobs that others cannot or do not want to do (those that are dirty, degrading and dangerous), which tend to be poorly paid and insecure. One estimate shows the incidence of poverty among urban migrants in China is on average 50% higher than amongst local residents. There is evidence of a global trend towards the ‘urbanisation of poverty’. This is supported by recent ODI work illustrating how poverty traps evolve in urban areas – often linked to control over space and the changing nature of vulnerability. Despite this, people still migrate. In Nigeria government approaches include bussing migrants out of Lagos – and yet, migrants keep on coming to the city in search of employment.

One instrument used to exclude migrants by reducing their legal status in cities is personal identification and urban registration, e.g. denying them official residence permits and limiting their access to urban services and employment opportunities, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. The hukou household registration system in China is a well known example. In a rudimentary review conducted recently by Nana Kharbedia (an ODI intern), we were interested to see how far such measures are applied in rapidly urbanising sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and the impact they had on job security, social support and access to public services. 

Our review uncovered only limitedevidence that such measures are being applied:

  • Rural residents travelling to urban areas for trading purposes were unable to bring products in or out, because of their lack of documentation: Proof of identity is often required in order to travel, work, study, obtain medical help and vote, as well as obtaining land and housing (e.g. Zambia and Kenya), important considerations for migrants to cities. In Zimbabwe this particularly affected people travelling out of the country to purchase trading goods.
  • Accessing a valid proof of identity has become a luxury in many African countries. In Zimbabwe only 30% of rural and 55% or urban children have birth certificates. Many examples show how difficulties in acquiring a birth certificate have repercussions for obtaining further official proof of identity later on in life, particularly for women.
  • The issuing of ID documentation is often strongly underlined by discrimination. Genocide Watch has highlighted how ID cards and other official documents (passports, residence permits, etc.) are used to affiliate people to government-defined groups, which then expose them to group identity-based discrimination. Examples can be drawn from Ethiopians with Eritrean affiliation and Kenyans with Somali affiliation. The Soros Foundation has highlighted how Kenyan Nubians are forced to go through a lengthy, humiliating and expensive vetting process to acquire ID cards, which are essential to access services.

On the question of the effects of these policies, evidence was also hard to find. There are examples where efforts to reduce these restrictions on urban migrants have had a positive impact on household productivity, as in this case in India.

We had suspected mandatory ID and urban registration would play a significant role in managing rural to urban migration but didn’t find strong research evidence to support this.
Is this because ID registration is not used in this way, or is it simply an under-researched area? To what extent is ID-related discrimination a critical issue underlying rapid urbanisation in developing countries? Is this something on which we should be concentrating more support and research? We are keen to hear your comments and insights on this issue, as we move to the next stages of our research on the subject.