Focus on Migration: A scapegoat for city crime

Brazilian Violence_Eduardo Martino_Panos
Copyright: Eduardo Martino/Panos

Speed read

  • Rapid city growth can cause authorities to cede control to gangs in some places
  • Migrants often live in marginalised areas and can be wrongly blamed for this violence
  • Intelligent planning and inclusive politics can keep fast-growing cities safe

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A recent article in The Observer suggests that high levels of violence in many Latin American and African cities may be linked to their rapid urbanisation over the last two decades. [1] It draws from a new paper by Robert Muggah, the research director of the Igarapé Institute in Brazil, published in the journal Environment and Urbanization. [2]

Muggah argues that rapid growth can make cities ‘fragile’ — and by that he means a breakdown in the ‘social contract’ of protecting citizens in return for exercising authority over them. The result is often that authorities lose control, or end up using selective violence, sometimes ceding control to informal gangs or vigilante groups that control entire neighbourhoods.

“There are always people in search of jobs, some of them poor or homeless, and they are not outsiders — they make up the city.”

Max Martin

Often, poor people and new migrants can only afford to live in areas marked by violence and disorder, which are symptoms of fragility. Although some researchers have claimed that rural-urban migration can lead to conflict and violence, this is a contentious notion, and systematic studies have often found little evidence for it. [3,4,5]

In this context, Muggah cautions against the cynical view of some urban planners and private developers that sees sprawling slums and townships inhabited by the poor as a new frontier of conflict. It is such cynicism that leads to cities being designed with gated communities or wealthy suburbs exclusively for the benefit of the elite and the middle class, keeping the poor out of sight.

However, municipalities that adopt such strategies may not be working in the best interest of their city in the long run. First they edge out many poor people and migrants into ghettos, and then they blame them for the city’s ills.

A direct connection between migrants and violence is an untenable notion. Fragility and one of its outcomes, violence, is an urban governance problem, not a problem created by migrants.

Research also suggests that fast growth need not necessarily lead to fragile cities. A booming, densely populated megacity such as Kolkata faces problems associated with widespread poverty, but it is among the world’s safest. Amartya Sen argues that the politics of Kolkata, which are focused on class, gender and poverty, help shape it into an inclusive place. [6]

The answer lies in more open exchanges, intelligent planning and inclusive politics. For starters, planners need to build cities with the needs of migrants and the poor in mind. There are always people in search of jobs, some of them poor or homeless, and they are not outsiders — they make up the city.

Max Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, researching on climate-related migration. The views expressed are his own.


[1] John Vidal Murder capitals of the world: How runaway urban growth fuels violence (The Observer, 1 November 2014)
[2] Robert Muggah Deconstructing the fragile city: Exploring insecurity, violence and resilience (Environment and Urbanization, October 2014)
[3] The seven myths of ‘slums’: challenging popular prejudices about the world’s urban poor (Share the World’s Resources, 8 September 2010)
[4] Gudrun Ostby In-migration, inequality and urban violence (Climate Change and Security conference, 21-24 June 2010)
[5] Clionadh Raleigh Violence, vulnerability and migration (Open University, accessed 18 November 2014)
[6] Amartya Sen Violence, Identity and Poverty (Journal of Peace Research, 2008)