OPINION: Cities are key in addressing the refugee and migration challenges

by Valerie Plante and Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr | Mayor of Freetown
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Signs that say "Pegida? No thanks" and "Refugees welcome!" lie on the ground as a group of people gathered at a rally to denounce a planned march by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) in Montreal, March 28, 2015. The protest by PEGIDA was cancelled. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

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Cities often act as the laboratories which show how migrants and refugees add value and bring concrete solutions for inclusive, safe and sustainable urban space

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Valerie Plante is the mayor of Montreal, Canada.

The distressing photo of a Salvadorian migrant and his daughter who drowned on the US-Mexico border in the Rio Grande last month has captured international sympathy and attention. The devastating image has brought into focus the need for new solutions around asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

We will find these solutions if we look at cities trying to welcome and integrate refugees and migrants.

In the context of cities, migration is understood primarily through the lens of human experience, as well as migrants' contributions to local communities.

Cities often act as the laboratories which show how migrants and refugees add value and bring concrete solutions for inclusive, safe and sustainable urban space including gender responsive migration approaches.

We are part of a group of mayors from all world regions gathering at the United Nations (UN) on the sidelines of the high-level forum to address this, working together to influence international refugee and migration policy. We believe that cities should have a voice in shaping how we respond to the current refugee and migration challenges.

To seize the opportunities of immigration, cities are supporting efforts to accelerate the economic integration of migrants.

One example of this is an initiative launched by Montreal called “Montreal, inclusive workplace” (Montréal, inclusive au travail). To protect the rights of migrants including those of women migrants, Montreal introduced an intervention and protection unit devoted to helping immigrants in unsafe situations, including helping them navigate the legal system which could have great impact on women rights protection.

Cities can improve outcomes not just for migrants and the communities in which they settle, but also for economies at large. Turkey is the country that hosts the most refugees in the world. In the southern city of Gaziantep, on the Syrian-Turkish border, there are half a million refugees from Syria, which is almost a quarter of the city’s population. City leaders went ahead with a process of integration for the refugees, which included providing medical support, schooling and work opportunities. The strategy has worked -- the city’s economy is booming.

Cities aim to help at both ends of the arc of migration. They are not just places of arrival but also of transition, departure and return. Freetown, the capital and the largest city of Sierra Leone, has launched an ambitious transformation agenda where it is trying to boost jobs and opportunities to improve the lives for local residents in order to stop young people from leaving the country and taking dangerous migration routes. The hope is that other cities will adopt this approach.

While governments may argue that the issue of immigration is a federal issue requiring national policies, mayors are closer to their citizens and can therefore be more innovative and responsive than national governments.

There are a record number of displaced people in the world – over 70 million – driven from their homes by conflict and crises. Most of these refugees and migrants are settling in urban areas. With more frequent shocks on the horizon due to the impacts of climate change and humanitarian crises, cities can provide innovative solutions.

The first steps to address this crisis must draw on cities’ collective experience and successes. Governments and cities must act in partnership to come up with solutions to the challenges we face, which include ways of integrating and harnessing the skills of arriving migrants.

For instance, the mayor of the British city of Bristol has been gaining significant city support to lift the ban on asylum seekers being allowed to work. Meanwhile, the Swiss city of Zurich has opened is a temporary settlement for refugees that combines living space with gastronomy, small business, and cultural and educational programmes.

We are proud to be part of a group of mayors that is seeking to build momentum and expand this effort. As leaders of the Mayors Migration Council, we are committed to opening doors for cities to international policy discussions on migration and refugees and to make our voices heard in creating the solutions, which range from building opportunities at our home cities to welcoming and integrating migrants and refugees in cities.