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GREAT insights Magazine

Mayors on migration: ‘Change the narrative by changing realities on the ground’

26-10-2020

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr and Giuseppe Sala, ECDPM Great Insights magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3

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Freetown’s Mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, and the Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, who co-lead the Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity, discuss human mobility and the future of cities with ECDPM’s Amanda Bisong.


AB: What is your role in the Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity, and how did it come about?

Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: I’m proud to lead the Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity, alongside Giuseppe Sala, Mayor of Milan. We created this initiative to bring other mayors on board to show that partnership between cities can contribute to solutions and a more positive dialogue on migration, that benefits cities and their residents. In talks on migration, the European side always seems to take a defensive position from large arrivals of migrants from Africa. We mayors recognise that the story can and should be different. The experience at the city level is different from what is portrayed nationally.

As an African mayor I worry about the young people who migrate from my shores. How will they be received abroad? Every young person who leaves my city to find a better life represents an added burden on my city’s ability to grow and develop – the migrants that Europe views as a burden are a loss to us. We have to recognise that the challenge of migration is also felt by the places losing their bright and young. The Mayors Dialogue is committed to finding alternatives for young people, as migration should be a choice made for mutual benefit.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala: I met Mayor Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown on the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC). The MMC is an organisation we both founded along with other global mayors – from Los Angeles and Sao Paulo to Amman and Kampala – to help cities influence nationl and international policy on migration and ensure that global responses reflect and address realities on the ground. Despite the differences in our respective situations, in Freetown and Milan we share the same aspiration: to make our cities places of opportunity, where the youth thrive, where mobility is a choice and newcomers can find a home. We resolved to work together to rally mayors from both continents to jointly reimagine Africa-Europe relations from the bottom up, developing a shared vision based on concrete action and innovation in cities and through city-to-city cooperation. This has become all the more pressing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forces us to rethink models for urban development and create a ‘new normal’.

For Milan, engagement in the Mayors Dialogue builds on a long tradition of cooperation between European and African cities. We have a decades-long sistership with Dakar, and bilateral or multilateral relations with Maputo, Ouagadougou, Quelimane, Tunis and several others, including other Italian cities. We also work with the African diaspora in Milan to support the establishment of businesses in countries of origin. The European Commission is a close partner in some of these cooperation projects, and was an early supporter of the Mayors Dialogue. We are also engaging with European and African institutions and governments to ensure that the Africa-EU partnership recognises cities as essential partners.

AB: What do you see as the biggest challenges when it comes to cooperation between Africa and Europe on migration? How is your city affected?

Mayor of Milan: Fundamentally, human mobility is about connecting people. Yet, the movement of people from Africa to Europe has become an incredibly charged and contentious topic – not least due to disagreements within Europe on migration. Italy is on the frontline of irregular migration from Africa. Italian cities were among the first to manage migrant reception and needs. Milan, at the crossroad of European trajectories, has been key in assisting those granted international protection. This has raised countless issues locally.

But there are also a number challenges in terms of cooperation:

● Supporting African cities of arrival. Cities in Africa are under tremendous pressure to meet the aspirations of their rapidly growing populations, especially young people, with limited means.
● Easing legal movements between Africa and Europe. Decisions to move should be based on choices and options – for study, work, family or humanitarian reasons. The same applies to decisions to stay and commit to a place and community.
● Making human mobility better. In Milan we strive to be a welcoming city. For example, for those who come to Milan through family reunification – several thousand people a year – we provide advance information on schools, employment and health. We support recipient families and provide opportunities for Italian language classes in the country of origin.
● Unlocking blockages among EU member states. eeper cooperation in Europe is needed to support migrants who are in limbo and address the challenge of family separations.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the political one: to counter a zero-sum politics of fear that pitches ‘us’ against ‘them’. We need a politics of solidarity, within and across our cities and societies. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the deep inequalities in our midst, but also that our collective resilience depends on protecting everyone. This is not the last crisis we will face. We must make the recovery from Covid-19 about tackling the climate crisis. If we do not act, African countries, cities and people that have contributed little to the problem will be particularly hard hit.

Mayor of Freetown: When I look at the situation, I wonder what options young people have in my city. Freetown has 20% of Sierra Leone’s population, but less than 0.01% of the land area. And there is still a high rate of migration from rural areas to Freetown. The 74 informal settlements around the city are a breeding ground for hopelessness. That makes young people easy pickings for predators, luring them to a ‘Temple Run’ migration via irregular channels. Many young people don’t make it back. They don’t make it anywhere, but lose their lives instead. Those lost lives are a loss to us as a nation.

This bleak outlook is a result of both internal and external factors. These include mismanagement by successive governments, unequal access to trade opportunities and the impacts of the war. There is brain drain, with its impacts on academia, civil service and public service delivery. Climate change is another factor, since extreme weather drives rural-to-urban migration.

Even more, the selective migration policies of destination countries makes it difficult for young people to move and creates different outcomes for migrants. For example, health care workers and other highly skilled migrants are better treated, with facilitated visa access. Yet to develop, my city needs those workers, and low-skilled workers too.

Equally important is to unpack the word ‘migrant’ and what it means for workers, and their families, and for other people who choose to move. We need to call out what is clearly a bias and the unfair advantage being taken not only of the people, but also the places they come from. As African cities, we are carrying the burden of losing our best!

But I also want to offer hope and opportunities for the young people in my city. Beyond dealing with these issues at the national level, through the Mayors Dialogue are linking with other cities for innovative solutions that bring hope and opportunities, to foster innovation and to create regular migration pathways for people to move safely. We are going beyond the one-sided discourse about how the Global North only receives, towards a more comprehensive dialogue about how the Global South can address some of the drivers of migration.

AB: What concrete steps has your city taken to address the challenges and the opportunities brought by migration?

Mayor of Freetown: Historically, cities have grown and thrived by attracting people, capital and skills, talents, access to markets, literature, and architecture. We believe that each individual has the right to pursue happiness, and that sense of achievement is one that can be gained at home. In Freetown, we are partnering with numerous organisations to create opportunities and jobs, for example, responding to climate change. Jobsearch and the Africa Platform are launching an adult literacy programme in Freetown. We are also partnering with cities like Milan as part of the Mayors Dialogue.

Mayor of Milan: There is no question that Milan benefits from human mobility – from the international students that bring dynamism to our universities, to the migrant farm workers who secure our food supply and have done so throughout the pandemic. It is also true that we face challenges. In particular, when people lack secure legal status or are seeking to move elsewhere in Europe and thus are here but do not wish to integrate locally. Milan has developed a strong inter-agency response to ensure accommodation and care for unaccompanied minors. We offer services to help migrants access and complete their education and to enter the labour market. We provide legal assistance on matters of international protection and legal status. And, we are working with other cities in Europe to address shared challenges, such as family reunification, the inclusion of undocumented migrants, and countering sexual and gender-based violence in immigrant communities.

Through the Mayors Dialogue, we are working with Freetown on a new partnership focusing on the fashion industry. The aim is to expand the Sierra Leonean fashion and textiles industry by boosting the capacity of women entrepreneurs and opening export markets for their products. At the same time, the partnership provides an opportunity for the fashion industry in Milan to learn about sustainable and ethical sourcing options in Sierra Leone and to explore the West African market. The project involves academic and industry partners on both sides. One aspect is the possibility for women and young people from Freetown to move to Milan for training and skills development. We are already facilitating circular skill mobility through the MENTOR programme, involving Milan, Turin, Tunis and several Moroccan cities. Through the Mayors Dialogue more collaborations can be seeded and, in partnership with businesses, training institutions and government, scaled up.

AB: How can we get to a more positive and sustainable narrative around migration cooperation between Africa and Europe?

Mayor of Milan: The Mayors Dialogue seeks to change the narrative by changing realities on the ground. A lot of the concern about human mobility centres on governments’ fear of losing control. Mayors can restore trust in the ability of government to address migration and the forces that drive it. This is fundamentally about delivering action for the people at the city level. By showing that local inclusion works, we can take pressure off national policymakers and inspire new approaches to policies on migration.
We can also change the realities of cooperation. As mayors, we meet at eye level; coming together to jointly identify priorities, develop collaborations and mobilise support. The Mayors Dialogue engages others from the outset, including national governments and development agencies, the African and European Union Commissions, international organisations, civil society, businesses, academia and private philanthropy. We aim to galvanise a coalition of allies and champions supporting our vision, and we are ready to provide practical assistance in the form of resources, technical know-how and capacity development.

Mayor of Freetown: Through the Mayors Dialogue are highlighting the positive contributions migrants make for all. We focus on creating economic opportunities, skills partnerships, and engagement and recognition of diaspora and communities on both continents.

We want to give space and hope to young people in cities, to create an alternative through industry development partnerships. These partnerships can open new markets and establish sustainable supply chains and trade relationships between African and European cities. We are also working on skills partnerships in targeted sectors, as a means of reducing irregular migration. Having these partnerships between cities in Africa and Europe gives young people opportunities to engage in training programmes abroad and then return with skills to contribute to building their cities further.

Local inclusion and participation is another area where we want to role model innovation, particularly with sector-based partnerships. In Freetown we are focusing on improved public service delivery in sanitation and the environment. As mayors, we have to ask ourselves, how can we get sector partnerships thinking outside the box. Let’s look at successes, and see where partnerships can lead to mutually beneficial solutions for African and European cities.

Finally, we are promoting recognition and engagement of the diaspora and communities in Africa and in Europe. How can we recognise these communities and develop common standards for the inclusion of all migrants?

AB: What role can mayors play – through the Mayors Dialogue – to improve Africa-Europe cooperation beyond migration?

Mayor of Milan: Migration is not an isolated issue. It is linked to the whole gamut of urban development challenges: from housing and public transport to jobs and social services. That is why we have adopted the motto ‘Growth and Solidarity’ for the Mayors Dialogue – to signal that solutions for human mobility will come from policy domains other than migration policy. The Mayors Dialogue will develop a joint action agenda rooted in the priorities of cities on both continents. Mayors are strongly committed to delivering on internationally agreed goals, such as those in the Paris Agreement, the SDGs and the Global Compact for Migration. Cities on both continents recognise that we need to bring the quest for growth and prosperity together with the commitment to respect our planet’s boundaries and to ‘leave no one behind’.

The Mayors Dialogue can help chart a path forward by highlighting and testing innovations for inclusive local governance and participation, access to basic services for all, the transition to a green economy, and fairer, more equitable trade, mobility and diplomatic relations between Africa and Europe.

Exercising solidarity is about establishing a new ‘us’. This new ‘us’ must be steadily built. Solidarity rests on relationships – it requires intention and commitment, and a willingness to change and even sacrifice. It needs, but ultimately must go beyond, political leadership, to find practical expression in the everyday actions and exchanges of people in Africa and Europe.

Mayor of Freetown: Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of the ‘leave no one behind’ principle. The pandemic has revealed the interconnectedness between host populations and migrants. It has shown that migrants are integrated in society and they contribute to society. Covid-19 death rates among migrant populations have been higher everywhere, because migrants are on the front lines in service delivery jobs. The pandemic has also revealed that migrants are easily subject to victimisation and xenophobia – in the crisis, they have been a buffer between society and the disease. Covid-19 has drawn us together. There is more intense knowledge sharing, experience sharing and encouragement among mayors. Initiatives like the Mayors Dialogue offer a way for cities to engage with each other on Covid-19 measures.

Moving forward, we need to strengthen our city governance capacities. We need to work together to build an integrated approach to urban development that creates cities that young people want to call home, that give hope for a better future and a better tomorrow. We can do this by aligning the Mayors Dialogue with other global initiatives on climate, migration and other priority areas.

We want to promote the joint facilitation of managed mobility – family reunification, resettlement and return – between cities. This is really bold. How do we provide a bridge that allows people to walk back from migration? That is important, because people are often trapped. We have to create a pathway for them.



Mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr


Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala


This article was published in Great Insights Volume 9, Issue 3

MigrationAfrica-EU RelationsMigrationAfrica