“Best cities are flexible, innovative, and they find solutions. They create opportunities for themselves and others - and seize them." The statement by Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies and Global Citizen, captured the essence and the ethos of the first international Cities of Migration Conference, An Opportunity Agenda for Cities.
The conference was packed with speakers and innovative integration practices from nearly fifty cities around the world. It brought together experts and leaders from cities as far flung as New York and Berlin, Birmingham, Auckland and Montreal, and facilitated a very practical dialogue and exchange of ideas as well as interactive learning to inspire leadership and new thinking on migration. Participants shared their city’s stories of success and enabled those stories to travel from one city to another. The tone and the feel of the conference was very positive - which seemed a bit distant from the current negative overall global tone on migration and the ever increasing restrictions and tightening of borders.
It was re-assuring to see and feel such a level of energy and commitment to promoting inclusive cities for the benefits of migrants, but also for the social and economic benefits and prosperity that immigration brings to those cities. Conference participants saw the success of integration as vital to the creation and promotion of an open, richer and more cohesive social fabric, and its failure as damaging to civil society and functioning democracies.
I attended the conference with great interest to learn about what is being done in some of the world’s major cities; cities that have a long history of migration and have benefited enormously from it, but also the cities new to migration. This conference was one of the rare events where I found every single speaker and session to be interesting. I can't describe every project that I heard about, but here are some that really inspired me
Joe Berridge likened migration to the emotional geography of the planet; leaving your country to live somewhere else. He passionately reflected on the human architecture of the modern city and the design of a flexible city that provides spaces for creating inclusive communities.
To highlight the stories of identity and migration, Ali Eteraz, the US author of Children of the Dust described to an attentive audience a personal journey from a childhood in the madrassas of Pakistan, to his teenage years in the US, and used humour and insight to highlight his search for identity and belonging.
Greg Clark of Open Cities, a British Council project that looked at twenty cities around the world, reported on the impact of globalisation on the cities. He said there is an emotional logic as well as a business case for openness and diversity, and the advantages they bring. His project highlighted the competitive benefits of diversity and the role of the presence of migrants in enriching the visitors’ experience and the knowledge base. He saw globalising the city as part of making a positive story of migration. “Global cities reflect their global communities”. But he also insisted that in order to succeed, the local development systems have to respond to the failure of the national systems.
Another speaker who generated much energy, excitement and interest was the Mayor of the city of New Haven in the US. John DeStefano Jr who drew national attention in his country when his city launched the Elm City Resident Card programme, which provided identification cards for all interested residents of the city, giving them access to basic public services. This was a brilliant initiative that enabled both documented and undocumented migrants to access basic support. However I can not see such initiative taken up by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and replicated in London. But then again, good ideas need to be adapted to fit in the local context....
A project from France which also generated interest was ‘Les Indivisibles’. A French organisation that uses humour and irony to fight racism and stereotypes. By raising awareness of these issues, Les Indivisibles engages the French public as well as government leaders in creating alternative discourse.
There were many projects from the UK including: a Cardiff E.S.O.L police project which delivers, together with local services, a language course to asylum seekers about their rights and responsibilities while building a relationship of trust with them; The Maslaha Project, which promotes health to religious communities with culturally sensitive resources and tools.
It was, and it always is, very encouraging for me to see many innovative projects and ideas from the UK, the country where I have lived for the past twenty five years and worked to promote understanding between communities: established and new. I was particularly inspired by a project called the ‘PeaceMaker’ which was first developed in Oldham to tackle local issues. The project quickly became an initiative supporting the government in responding to issues of community conflict across the country. It helps inform the development of the community cohesion agenda and works with public services and local authorities to assess their working policies and practices as well as offering targeted training. The project works with young people, helping them to find long term solutions to issues of community conflict and equipping them with the skills necessary to challenge and overcome prejudice, both their own and that of the communities where they lead their lives.
The Conference also organised a number of expert panel discussions including: one for international city leaders on strategies for city success to look at the impact of migration on the local realities and how municipal leadership can create the right conditions for social cohesion and urban prosperity. Although this session focused on the positive side of migration, the benefit of diversity and the success story so far, the Canadian panellist Julia Deans of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, referred to the risk connected to the rise in popularity of the anti-migration political parties in Canada. However, the clearest indication of tension amongst conference participants came when the Deputy Mayor of The Hague, Marnix Norder, raised his government’s concerns about the Dutch public's perception of migrants arriving from the Arab world whom, as he said, " are not following integration to the book”. Mr Norder saw this as a problem his country is “looking for answers on how to address”. But the spirit of this conference was not to be dampened by such statements: it was held to focus on, and celebrate, success.
For me and for some of the other participants from migrant led organisations, this has brought home our concerns with the negative trend that public attitude is heading towards - this time with top governments’ officials’ support. I couldn't help thinking about Angela Merkel’s statement that 'multiculturalism is not working' - just one of a number of official statements made by prominent European leaders lately, paving the way for public opinion's slide to the right on migration.
I cannot deny that there are issues to be addressed and challenges to be faced, and yes integration is a two way effort, but this needs to be done through leadership and the right strategies and policies. Raising the temperature of the debate on migration will lead to more hostility and discrimination against migrants and is not conducive to social cohesion and inclusion. For those of us working to bring a balance to the debate on migration, the increased negativity and the shift to the right in the conversation on multiculturalism and migration exposes the enormity of the challenges we are facing.
One of the most engaging sessions was on ‘Migration, Media and Message’ which looked at the power of the media in shaping public opinion on migration issues, and how to use the media as an affective tool for change. The panellists agreed that new social media is crucial for influencing the main media and for achieving success: “the new media enables us to create news and not beg for it”. The panellists included Bashy Quraishy, the Chief Editor of MediaWatch and ex President of the European Network Against Racism, and Frank Sharry, the Founder and Executive Director of America's Voice, an organization dedicated to building both public support and political momentum for immigration reform.
The organising of the ‘Market Place of Good Ideas: Integration in Practice’, included examples of successful models of integration practice. One of the many exhibited projects was ‘The Rose Pavillion’, an art initiative involving people from a number of European countries who produced an art work in Duisburg, Germany, to symbolise the peace between all cultures and religions. The work was placed in front of a mosque with clear glass windows to symbolise transparency and inclusion.
The closing conference speech was delivered by Wim Kok, president of ‘Club de Madrid’, whose members include seventy five current and former heads of state from 54 countries who are committed to promoting democratic leadership for dialogue and social cohesion, said “Real cohesion is more than social. People need to be included in society in every way.” Our work will continue.....
This article is part of our dialogue on migration People on the move