There are few subjects, if any, more fraught for politicians right now than migration. Whether its Brexit and the hostile environment here in the UK, DACA and the Wall in the US or refugee policies in Germany, our national leaders seem incapable of finding solutions which can command popular support and avoid pitting one group against another and stoking tension and resentment. So why do I have hope as I prepare an address on the politics of migration for 250 American city leaders at the US Conference of Mayors annual gathering? Because I believe that where national leaders have failed, Mayors can change the game.
What’s unique about city leaders is our proximity to the issues we have to address. In Bristol we have 92 languages spoken on our streets, and over 180 countries of origin represented in our population. And as the first directly elected European city Mayor of African descent with a family heritage that finds origins in England, Wales, Ireland and Jamaica, an American wife, Jamerican aunts, uncles and cousins, a Swiss brother-in-law and an Indian heritage sister-in-law, the dynamism of diversity is part of who I am too. As a report from McKinsey has proven, I see every day how it drives our economic success as the fastest growing area in the UK outside of London. And I see how it enriches and energises our communities, as evidenced by last week’s Grand Iftar who saw 3000 people from every background eating food cooked by Muslims in a Baptist Church kitchen.
But while I see the positive benefits of migration, I am also acutely aware of the challenges it brings. Earlier this year I sat in a room with the sisters of Bijan Ebrahimi, an Iranian refugee who was murdered on my city’s streets in 2013. The advantages available through diversity only come with leadership, inclination and the skills needed to work with difference.
Being this close to the issue of migration forces you to treat it with the nuance and maturity that it deserves. But being a city leader also gives you the opportunity to harness a unique set of resources in taking on this challenge. In Bristol we are developing a One City Plan that is owned by all the major local stakeholders such as businesses, universities, charities and which will focus collaboration and resources on the key challenges we face in the coming decades. At the heart of that plan will be a narrative of inclusion, which seeks to harness the skills, energy and culture of newcomers to the city whilst at the same time recognising that many people who have been here for a long time feel marginalised and left behind. Developing policies that allow everyone to contribute to and share in the prosperity of the city will not be easy, but it’s a challenge that unites our communities in a common purpose and with a shared vision.
Every city leader I talk to around the world shares this desire to bring every possible resource and every innovative solution to bear to create meaningful inclusion. The challenge then becomes how to amplify these efforts beyond individual cities so that they can begin to reshape our national and international discussions on migration. A few weeks ago I became the first Mayor to speak in the UN negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration, and I lost count of the number of people who told me that the city perspective was a breath of fresh air compared to the stale and negative politics coming from national governments. Opportunities like the Global Compact need to be seized in giving cities a seat at the top table of international governance, and international institutions like the UN need to be proactive in making space for city voices to come to the fore.
In October of this year Bristol will host the Global Parliament of Mayors, an institution created by and for city leaders to amplify their voices at the national and international levels. Migration will be a key theme, and next week I will be asking my American colleagues to play their full part. If we only look to our national governments for solutions we will continue to be disappointed and frustrated, because the tools of the 20th Century will never be enough to tackle the challenges of the 21st. But if we turn our gaze to the cities, we can find hope that a politics of inclusion can start to break through.
Marvin Rees is the Mayor of Bristol