After the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen concluded without an agreement on climate action, mayors around the world developed their own innovative solutions. More recently, as national politicians have fomented false fears about refugees and immigrants, local leaders have taken responsibility for welcoming, protecting, and integrating millions of newcomers. When it comes to tackling the complex challenges of the twenty-first century cities have emerged as leaders.
Past and current initiatives have made our cities stronger and more united, just as neglecting the challenges we face surely would have weakened and divided them. It has also given us important insights into what works best – insights that policymakers at the national and international levels would do well to take on board.
If we are to meet the challenges our world faces, we must capitalize on the strengths and expertise ofevery level of government. That is why, over the last two years, hundreds of cities have played an unprecedented role in developing two non-binding agreements: the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees.
Both agreements are informed by the simple, self-evident truth that no country or city can go it alone. And both serve as roadmaps for how countries and communities can work together on managing international migration and forced displacement.
With the overwhelming majority of migrants – including 60% of refugees – residing in cities, municipal- level efforts are vitally important. As mayors who represent cities of origin, transit, and destination, we have a shared interest in cooperating to ensure that migration is safe, orderly, and humane, and that refugees are protected. To be effective, such cooperation must include engaging in migration diplomacy and policymaking at the regional and international levels.
Next week in Marrakesh, on the eve of the historic Intergovernmental Conference on the Global Compact for Migration, the mayors of eight cities – Los Angeles, Montreal, Milan, Athens, Bristol, Amman, Kampala, and Freetown – will launch the Mayors Migration Council to support local authorities’ efforts. The Council will ensure that mayors have a permanent and powerful voice on the international stage, so
that polices are grounded in the realities they and their cities face. The Council will also help cities to elevate successful migration-related practices that can serve as models for action around the world. Networks like United Cities and Local Governments, Cities of Migration, and, in the climate-change arena, C40 can help by facilitating the sharing of knowledge and innovation among local governments.
This effort is all the more urgent in view of the toxic politics fueled by migration. Too often, national politicians talk about refugees and immigrants not as humans, but statistics – an approach that enables them to justify inaction. Worse, many politicians now use immigrants as scapegoats. This cynical strategy has led to a rise hate crimes, discrimination, and a deepening distrust not only among people, but also of government.
In our cities, migrants are anything but abstractions. They are our neighbors, schoolmates, and co- workers, delivering essential services and connecting us to the world through their histories and networks. When thousands of migrants are forced into the streets, homeless and hungry, by, say, Italy’s newly approved asylum law, they may remain invisible to politicians in Rome, but not to city leaders throughout the country. Successful cities take individuals from diverse backgrounds, enabling them to connect and supporting them in ways that capitalize on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Residents of the relatively small city of Bristol, to name one example, represent at least 45 religions and 180 countries of birth. They share public transportation, health facilities, and social services, as well as triumphs and tragedies.
Serving diverse populations is a practical challenge; but it is also an ethical one. If we do not meet it, we risk dividing our residents and making our cities ungovernable. In recent weeks, a dozen or so countries have withdrawn from the Global Compact for Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration, often using specious arguments about how this non-binding agreement undermines their sovereignty. As local leaders, we do not have the luxury of ignoring the challenges we face. In Marrakesh and beyond, we will work with fellow leaders – from national and local governments, from civil society and faith groups, and from international organizations – who are not afraid to confront reality, and make it better.