What role for cities in terms of reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees?
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« Mayors have become 'models of resistance' because we had to, and we are actually proud of it »Magid Magid, British MEP (Greens/EFA)
You have adopted a strong stance against your government’s positions on migration in the past. Do you consider that cities and mayors are becoming “models of resistance” at a time when anti-migration rhetoric is flourishing in some EU Member States?
Yes definitely. In the United Kingdom and I am sure all across European Union (EU) Member States as well, national governments are not strong in terms of supporting migrants and refugees and as a result, we have seen amazing mayors – because of devolved powers – starting not to work only within a region but also work for people.
Where governments have been failing, local authorities and mayors have taken the lead. They have wanted to promote the benefits of having refugees coming to a city. Mayors have become “models of resistance” because we had to and this is something that we are actually proud of.
Simply put, when governments are not willing to lead, it immediately falls on to the next person in line at a regional or city level. Most of the time, it falls down to mayors of that city who starts to think “what can we do?”, “what are we going to do?” and they have been models of resistance in that sense.
At the moment, in the United Kingdom and across Europe, there is massive negative rhetoric about migration. You get a lot of far-right groups saying, for example, that people cannot get housing, that there is no school places available and that it is all down to migrants or refugees, which is not true. It is all down to failed government policies or domestic agendas that has been failing people.
That is why when I was mayor and running for being an MEP, I wanted to highlight the fact that these people coming to our country actually contribute way more than what they are taking, enriching all our lives on every aspect – cultural, economic level and so on.
Do you see successful initiatives implemented in Sheffield in terms of reception and integration of refugees that could be replicated in other cities in the UK or elsewhere in Europe?
From the very beginning, Sheffield declared itself the first “city of sanctuary” in the United Kingdom so from the get-go other cities could actually have more courage to say “no, we accept refugees, they are human beings. As a city, we are willing do to all we can to support these people”.
This already sent a strong message back to actual Member States or governments but on top of that we have really been pulling all of our resources together to fund refugee charities, law firms, housing for children and so on. We got together and initiated programmes to support refugees coming to Sheffield whether that would be resettling them, helping them out with legal paperwork, providing translators or family reunification. For every aspect, we have created a one-stop-shop to make everything as easy as possible for them. Because otherwise you have to deal with some horrific, traumatizing experiences.
There is an element of actually bringing all of our resources together and basically making it as easy as possible and simple for them within the legal perimeters that are set by national governments.
Does the involvement of cities – such as Sheffield – in solidarity networks have an impact on migration and asylum policies at regional, national and European level?
Taking Sheffield as an example, there is an impact at a regional level because we work with the Refugee Council in the UK, because a lot of these think tanks and NGOs that directly work, influence and advise the government have to work with people on the ground to find out what is happening. That is why in Sheffield we do the work but we also try to influence policies by bringing data together and doing reports.
Besides, from a personal standpoint, as someone who came to Sheffield as a refugee myself, I am also now giving back as an elected MEP, sitting on the LIBE Committee, pushing policy that way, to have an impact on asylum policy at a European level. And I am sure they are lots of many of other examples as well.
In addition to such networks, how do you envision the cooperation between local authorities and civil society organizations in this field?
Local authorities have to set the narrative by promoting the work of civil society, protecting and celebrating migrants and refugees and not just say “we are welcoming them”.
Indeed, I feel that we have to win that cultural aspect because at times, it seems that we are really up against tabloid media or prominent politicians who are really always against migrants and refugees, and so of course the stronger cooperation that local authorities and civil society organisations actually have, the stronger we are going to be able to promote the good work that we do.
What do you think about the way EU institutions and Member States deal with the issue? Is the local level sufficiently taken into account?
Honestly, it is absolutely terrible. I think the key element EU Member states are lacking is compassion because they seem to forget that these are human beings which are currently being treated as numbers. If you think about it, they commemorate the Lampedusa shipwreck saying “we know this is happening, the Mediterranean is becoming a sort of cemetery, but we refuse to actually give people support”.
Sadly local levels are not sufficiently taken into account by EU institutions and Member States when dealing with the issue of migration. It is always taken from a government and Member States’ standpoint and I wish matters would be looked at from a local perspective. At the end of the day, local authorities are ran by local people who are more involved with grassroots community, deal with issues on a day-to-day basis, have the best knowledge of the work and therefore have more compassion and care.
Obviously, we would have different policies and approaches in the way we deal with migrants but sadly, this point is not sufficiently taken into account.