World mayors debate migration – and Brexit – in Bristol

October 26 2018
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Government ignored Bristol and other core cities when we tried to speak up on Brexit, says Marvin Rees, while US mayor says not all Americans agree with Trump

South Bristol Voice has just joined a BBC-funded initiative called the Local Democracy Reporter scheme. It provides reporters, who are based at the offices of Bristol Live (the old Evening Post) but who are paid by the BBC to provide more coverage of local government and public bodies. This is one of their reports.

By Kate Wilson, Local Democracy Reporter

Pictured: Stephen K Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees welcomed dozens of mayors from around the world to a global summit in the city.

The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) kicked off on Sunday (October 21) as more than 80 mayors arrived in Bristol for the three-day event.

During Sunday's session, leaders from African, Asian, European and US cities, debated and voted on key global challenges such as migration, urban security and population health.

In his opening remarks Mr Rees emphasised the importance cities, and city leaders, should have on the national and international stage.

He used his own experience of taking office in 2016 around the time of the European Union referendum.

Mr Rees explained that following the vote, he arranged for councillors, business leaders and organisations to get together and think about what a Leave vote would mean for Bristol.

“We wanted to put something together for Government to think about,” he told the summit.

“And we didn’t just put down the negatives, we also thought about the opportunities.

“We put together a good piece of work, sent it into government and heard nothing back.

“In the two years after the referendum not once did the Brexit Secretary come and meet the Core Cities to talk about what the 10 biggest cities outside of London needed from the referendum.

“This wasn’t a big conspiracy, it is just a default position of national leadership that the focus was in London, not the other cities.”

Mr Rees said this kind of thinking at national and international level “had to change”.

He added: “It’s good for the planet to make sure the immediacy of government that happens at local level are reflected in national and international policy.

This year’s GPM summit has been a world first in that it has operated as a ‘global parliament’.

Participants took part in debates before voting on the key priorities that the GPM’s membership should take forward in the coming year.

During the first session, on migration, the key messages from mayors in the Western world focused on how best to integrate migrants into the fabric of their cities and focus on the positives they bring.

However many of the representatives from the African nations at the summit said that until issues such as sanitation, war and environment are dealt with within their own cities the development gap will continue to grow as the “bright and talented” search for a better future.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone, told the summit that she wanted to give young people from her city a choice.

She talked about the thousands of young people who take on the ‘Temple Run’ – a phrase which refers to the perilous journey that Sierra Leoneans make to get into Europe via Libya.

Ms Aki-Sawyerr said that only a small percentage of people make it to Europe. Some return to Sierra Leone but most end up being trafficked, in prison or dead.

She said: “These young people risk their lives because they feel they have no hope.

“My commitment is to provide them with an alternative. I don’t want then to risk their lives leaving, I want them to have a better future in my city.”

Speaking after Monday’s session Mr Rees said it was great to hear this side of the migration debate discussed.

He also said he was proud to think of Bristol as a welcoming city for migrants – especially as a city made up of 92 languages, 180 countries of origin and 45 religions.

Mr Rees also said that Bristol would sign the UNHCR #WithRefugees pledge.

It asks for leaders of cities around the world to stand with refugees and pledge their support to ensuring they can contribute to and participate in their local community.

And although never mentioned by name, American President Donald Trump, played an integral part of the migration discussion – mainly as an example of how not to develop immigration policy.

It followed the Trump administration’s decision to prosecute all adults who try to cross the US-Mexico border illegally.

Because migrant children could not be put in custody with their parents, they were separated. As a result thousands of children were removed at the border and placed in detention centres.

Stephen K Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and chair of the US Conference of Mayors, said he wanted to make sure that the other representatives from around the world understood that not every American agrees with President Trump’s policy on immigration.

Speaking at the summit he said: “We at the US Conference of Mayors consider ourselves to be a congregation of diversity.

“Republican and Democratic mayors have been resolute and solid on our position that our country is indeed a wonderful gathering of people from all around the world.

“It’s important to me that people around the world know we are with you and we will get through these difficult times.”