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Integrating Cities Conference in London - a missed opportunity?

It seems like the conference failed to discuss one of the most nagging issues for cities in Europe today: how strategies aimed at migrant integration and cohesion can respond to large populations of irregular migrants.

On the 22nd of February the Mayor of London hosted the fourth ‘Integrating Cities Conference’ in City Hall. The conference brought together mayors, European Commission representatives, members of migrant organisations and public officials from several European cities to share experiences and approaches to migrant integration and to sign the Eurocities Charter on Integrating Cities.

The charter is a commitment by city authorities towards the integration of migrants. The charter was signed by London together with other cities such as Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki Rom, and Utrecht.

As has become the norm, there was agreement at the conference about the importance of integration being a two-way process, with the ‘native’ population being willing to adapt as much as migrants. The implications of this were not clear, however, with many people in the audience still feeling that the onus of integration is still expected to fall upon migrants. A lot of the discussion between representatives of the cities centred around the issue of language and on employing a diverse workforce in the public sector. Not speaking the official language is clearly seen as the biggest barrier to the integration of migrants, and different cities have adopted varying strategies to improve the language skills of migrants and their children.

It was clear that the incorporation of integration and diversity into cities’ strategies and policies is more developed in London than in other cities, especially some of those in the Mediterranean basin where large scale immigration is a more recent phenomenon. This does not mean, however, that there is room for complacency. Deputy mayor Richard Barnes extolled the mayor’s refugee and migrant integration strategy, the London strategic migration partnership and the participation of migrants in the latter through the migrant refugee advisory panel. The truth is that these are fledgling structures with lots of potential but which need to be monitored to see that they are delivering on their promises.

The issue of undocumented migrants struck a note of discord. In his opening speech, London mayor Boris Johnson referred to the need to bring undocumented migrants into legality to enable them to contribute to the economy and society. He cited London’s large undocumented population as an obstacle to the effective integration of migrants and restated his support for an earned regularisation. The ice&fire theatre group also presented a touching portrayal of the life stories of some of the undocumented migrants who end up living in London. Despite the prominence of this issue at the meeting, it was clearly not a topic that everyone felt comfortable discussing. When Clara Osagiede, one of the migrant representatives in the panel, referred to the immigration raids targeting workplaces across the city, the moderator intervened. She was told that, as irregularity comes from immigration policy and that cities do not have power over this policy, this was an issue that would not be discussed at the conference.

This seemed a lost opportunity. Besides the fact that the mayor of London had already referred to it and that it was the theme of the showcased performance, it is fundamentally wrong to argue that cities cannot take actions to address the issue of undocumented migrants. There were many questions that could have been discussed in this regard. What are the effects on cities of restrictive immigration policies in terms of integration? Are integration and cohesion possible when up to 600,000 London residents could be undocumented? Can cities take measures and design policies to mitigate the impact of immigration policies that restrict rights based on immigration status? Have any cities done so? What has been the impact of regularisation programmes for cities in countries where there have been regularisations recently?

Overall, it was interesting to hear from other European cities experiences of immigration and of approaches to promoting integration and it was positive to see that London is taking the lead in some respects. It does seem, however, a missed opportunity to discuss one of the most nagging issues for cities in Europe today: how strategies aimed at migrant integration and cohesion can respond to large populations of irregular migrants.

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