Refugees contributing to cities across the globe
A special United Nations meeting in Geneva has heard how refugees are making positive contributions to cities across the globe.
The meeting seeks to explore the key role that cities and urban areas around the world are increasingly playing in giving refugees, internally displaced and stateless people around the world a chance to rebuild their lives.
A recurring theme taken up by civic officials at the UNHCR’s ‘11th Dialogue on Protection Challenges’ is the positive contribution refugees can make to their adoptive communities, when given the opportunity.
Liberian refugee Wilmot Collins spent more than two decades working, paying taxes and putting his kids through school in the city of Helena, Montana.
Now the people of the city have elected him mayor.
“Refugees are no different from anyone of you. Refugees – you’re looking at one. You’re speaking to one. We’re no different. All we ask is, give us that second chance, and see what we can do for the community,” Mr Collins told the meeting.
Over the years, Mr Collins and his family have given back to the city that offered them refugee. He served 22 years in the US military; his wife is a nurse at the local veterans’ hospital, and their daughter now serves in the US military also.
“We’ve given tenfold. And we will continue to give. Because that’s us. That’s what we want. We appreciate our host country. We appreciate our second country, you know – and so we give back,” he said.
The mayor of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, Mauricio Rodas Espinal told the meeting that refugees brought important social capital.
“Refugees can provide different ideas, visions, perspectives, and all that enriches the city. It fosters the diversity of a community, and therefore that provides our people with chances of steering economic development and job creation,” Mr Espinel said.
“I see refugees as an opportunity rather than as a threat, and I think that’s the way we should all look at them.”
There are a record 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees. Around 60 per cent of them live not in camps but in cities and urban areas.
Bristol, in the west of England, declared itself a “City of Sanctuary” for people fleeing violence and persecution, and strives to create a culture of welcome and safety for all.
The city’s mayor Marvin Rees told the Geneva gathering that refugees were an “asset”.
“The thing we’ve learned by providing a safe haven is that if you do it well, and if you put a good support structure around it, win the support of the population and business and local government, that actually becomes an asset for the city,” Mr Rees said.
“Having an international population in the city brings you phenomenal connectivity. And one of the points we’ve been making is that if we follow our populations to countries of origin, across the Middle East, across Africa, across South America, we’ll find economic opportunity there, opportunities to do investment, to do trade, and to do business.
“So it’s in our own interest, as well as creating a more vibrant culture – and when a place begins to access a diversity of thought, it becomes a place of innovation,” Mr Rees said.
The deputy mayor of Rabat and member of Moroccan parliament Souad Zaidi said that refugees had brought benefits as they settled in his nation’s capital.
“This has been really very beneficial for the city of Rabat. Refugees and immigrants are now well integrated into society. They have the right to go to school. They have the right to public services. They have the right to health care. They feel right at home,” Mr Zaidi said.
“Today Rabat is no longer a city people transit through. It’s a city that welcomes people.”
Mogadishu mayor Abdirahman Omar Osman said that in the reconstruction of the Somalian capital, now emerging from decades of conflict, including refugees and internally displaced people in the vision of reconstruction and in practical on the ground projects was key.
“It’s my vision to reclaim Mogadishu, and the glory it used to have, and calling on the contribution of thousands of returnees and forcibly displaced Somalis is key to that goal,” Mr Osman said.
“We see the bigger picture. They can contribute to the economic development of the city. They can help to get employment and creation for jobs. So we see them as a positive,” he said.