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Opinion

Opinion: Tackling migration — An African perspective

Against the backdrop of the UN’s Global Compact on Migration, the mayor of one African capital says local leadership must play a key role. It’s time to listen to mayors, says Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr.

For most of my life, I have lived away from my home city. I was born in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. I lived in Ghana and then Canada as a child. Following a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, I lived in the UK for 26 years. In my first job with Arthur Andersen, I worked with several colleagues from outside the UK. Like most of them, I did not see myself as a migrant.

Of course, others might have perceived me as a migrant, but for the most part whilst living in cosmopolitan London, I strangely did not regard myself as a foreigner. I am aware of course, that my experience differed from that of others. I am aware that many felt like outsiders. 

The "outsider" experience has certainly become more widespread in many countries, and it is being articulated more prominently. The influx of refugees and migrants has become a decisive political topic in Europe and America, as is evidenced by the significant amount of resources being spent on building walls and fortifying borders. That money would better be spent on building people.

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Dire living conditions, brain drain

Let me use the situation of my home city Freetown to give an African perspective on migration, against the backdrop of the fierce debate over the Global Compact on Migration of the United Nations. The current situation in Sierra Leone can be aptly described as dire based on a number of human development indices. Already, back in 2000 a survey found that over half of university-educated Sierra Leoneans were migrating to more developed countries. 

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A more recent study indicated that we have only two doctors and 17 nurses for every 100,000 inhabitants. I can testify to this body and brain drain from a personal experience: only seven of my 28 classmates who graduated from secondary school with excellent results in 1984 live in Freetown today. 

This is an age-old phenomenon not just in Sierra Leone, but across Africa: Skilled people often turn their backs on their native cities and countries, and they seldom return. In recent times, the situation is exacerbated as now our poor residents are increasingly undertaking the irregular and treacherous journey to seek better opportunities outside Africa, exposing themselves to unimaginable horrors, sometimes even death. Those who die leave grieving families back home, and those who return are traumatized and struggle to reintegrate, increasing the socio-economic burden on our cities.

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Migration is multifaceted

In spite of this emigration, Freetown, like most African cities, still has to cope with net immigration due to the influx of low-skilled workers from rural areas. So, while we lose our professional capacity in providing essential services to support vulnerable, poor residents, we also have to cope with new arrivals seeking opportunities in our cities. 

This is why, as the new mayor of Freetown, I have made human development one of my top priorities. We need to make skills and jobs accessible to young people if we want to curb migration. Focus is also given to the creation of productive jobs that contribute to economic output, as majority of our youth are engaged in small size, low-value employment, like informal retail. This is reinforced by the fact that Freetown has approximately one in 50 productive jobs, which is way below the regional average of one in 12.

One way I am doing this is by harnessing the expertise and network of the growing number of people that share transnational allegiances, who long for the opportunity to positively contribute to the home city they have left. Thankfully, with the advent of new technologies, physical presence is becoming redundant in the dissemination of knowledge. African cities must ensure that the “body drain” due to migration need not automatically result in a "brain drain."

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Cities must offer opportunity

With these factors in mind, I have created a platform that encourages expert input from Sierra Leoneans living aboard in our urban planning and education planning labs. Many of them regard this as giving something back to their home.

African cities need to be part of the answer to problems caused by migration so that they can be mitigated. The major challenge we currently face is lack of action in providing a stable and growing economy, a lack of investment in education, especially in adult literacy, and a shortage of investment in jobs, skills development and apprenticeships. 

Public-private partnerships are a good means to address these problems. During the first six months of my tenure as mayor of Freetown, I have developed plans to support job creation in the green economy and tourism, investment opportunities in recycling and waste management, and in infrastructure development. All stakeholders have a vested interest in the success of these projects. 

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Consulting city leaders key for progress

Working together is key if we want to solve problems caused by migration and related issues. We need good cooperation of the national, regional and local levels. Mayors need to work more collaboratively with counterparts in the developed world to fight traffickers targeting young people with false promises of employment and education. We also need to ensure that migrants and refugees are respected and treated like human beings.

This week, ahead of the UN conference on migration, the Mayors' Migration Council will be established in Marrakesh, led by mayors from around the world. For too long, the UN was focused on exchanging views only at the national and international level. It is unfortunate that the voices of mayors and local government are scarcely represented in these discussions.

If we want to deal with migration issues effectively, the voice of cities must be heard on international platforms. At a time when more than 55 percent of the world’s population live in cities, governments and international frameworks cannot afford to make choices without consulting city leaders. 

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr OBE has served as the Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone since May 2018. She earned her Bachelor's degree from the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and later a Master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a finance professional with a record of leading institutional change and has campaigned against the trade in blood diamonds during Sierra Leone's civil war. She also co-founded a charity that supports disadvantaged children. Aki-Sawyerr was recognized for her work during Sierra Leone's Ebola crisis and made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in January 2016.

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