The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Labour Party politician Marvin Rees has been mayor of the British port city of Bristol since 2016, when he became the UK’s first directly elected black mayor. He sits, alongside nine counterparts from across the globe, on the leadership board of the Mayors Migration Council. Previously, Rees, who holds a master’s degree in political theory and government, worked as a journalist and in civil society organisations striving to improve opportunities for disadvantaged young people.
Without global economic justice, “integration” risks being little more than an empty buzzword, says Marvin Rees, who sees inequality not only as a migration push factor but also an invisible and pernicious catalyst for division and disempowerment, especially among highly diverse urban populations. The only way forward is for the world’s cities to work together.
You once said that while cultural exchange is important, integration is about money, economic opportunity and social mobility. Is economics the key to good integration in cities?
When we talk about integration, integration into inequality is not meaningful integration at all in the way that we would hope for it. So if I say that we’re in this together and we’re all part of the same community, and yet your children are disproportionately likely to end up mentally unwell, physically unwell, unemployed, poor, more destitute than mine, simply because of who I am, or that yours are better, more likely to end up with good quality lives because of who you are, then that doesn’t mean anything, that’s not real togetherness and integration. So, we have to do something about economic injustice, and Martin Luther King said this himself. He said we’ll get around to the love but let’s do the economic justice first.
If, as many have observed, migrants and refugees overwhelmingly settle in cities in destination countries, might they through democratic processes take the larger cities in a different direction from the rest of the country and operate in contradiction to what the rest of the country chooses?
In many ways, cities are already separate from the rest of their countries. You only have to look at voting differences around the issue of Brexit in the UK, or the attitudes to difference and to diversity within the cities versus non-city areas. Secondly, it’s not just down to the questions of migration; differences will be due to economic imbalance and opportunity as well. London is different, not just because London is more diverse, but London is phenomenally wealthy compared to the rest of the country. And so that is going to be a big driver of that difference as well.
In many ways I’d go back to a fundamental belief I have that migration is the result of the way we run the world. There can be a personal choice to migration, but it can also be as a result of the way the world is run, the imbalances, the push factors as well as the pull factors. And the forces that push people, powerless people, around the world are the very same forces that have made the UK one of the most socially immobile countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co -operation and Development), it’s the same power, it’s the same global order.
What happens is that people focus on the first visual manifestation of those forces driving the global order, and those are often migrants and people being pushed around, and people fail to understand that their lives are being shaped by the very same forces that shape the lives of the migrants. It’s a really impoverished politics when you have these relatively poor and powerless people blaming other relatively poor and powerless people for why their lives are the way they are.
You once said that cities need a “sense of urban civic identity, which is broad enough to contain diversity and strong enough to withstand the siren calls of scapegoating and division.” Why do you refer to these forces as siren calls, and who is making them?
It’s cheap, and it’s immature politics. By immature I don’t mean it lacks intent and strategy. What we primarily get at the national level is an inability to deal with the world the way it is today. What happens at national-level politics is that when they try to work out identity, they generally try to fix on a stagnant set of values and principles that they impose on what it means to be British or not, and that’s outdated, it never fit the world because we’ve always been multinational. [This sort of politics] is just not equipped to cope with the world the way it is today. There’s a democratic issue at the moment in our country with politicians desperate for legitimacy and belonging. They are desperate to form associations with people. But what they do is they form negative associations. It’s built on borders: “Let’s keep people out and we’ll know who we are.” That’s a negative association. Keeping people away, defining who doesn’t belong, doesn’t tell us who we are, it just keeps people out.
Cities are more tuned in to people like me, who don’t just want negative associations. I want positive associations. So let’s work out who we are by what we’re actually trying to get done, by the dynamism, by our ambition, by our shared values, rather than just by who doesn’t share our values, by who we say doesn’t belong. And that’s where I think national governments are really being left behind, and they’re ending up giving us a politics that divides us.
According to a 2011 census, 16 per cent of Bristol residents are from minority groups and the proportion of the city’s residents born outside the UK increased from eight to 15 per cent between 2011 and 2019. Presumably, you support this kind of growth, but does it have a limit, or should cities allow diversity and immigration to change them without restraint?
I don’t support or oppose that kind of growth. It just is what it is. Inequalities in the global economy will push people around the planet. My point is that as a city, we have got to work with the world the way it is, and if that’s what’s going on, we’ve got to build a culture that works with difference and diversity and recognise that is not a threat, it’s just the world.
How important is Bristol’s status as a city of sanctuary?
It’s a really important status for us in Bristol and we have had that status since 2010, long before I became mayor, but I was also involved in the process at that time. When we describe our city as a UK sanctuary city, we are initially talking about refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, but we also promote the concept as a city value in a wider sense. We are a city that wants to be a sanctuary for anyone seeking sanctuary: women fleeing domestic violence and abuse, children looking for places of safety, because you cannot box in your values to one particular group of people, it just doesn’t work. The city of sanctuary status inspires us to focus on our ambition of building Bristol as a city of welcome, safety and hope for all, including people seeking sanctuary from war, violence, persecution and impact of climate change.
Given all the discussion about creating legal pathways for migrants, what if cities in the global north and south start cooperating directly with the aim of shaping policy?
We urgently need global governance of migration to move into its next iteration. This means cities and global networks of cities working as equal partners in shaping national and international policy. Right now, national and international policy is set by national governments working together talking about cities, but cities are not at the table shaping that policy. So we end up with a policy framework that at best is not being shaped by us and at worst it’s hostile to our interests. I’d love to see much more city-to-city cooperation. We want to see global South-global North cooperation at the city level.
You have described the absence of city leaders in the discussions ahead of the global compacts discussions—almost exclusively negotiated by national leaders—as a scandal. That was in 2018. Do you feel anything has changed?
As another mayor said once, most migrants leave cities, travel through cities, turn up in cities, and then return to cities. Why would you not include cities in the conversation? When you have a government minister who represents a rural constituency, with no first-hand knowledge of a city, making these decisions about an issue that is predominately a city issue, it doesn’t work, does it? Maybe it was a scandal, and even now I say it’s pretty unfortunate, and problematic, and would leave those compacts somewhat irrelevant and inappropriate to cities that most people live in.
What impact has Covid-19, and governments’ reaction to it, had on the issues around migration and asylum? Has the pandemic set all this back, including the global compacts? And how do you see these kind of issues post-Covid?
I see a real danger, and that’s tied in with racism. There’s a great quote from the US Civil War, and it says, “When they set their slaves free, they didn’t set them free, they just made them slaves with all the white working slaves”. So my concern is that Covid-19 will set back all the work on equalities in general, and race inequality in particular. And not only set it back but put it on a lower trajectory for the future as well. Migration will be part of that, and inseparable from it, so the overarching context could be incredibly negative.
As we go into economic depression, we know what kind of politics tries to take advantage of that. It’s simplistic, it’s opportunistic. It creates the fear of difference, and I think that that will be a real concern for a couple of reasons. One is for the overt manifestation of that with far-right groups hostile to migration. There will be a thought in the back of the minds of national governments that they be fearful of crossing that line, and fearful of a population that’s less able to cope with difference because of the economic hardship. Second, people become less willing to share diminishing resources, so it’s a very challenging time for us on the question of migration and refugees. A third area is just around finance. Local government has been decimated by this, national government came out of the blocks quite strongly telling local government, “do whatever you need to do to tackle all the challenge of Covid,” but financially we end up less supported and in debt.
You are on the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council and you hosted the Global Parliament of Mayors summit in Bristol in 2018. After being mayor here do you have your eyes set on becoming more involved internationally on these issues?
I’ve always been interested internationally. Between what goes on locally and what goes on internationally, it’s a continuum. I’m very keen to stay internationally involved and do as much as I can to support the international change we need for a more just, more sustainable world.
I’ve recently written about Bristol, framing its whole approach to post-Covid economic recovery in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals. They plug us into a global conversation, they give us a common language with which to talk to cities in North America, South America, and across Africa, and these international bodies such as the UN who are supporting the SDGs. Cities actually have to deliver. For city leaders it becomes very, very practical, very quickly. Again, I’m not saying cities are the answer to everything, but we have to be much more practical than national governments.