Not a border tale

Not A Border Tale

Given the frequency with which we talk about migration, we might wonder whether an International Migrants Day is necessary. However, it is precisely the public discourse on migration and not the natural and centuries-old phenomenon itself, that makes such an event necessary. On our telephones, on our computers, on television and the radio, borders are discussed daily. We wake up every day to news of tragedies involving groups of people traveling or living in subhuman conditions. We accept, we assume, that migrant and displaced populations will be the first to feel the impact of any crisis. We store in our collective imagination photographs of huge masses of people, often racialized, waiting in desperation to change their living conditions. And as terrible as it may seem to us, we rarely calculate that we could be those people.

When we come out to the streets, the landscape is much more nuanced. In our cities, in our towns, in our villages, diversity is the glue that holds us together. In squares, in schools, in stores and on buses, our daily lives are shared. The people around us are our neighbors. All of them, in one way or another, are part of our community.

The municipal movement knows this and has, for years, been reminding anyone who will listen. As the closest level of government to the people, it matters little that municipal governments lack competences and resources to address migration policies, almost all of which are driven by states or supranational. Nothing exempts municipal governments from the responsibility of addressing the local reality and taking care of the people who live in it. Our cities are the fruit and reflection of us, the people who inhabit them, regardless of our origin or legal status. The limits of our citizenship are not dictated by borders but by our way of life, our local community, the places we recognize as ours. And although local governments may not have borders, many of them are interfered by them.



Lampedusa: memory and the sea

Last October I had the privilege of visiting Lampedusa. It was there, in the heart of the Mediterranean, that each of these arguments emerged with even more force.

Like so many other places, the municipality of Lampedusa and Linosa is inhabited by a small community settled on a large border. It is not just a geographical border, but a crossroads where countless contradictions, injustices and inequalities can be found on a daily basis, festered over such a long period of time that they even seem part of normality. Lampedusa is first and foremost a normal place, full of everyday actions with neighbors who lament and celebrate the same things as in the rest of the streets of the planet. The only difference is that, from the island, the horizon is infinite and full of boats. For a thousand different reasons, dozens of boats travel every day on invisible highways loaded with food, goods, fish of all sizes, people who work, who suffer, who wait. And in that sea that feeds and embraces all people, a continuous trickle of tragedies splatters day after day the life of the neighbourhood. Amongst them all, the night of October 3, 2013 remains etched with particular harshness in the collective memory of the people of Lampedusa.  At a quarter past three in the morning, a boat carrying more than 500 people crammed together in search of a better future sank a few miles from the coast. 368 died. That moment, that tragedy and all those that followed, should serve to awaken consciences and tell the story to the world.

Today, the Lampedusa cemetery is a monument to dignity and memory. Together with people from Lampedusa, many other victims of a personal tragedy rest in that sacred place. Their personal details, often impossible to trace, have been replaced with drawings of fish and mermaids, with the hope that the sea where they were lost will welcome them. And because, after all, one of the scarce competences of border municipalities is to bury corpses. And even when faced with the responsibility of burying with dignity those who also lost their identity during the crossing, municipalities such as Lampedusa do so with no other means than a single hearse.

On this island of less than six thousand inhabitants, global geopolitics often rules. Its mayor, Totò Martello, has been asking for support for years. Martello, who in addition to being mayor is a fisherman and knows the laws of the sea, is a regular at international forums on migration and development. As mayor he experiences daily the gap between what the law says and what reality brings him. He often faces complaints from his neighbors about the damage abandoned vessels cause to fishing boats and explains to both sides that getting rid of them is a national responsibility. He mediates between port and humanitarian authorities, ministries and fishermen's associations to find solutions to problems that are not written in the books. He takes in live animals that have made the crossing without being able to take in people.  And it repeats, incessantly, that it is unacceptable to manage the same situation from the emergency for more than thirty years. The emergency has become an everyday occurrence.

Towards the Charter of Lampedusa: building a bridge of peace

Off the coast of Lampedusa, on the other side of the horizon, lies the city of Sfax. As well as being the country's second city and economic engine, Sfax is one of the Tunisian ports from where most young people set out to sea. The deputy mayor of Sfax, Med Wajdi Aydi, has been attending exchanges with other UCLG members for years to learn how to connect all the actors in the territory and advance with them in the same direction. His goal is to save lives, to give hope back to the youth, to give information and shelter to those who lack it. Now, Lampedusa and Sfax dream of building a bridge: a bridge of peace that will bring back afloat the dignity of those who were lost in the few hundred miles that separate their two continents.

It would be inhumane to remain indifferent and it is no longer possible to participate as mere observers. In the municipalist movement we know and defend borders are not natural, but human mobility is. We know that joint and beneficial solutions will not be found without changing the conversation. And we know, we defend, that the conversation is about people and about territories, about human rights and about the opportunity to grow in welcoming communities.

Under Lampedusa's leadership, the membership of United Cities and Local Governments has embarked on a journey to develop a Charter of Rights on human mobility that puts dignity at the center, recognition at the core, and peace on the horizon. With the Charter of Lampedusa, local governments from all continents take on the responsibility to address migration with the will to guarantee universal access to the Right to the City.

The Lampedusa Charter is a new signal to all actors governing migration at the international level that local levels of government are art and part of this phenomenon and that, with or without competences, they are obliged to face it. The objective is to act with shared values in the new social contract that global agendas propose. The new multilateralism that we seek and need must also revise the notions of borders and citizenship to bring them closer to the realities we inhabit. We cannot look away. 

From the visit to Lampedusa with the Deputy Mayor of Sfax to participate in the annual remembrance events, we have not brought back a history of borders but a story of neighbors, survivors, authorities and civil society. A community suffering with global responsibilities. The world is full of Lampedusas, and that we cannot afford. There are echoes of this tragedy, other Lampedusas on the borders of Poland or on the roads of Mexico.  The municipalist movement listens and asks the world to restore dignity, equity, recognition and solidarity in the governance of migrations. We propose to build a new framework based on participatory, community-based and resilient solutions. Because this is not a question of borders but of humanity.

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