Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has been the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and a member of the Mayors Migration Council since 2018. In our interview, she talks about loss as a major theme in debates on migration - and about a key experience that led her to work internationally to ensure that cities are heard on migration issues.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr became Mayor of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in May 2018 and is a member of the Mayors Migration Council, a global federation of mayors. After finishing her master's degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, she worked for 25 years as a consultant, including in the financial sector in Great Britain, before returning to Freetown in late 2014 amid the Ebola crisis. In January 2016 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen of England for her service in the fight against Ebola.
Why are human mobility issues highly controversial in many countries we have discussed?
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: Generally, it’s because of a narrative that portrays migrants as becoming dependent – on the environment, the states, the cities to which they go – and therefore taking away from those that are already there. The controversy is often rooted in a sense of loss, a sense of being taken advantage of, and therefore resentment. This is a narrative that is not necessarily the reality. For example, numerous studies have underscored the important role that migrants play in many economies. During this COVID-19 pandemic there have been many examples in so many cities where there is a migrant population who are highlighted as being frontline workers – whether frontline in health care or in providing essential services such as keeping supermarkets, food stores, etc. open.
From a mayoral point of view, what are the biggest challenges of migration and how should we deal with them?
I see the challenge from a perspective of being a city of origin. This very migration that creates so much anxiety in other parts of the world should create more anxiety for those who are losing youthful, bright, potential contributors to their own development. We know of so many instances of somebody highly qualified with a doctorate who is working abroad as a taxi driver. In my case, the city wants that citizen, wants that person with the doctorate to contribute to our development.
“You have expats; you have people who travel, people who settle. So who gets to be called a migrant?”
There is another challenge: We talk often about those who become migrants in the language of predators. But they are often very much contributors. That is actually really cynically captured when you see a country talk against migration but when, for example, there is a need to increase the number of health care professionals, they are suddenly opening up and saying, please apply and you will get a visa – that’s the brain drain we experience. In Sierra Leone, we have incredibly low numbers of health care professionals. Yet, these are the people who are wooed and at the same time, who are also victims of a narrative of being predators on someone else’s state. But from the perspective of the city, the country they come from, it is a major loss.
The selective use of the word migrant is very interesting: You have expats; you have people who travel, people who settle. So who gets to be called a migrant? What’s the criterion that makes you a migrant and not a contributor to the economy of the country you choose to settle in as part of your personal and individual growth? And why, when you come from Italy and you settle in Sierra Leone, you are an expat and not a migrant? How do we get this right so that migration becomes the positive that it can be for both sides of the divide? This is overlooked, it’s underplayed, but it’s critical.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr in Freetown.
Freetown was one of the founding members of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC) in 2018. Why did you as an individual decide to engage in migration governance and diplomacy on an international level?
That invitation came just a month after I had become mayor and shortly after I had an encounter with a group of young people who had attempted to go on what is known in Sierra Leone as “Temple Run.” Temple Run is a video game in which the player is endlessly running away from a demonic monkey, and it is the name that is given to the journey along illegal migration routes that are used out of Sierra Leone. I had the humble experience of speaking to four young people about their journey – I heard their stories of being attacked, walking in the deserts in Libya, watching their companions literally die in the sand, being jailed, seeing people being sold to slavery, the stories of rape and sexual abuse. You just weep because you look at them and you say: Why? Why should you be in this position? Why should you not have the opportunities that you are looking for in your own country? I had a sense of determination to do something about it from the context and perspective of Freetown.
If you look at the Global Compact for Migration, Objective 2 actually says to address the structural drivers of migration: the inequality – whether it’s from the perspective of trade agreements or international financing, internal mismanagement, poor governance, climate change – the factors that ultimately lead to people being in a position where they feel they have no other option but to run.
Mayors are at the frontlines of migration in both directions, and we are not being adequately listened to in the discussions around migration at the national level. That’s why we, the mayors who make up the MMC, have this commitment to driving the voice of cities into the global arena; so that those who are making decisions about policy for migration and about addressing the drivers of migration are doing so from the perspective of involvement on a day-to-day basis, which is the reality for us as mayors.
How has Freetown benefited so far from this MMC network?
The Mayors Migration Council provides a networking opportunity outside of the formal arrangements. Very practical ways would include our collaboration on the Mayors’ Dialogue with the mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, where he and I are co-leading a dialogue between mayors on both sides of the journey: destination mayors as well as mayors of cities of origin. Our aim is to come up with innovative approaches for making migration mutually beneficial, recognizing the value that migration can bring, challenging the negative narrative, but also working to address some of those structural drivers. So I and the mayor of Zurich and our teams are exploring a collaboration where some of their expertise in city regeneration, in water management can come to bear in Freetown. And all of this happens not only from the perspective of how do we do it as a small team of mayors, but of how do these sort of relationships get scaled.
Learn more about the Mayors Migration Council
To give us an insight into the situation in Freetown: What are the major human mobility issues there?
In Freetown, we have a lot of internal migration. Our city has grown 2.5 times in population size in the last 50 years, and most of that growth happened about 20 years ago, towards the end of the civil war. Freetown is one of the most densely populated cities in the world now, with 8,450 people per square kilometer. In a context where you have a lack of land use planning and development control – which sadly has been the situation – such density results in the proliferation of informal settlements. With those come health hazards, sanitation challenges, and obviously the inability to provide jobs for a rapidly growing number of people. So in some way, what you see at an international level you also see at a local level. The failure to address this adequately at the local level is what eventually leads to the aforementioned sense of desperation at the international level. Of course, this is not linear and not everybody goes down that path, but you can see the relationship. It's a movement: “I can’t get a better life in the rural area; I move to the city. I can't get a better life in the city; I take a risk and I go on a Temple Run trying to move to another part of the world.” This chain reaction is really something that must be addressed urgently.
“It’s really about building a sense of hope. We need people to believe that there is a future for them in their own city.”
Are there any local initiatives in Freetown where you have had successes in addressing these problems?
We are taking a holistic approach in urban development, focusing on four clusters – resilience, human development, healthy city, and urban mobility. The priority sectors within these clusters range from environmental management to urban planning and housing, to skills development, to job creation. Our approach also includes mobility and sanitation, so it has all the pieces that you need for a city to function and to thrive. To give an example: Waste was a major issue in the city; that and the environment were the reasons I ran for mayor. To improve sanitation, we went for a model which makes it much more local, which addresses the informality of our city and creates more opportunities for people, especially young people, to become waste-service providers. As a city, we provided waste collection tricycles with donor funding. We set up a tricycle management system, providing training and mentors who helped the young people to open bank accounts, grow their waste collection businesses, and so on. That is a practical example of how local initiatives are speaking to the issues of providing opportunities. We are participating in a digital-based literacy program and are going to have 500 people in the program in Freetown – and we will work with them to move from literacy to skills development. So it’s multi-angled, but at the heart of the measures it is ensuring that you are really engaging in the lives of young people. For me, it’s really about building a sense of hope. You are not going to get everybody a job at the same time. But we need people to believe that there is a future for them in their own city.
A major issue in the city of Freetown: Waste. To improve sanitation, the administration went for a model that addresses the informality of the city and creates more opportunities for young people.
With regard to the African-European cooperation on migration issues, where can cities do better than national states or the existing intergovernmental fora?
I think the value we add is the experience because we are on the front line. As a mayor, you are directly engaged in challenges of waste management, of water provision, of youth unemployment. You are directly impacted because you are on the ground; your councilors live in the wards where migrants live. Local government is accessible – you hear the stories and you have an opportunity to be part of the solution in a more direct way. National governments, of course, have a very important role to play – from a policy perspective, an enabling environment perspective, and often from a monetary intervention perspective. But it’s the decentralized structures which are local to the point of being ward-specific that give cities the insights that are necessary to ensure that the discussions are well informed in reality. Do you remember the famous picture in Greece, when the question of migration was asked a number of years ago? The mayor was the one there as the boats were landing on Lesbos.