EUKN Interview with Mayor Leoluca Orlando

19 December 2016

In light of the working conference on the reception and housing of migrants and refugees that took place on November 10 and 11, we spoke to Mayor Leoluca Orlando from the city of Palermo. The city of Palermo has recently adopted a charter that promotes the right to individual mobility for all people and the abolition of the residence permit. In this interview he explains his views on migrations and the role cities can play in this. 


EUKN: In the Charter of Palermo, you call for the right to individual mobility and the abolition of the residence permit. To what extent has the migratory pressure on Sicily influenced your position on mobility as a human right (and the development of the Charter)?

LO: Mobility is an inalienable human right. This is my idea for a long time, long before migration flows toward Sicily and southern Europe did affect my personal vision of life and relations between people. The Palermo Charter is certainly the result of a reaction to what happens every day in the Mediterranean Sea, the genocide that affects tens of thousands of people. But the Charter is, above all, the result of a clear and deep analysis of the situation, of the origin and the consequences of migration in all countries of the world, both those migrants come from and those they arrive in. Even countries that are not directly affected by migration flows are now influenced in political terms. The Charter was developed with the scientific and professional contribution of lawyers, experts and historians of international relations and human rights, experts and activists of international cooperation for development.


EUKN: Who do you consider your most important political supporters and allies within Italy and in various other countries and cities? In what way do you feel support from the civil society?

LO: Nowadays in Italy, the Major is the closest institution with a direct contact with citizens, thus acting more often in co-operation with other majors than with the National Government. It is undebatable that the Italian civil society, as well as the civil society of other countries in the world, is split and polarized. Recent elections in USA and Austria show that the theme of migration, and the issue of how public authorities deal with migration, are playing a big role everywhere in shaping political agendas. Also in Italy, there are political parties who don’t hide, but are even proud of their racist and xenophobic positions. But for sure, the vast majority of organised civil society is a reference point for the promotion and for the protection of migrants’ rights. A big help, culturally even more than practically, has arrived in recent years from churches and religious institutions. From the catholic one, with strong, clear and inspiring messages addressed by Pope Francesco, and also from all other, Christian and non-Christian institutions. In practical terms, a wide and complex network of institutions, non-profit organisations, NGOs and charities, cope with all aspects related to assistance, inclusion and welcoming of migrants. Municipalities are on the frontlines of this. For the same reason, and for the closeness of majors with their served communities, cities and urban authorities can be the real actors of change of the political agenda on migration in Europe.


EUKN: What do you tell colleagues in other cities who are reluctant to host refugees and to acknowledge their basic right to mobility? Do you understand local and national policy makers’ concerns about large-scale immigration?

LO: Palermo and Sicily have been called to host hundreds of thousands of migrants during last years. Today in Palermo there are more than one thousand non-accompanied foreign minors, whose legal tutorship is entrusted to the municipality, and tens of thousands adults or accompanied minors. Despite of this, in Palermo, we don’t face racist or xenophobic phenomena as in other Italian or European cities who are required to host few tens of migrants. This is due to the fact that in Palermo we acted on a cultural level, we have deeply understood that welcoming is an essential element for security and safety. In Palermo, we understand and put into practice the big historical data daily, confirming that migration is a resource and migrants are a true enrichment for the community from a cultural, social and economic point of view. It is anyway undebatable that one city is too small, a region and even a country is too small to host and welcome all migrants. But for sure Europe is not too small. European institutions must understand that migration management and welcoming migrants is an issue for all European countries. Furthermore nowadays, Europe has the chance to benefit from migration flow and from migrants’ presence to prevent the final blow of its fundamental and founding values. Those values questioned by several political fractions in many countries, even putting in danger the existence of Europe and of the European Union as its “founding fathers” imagined it.


EUKN: In what ways can urban partnerships (e.g. the Partnership on the Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees within the framework of the Urban Agenda for the EU) address aspects of the Charter of Palermo and help create open and receptive societies?

LO: As said, majors and their communities are the forefronts on issues related to welcoming migrants and managing migration flows toward Europe. Thus, close relations and co-operation between local authorities and local stakeholders are one of the key elements to develop and practice new migration, inclusion and multicultural policies in Europe. In particular, exchanges of best practices and mutual support and dialogue between different actors is to be strengthened by beans of bi/multi-lateral or framework agreements. In this scenario, it is anyway essential to promote and require a European dimension of actions. I’ll never stop stressing the theme: migration policies are at the core of the European political agenda and they cannot solely be faced as security issues nor as humanitarian ones. Both approaches do no touch the core point: migration is not a temporary phenomenon and is not going to stop in any case. Migration is a historical fact and as such is affecting and will, even more, affect each country of each continent of the world. It is our choice, today mainly upon European institutions, to make it a source of conflicts between communities and people or a source of development and mutual enrichment for communities and people. Fact-based, local policies can and actually play a relevant role in making it clear which the direction should and could be.


EUKN: To what extend do you think it will be possible for European cities to issue ‘urban citizenship’ (instead of national citizenship) in the near future? And what are the main obstacles? 

LO: The original idea of Europe was based on two key elements: respect and accept all minorities as pieces of a union, including all local communities as actors of cultural, social and economic identities; promote and protect four fundamental freedoms of movement of persons, goods, services and capitals. Dismissing these two elements, by denying right of citizenship to minorities toward a unique centralised and untouchable European bureaucracy and by denying freedom of movement to persons toward granted freedom of movement of capitals and data, is at the base of the current lack of credibility of Europe as institution and Europe as idea of peaceful union of peoples and countries. From this point of view, urban citizenship is not opposed, but rather complementary to European citizenship. I would say it is necessary for true European citizenship. The main obstacle for such a process is a cultural one. What do words such as "citizenship" or "identity" mean? In my vision, the image I like is the puzzle: many different colourful pieces, building a unique picture only when they are united: everyone with its role and its relevance in the picture. None of them with relevance outside of the picture. 


EUKN: What are the next steps - and institutional fora - to spread the idea of mobility as a human right across borders and to find more allies?

LO: When the Palermo Charter was issued in the first period, I promoted it around the world. The majority of comments were that it is "a sweet naive proposal, good for the world of dreams". Nowadays, everywhere I introduce the Charter and its basic principles (recently at the National Assembly of Austrian Majors, at the "World Parliament of Majors" in the Netherlands and at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in front of 80 Majors from all over Europe) the interest is growing and growing. Requests of introducing the Charter are arriving from several countries of Europe and beyond, and always more Majors from key European cities (i.e. Madrid, Barcelona, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Warsaw, Zurich, and Amsterdam) are inviting me to present the "model of Palermo" in migrants welcoming and management. Once again it is evident that the direct relation city-city and major-major is a good and effective tool to promote the principles of the Charter and its idea and build a network of cities facing the same issues with the same approach. Furthermore, as Co-chair of the UN-Habitat programme I'm going to promote the Charter and its ideas among urban authorities from different continents.