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IncluCities - 13.07.2021

​“The city is what unites us, regardless of where we came from”: Mayor of Fuenlabrada, Javier Ayala Ortega
This interview was originally published by IncluCities.

Fuenlabrada is a Spanish municipality located in the Madrid metropolitan area. The IncluCities mentor city has experienced rapid population growth because of migration. In response, the municipal authorities developed policies of social cohesion and equality that have become a reference of effective inclusion practices.

Francisco Javier Ayala Ortega has extensive experience in the field of public policies and held various positions in Fuenlabrada City Council before being elected mayor in 2018. He chairs the International Relations Commission of the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP) and is CEMR Spokesperson for Employment. With a degree in law and a passion for the Andalusian dance, he promotes equal rights, active participation and collective work as the foundations of inclusive cities.

In the past year marked by COVID, mayors of cities across the world have faced unprecedented challenges. How did the city of Fuenlabrada manage the pandemic?

We had a clear strategy from the very beginning: making the municipal budget available to support the city hospital and to reach out to people most affected by the lockdown, especially the elderly and children. I am proud that within only a few days, we were able to set up an effective field hospital for the COVID patients next to the city's hospital centre.

The world is being rocked by challenging issues – the pandemic, recovery, climate change, migration. How do you see the role of cities in tackling them?

There is no doubt that local governments are the ones who are the closest to the citizens and, therefore, the ones who know best about their needs and understand the reality of their territories. Of course, the challenges are global, and they require the collaboration of the international community in order to create common efforts and achieve global goals. But the answers, the ways we reach these common objectives of recovery, the fight against climate change or the way we deal with migration, must be adapted to the population on the ground. In this process, the local governments play an essential and leading role.

The population of Fuenlabrada has grown in the past 40 years because of migration. The population tripled, and the average age of the population is now 6 years lower than the national average. How did the city adjust?

In my view there are two main keys to address this challenge: one is civil participation and the other social cohesion policies. Fuenlabrada is an important point of reference when we talk about citizens’ participation. We’ve managed to develop participation of citizens through their involvement in transformation processes with a common goal of improving our city and the life of the citizens. We’ve also been seen as a successful example in cohesion policies in the past decades. In parallel with the population growth, we have developed innovative programmes that helped us decrease the unemployment rate and improve inclusion.  

What is the current migrant situation in Fuenlabrada?

Currently, the foreign population represents slightly less than 13.5 percent of the city's population, and the majority are people between 20 and 49 years old. Most of them come from Romania, Morocco, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia and China. On integration, our efforts are focused on adequate municipal services responding to the basic needs of the newcomers. Furthermore, we support development of intercultural and transversal integration projects. Our aim is also to promote the associations that best represent migrants, to motivate them to actively participate in city ​​life and to the search for solutions to common problems. Thanks to all of these efforts, we established an important network of citizen participation. Among more than 400 registered entities, there are around 60 migrant-led or pro-immigration organizations.

How can we prevent social exclusion, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrants, if unemployment is already particularly high among less skilled young people?

In recent years, Fuenlabrada has developed an EU-funded project called MILMA, which was selected among hundreds of projects across Europe. Its objective was to foster collaboration among the public administration, companies and other organisations. More concretely, MILMA enables job seekers to connect with potential employers. With the development of efficient and innovative models to access employment, we managed to include the unemployed people, both nationals and migrants, in the city life in Fuenlabrada. The response in participation was beyond our expectations, and we intend to turn it into a model that could be exported to other cities across Europe.

What role is played by the narrative about migrants in the integration process? How do you tackle negative attitudes and disinformation in your city?

For years Fuenlabrada has participated in the Anti-Rumours Network. This programme is one of our best practices in tackling racism and xenophobia. It aims to teach children and adults the value of truth and warns against false harmful rumours and prejudice in the local community and society at large. In addition, we take part in an already well-established project like the Plan for Coexistence (Mesa por la Convivencia), where dozens of neighbourhoods and social or migrant organisations work together. This initiative has also launched a Solidarity Network to help people affected by the pandemic. This showcased how we can all work together side by side if we have a common goal – to fight the pandemic and help all fellow citizens, making sure no one is left behind.

As a mentor in IncluCities you work together with the Greek city of Levadia to improve their integration practices and develop tools for decent employment of refugees and migrants. What do you expect from this participation?  

We will learn a lot from Levadia's experience, its policies and its activities, as well as from the other cities, municipalities and associations participating in the project. On the other hand, working on an action plan to improve local integration of migrants and refugees, and sharing experiences, is a very good methodology that will allow us to assess our own actions and improve them.

Do you think that people are where they come from? How much, for instance, did the fact that you were born in Córdoba mark you as a person or as a politician in Fuenlabrada? Do you still visit the Andalusia regional house and dance "sevillanas"?

People have many dimensions. We are influenced by where we were born and where we spent our childhood, and we are also impacted by the places where we spend our lives. We are shaped not only by places, but also by people. I was born in Córdoba, I spent part of my childhood in Almería and, since I was 6, I have been a neighbour of Fuenlabrada. I partially represent all those people whose parents came to this city 30 or 40 years ago from Andalusia, Extremadura or Castilla La Mancha in search for a better future. You see, I understand people coming from other countries with the dream for a better life. However, I can say I am from Fuenlabrada, and the city is what unites us regardless of where we come from. Yes, Andalusian blood also runs through my veins, and you can notice this too, especially when I dance.

How do you maintain contact with your city fellows?

On a daily basis, I deal with many people, individuals who approach me on the street or address me through social media. I walk around my city every day. It is essential not to lose direct and permanent contact with citizens. However, it is also important to keep in touch with the space, the streets, the squares and the parks.
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