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Lewisham Council on track to become Sanctuary Borough for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

Lewisham Council’s Mayor and Cabinet are set to approve a ground-breaking new policy, the Sanctuary Strategy, marking an important milestone in Lewisham becoming a Borough of Sanctuary for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

Mayor Damien Egan and Cllr Kevin Bonavia with representatives from Lewisham’s refugee community and voluntary sector sign a letter to government calling for the extension of the UK refugee resettlement scheme, October 2018.This follows the success of a cross party letter to the Home Secretary, coordinated and led by Mayor of Lewisham Damien Egan and Cllr Kevin Bonavia, Cabinet Member for Refugees. The letter, signed by 16 local authorities across London urged the government to urgently restart the UK’s refugee resettlement scheme in the aftermath of an Iranian Kurdish family drowning in the English Channel.

The commitment to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary is a response to the concept of a “hostile environment” where people and organisations are encouraged and compelled to challenge anyone coming from elsewhere as to their right to be in the UK. The principle of sanctuary challenges that concept by offering welcome, listening and support to refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, Cabinet member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability said:

“Lewisham has a proud tradition of welcoming people fleeing violence and persecution. The cruel concept of “a hostile environment” is anathema to us. Instead of challenging people as to why they are here, we should offer welcome and support and deal with individuals’ needs in a spirit of listening and respect.

The Sanctuary Strategy is a ground-breaking new policy that aims to create a welcoming culture for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants across all public services provided by the Council.

But I am also well aware that there will be times that the Council will be restricted by law and national government policy. That is why the Council will campaign with others in and outside Lewisham for change, as we have in calling for Government to suspend No Recourse to Public Funds restrictions during the current Covid-19 pandemic and to urgently restart the refugee resettlement programme in order to save lives.”

Rosario Guimba-Stewart, Chief Executive Officer Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network said:

“Becoming a borough of sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is a deep commitment which requires cultural change, political will, community engagement, resources and great respect for human rights. It is a long and difficult journey but I believe that by working together we will get there one day. We at LRMN will work with the Council to help develop their action plan and campaign with them for migrants’ rights whenever necessary.”

Waed, who arrived in Lewisham in October 2019 with her husband and three children. Having fled Syria in 2013, Waed lived in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for seven years where she taught primary school age children.

Waed said:

“I miss my beautiful country of Syria and I hope one day soon the wars will stop and people can live in peace again. Here in Lewisham I feel safe again. I want to thank the council for their help and all the people who have been so nice to me and my family. Now I can help too by interpreting and supporting other refugee families and the local community here as I did in the Zaatari camp.”

The Council has already taken action in several respects, including:

  • Resettling refugee families from Syria and other areas of conflict with a commitment to be London’s leading borough for resettlement with a target of welcoming 100 families (with 30 arrivals prior to the COVID-19 suspension).
  • Joined with Safe Passage by committed to welcoming an additional 100 child refugees over the next 10 years.
  • Ensuring that all children from households with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) receive free school meals.
  • Removed the Home Office official from the Council’s NRPF service and using the funds saved to support independent legal advice to those seeking emergency support.
  • Appointed the UK’s first Sanctuary Officer to implement sanctuary principles in Council services and to work with the wider community to promote sanctuary principles across Lewisham.

The Council has also used its platform to campaign for change where we are restricted by law or national government policy, including:

  • Calling for entry into the UK of refugee children seeking family reunification to remain a legal right after the end of the UK’s post-Brexit transition period with the EU.
  • Demanding for the suspension of all NRPF restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Leading a London-wide request to the Government for an immediate restart of the UK refugee resettlement scheme in order to save lives being lost in dangerous crossings to the UK.

The action to date will now be supported by a comprehensive new policy in its Sanctuary Strategy. This sets out how the Council will apply the principles of sanctuary across all of its services in its engagement with refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. It includes a requirement for an action plan that tackles the specific challenges faced by residents with such backgrounds, including language barriers, limited legal rights and general prejudice or ignorance. The aim is to develop and entrench a culture of welcome and support for anyone with a migrant background who needs a council service.

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