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Lewisham is first in the UK to be formally recognised for work in becoming a Borough of Sanctuary

Lewisham Council was today the first council to be formally recognised for its pioneering work in making Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary.

Lewisham was awarded the title of ‘Council of Sanctuary’ by the national charity City of Sanctuary, the first time a UK local authority has received the honour. Lewisham Council’s pioneering work includes challenging the ‘hostile environment’ towards migrants, and showing leadership in demanding the UK government restart the country’s refugee resettlement scheme.

In 2018 the Council administration committed to making Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary. It has been working in partnership with civic society groups and other public services across the borough to improve the way Lewisham supports migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Last year it was the first in the country to appoint a Sanctuary Programme Manager to lead the Council’s work in becoming a Sanctuary Borough.

The Council’s participation in the UK’s Refugee Resettlement Programme has already helped over 30 refugee families, making Lewisham London’s leading borough for Resettlement. In the last two years the Council also welcomed 90 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. The Council aims to resettle 100 families in total though this work has been disrupted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions.

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability, stated:

“Lewisham’s moral mission to support refugees comes from our area’s shared history of welcoming generations of migrants and offering sanctuary to those fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous places. We are deeply honoured to accept this award, but we also recognise this is only a milestone in the collective effort with our partners across Lewisham to build a genuine Borough of Sanctuary. The changes we have made as council have only been possible with the involvement of so many civic society groups that we are so lucky to have in Lewisham.

“Sadly the national government is continuing push to create an immoral and dysfunctional ‘hostile environment’ for migrants that is harmful for them and for the well-being all of us. The Government’s so-called “New Plan for Immigration” would be a dangerous step in this wrong-headed and cruel approach. Local government can and should challenge the hostile environment approach in how we provide services and support to all our residents regardless of immigration as well using our position to campaign for change where we cannot effect it ourselves.

“We will continue to work with our partners in Lewisham on the long journey towards creating a truly welcoming place for refugees, asylum-seeking and other migrants, a place that fully respects their human rights and the spirit of international law.”

Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham, stated:

"This week Lewisham Council has been recognised by City of Sanctuary UK for our work in making Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary, a true partnership between the council, the voluntary sector and our communities. We are honoured to be the first authority in the UK to be awarded Council of Sanctuary status – a decision made by external assessors as well local residents with lived experience. We have achieved this by putting refugees and asylum seekers at the heart of our agenda. In the past three years we have resettled 33 refugee families from Syria and Iraq, welcomed 90 unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and led the successful campaign to restart the refugee resettlement programme during the pandemic.

“We are keen to welcome many more in the future; however, without national targets and committed government support, local authorities and our delivery partners will be unable to plan ahead with a very real risk that many resettlement opportunities will be lost. We hope the Government will reconsider the proposed approach so that our country can maintain its reputation as a protector of those fleeing conflict and persecution and truly value the contribution that migrants make to our communities in Lewisham and elsewhere."

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said:

“London is an open and outward-looking city with a long tradition of welcoming those seeking sanctuary and fleeing persecution, so I am pleased to see Lewisham’s work in this area being formally recognised.

“One of our city’s greatest strengths is its diversity, and this work is so crucial in helping those who have fled persecution to be able to secure their future here as Londoners.”

Sian Summers-Rees, Chief Executive Officer, City of Sanctuary stated:

"We are delighted to award Lewisham Borough Council after a rigorous assessment which included people with lived experience and local voluntary sector organisations. We are impressed by the Borough wide Sanctuary Strategy with a dedicated Sanctuary Officer and the support of the Cabinet Member for Refugees. They are the first awarded Council of Sanctuary since the launch of the City of Sanctuary Local Authority Network, which Lewisham is currently chairing, showing leadership not only locally, but also nationally. Their work towards a welcoming environment has set a high bar for others to follow. There is a strong moral and practical imperative for Local Authorities to apply solidarity based approaches to their work with people seeking sanctuary.

"Since 2018, Lewisham Council has already done many things to achieve this vision. However, we know the Council is one part of the puzzle. There are many complex issues we still need to tackle together – such as the cruel nature of the NHS charging regime, and homelessness and destitution amongst refugees and migrants.”

Lord Alf Dubs, leading advocate for child refugees, stated:

“My Congratulations to Lewisham on achieving the Council of Sanctuary Award. In recent years Central Government has been putting up barriers to prevent refugees finding safety here. So I'm very pleased to see local government like Lewisham pushing back and showing a compassionate approach does work, not only for refugees but for the wider community. Lewisham has done some amazing things in making its services more welcoming for all migrants and campaigning for change, especially in creating more safe and legal routes for unaccompanied child refugees.”

Background information

The Sanctuary Awards are provided by a network of groups and City of Sanctuary UK to recognise and celebrate mainstream organisations’ commitment to the values and vision of the City of Sanctuary Charter.

People with uncertain immigration status who have been welcomed by the borough told us:
“I feel very fortunate to be resettled to Lewisham where I have a very happy life and the local community is cooperative and supportive to us as well as diversified by nationalities.

“We are very lucky to be in Lewisham borough. The council helped and supported all the families in the following way; allocating support workers who provided us with intensive support in these difficult circumstances and they found for us many private English lessons. They also arranged intensive support meetings regarding housing and how to save on energy bills and many other amazing activities. They also linked us with volunteers to help us with practicing English and integrate in the society. We are very thankful for all the help you provided us with in order to help us settle here.”

Some examples of the work and commitments that contributed to us being recognised as a Borough of Sanctuary include:

  • Committing to welcome an additional 100 unaccompanied minors over the next 10 years
  • Removing Home Office staff embedded in the council and using the funds saved to pay for independent legal advice for residents with uncertain immigration status
  • Ensuring that no child in Lewisham is denied free school meals because of their family’s immigration status
  • Publicly refusing to collaborate with the Home Office on the new immigration rules on rough sleeping
  • Playing a leading role in urging the Government to restart the refugee resettlement programme. In November 2020, Lewisham Council coordinated a pan-London letter to the Home Secretary.
  • Organising a pan-London COVID-19 vaccination webinar focused on the needs of refugees. In this meeting, the council arranged for a range of health professionals to provide information on the COVID-19 vaccine, and address concerns from refugees.
  • Promoting Doctors of the World’s “Safe Surgeries” scheme so that undocumented migrants can safely visit every GP practice in Lewisham to obtain medical advice and receive Covid vaccines.
  • Acting as a founding member of the Lewisham Migration Forum, which is co-ordinating the collective effort for Lewisham to become a Borough of Sanctuary, welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries and protecting the rights of all migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.

Find out more about our work to become a borough of sanctuary.

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