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Working with Local Authorities. Case study: Birmingham

The following article has been written by Bethany Finch, Acting Commissioning Manager for Refugees and Migration at Birmingham City Council. It is part of our series on Working with Local Authorities.

Five years of City of Sanctuary in Birmingham – a Local Authority perspective

Our journey over the last five years as a properly capitalised City of Sanctuary has been one of self-discovery. In 2015, Birmingham City Council first committed to becoming a City of Sanctuary, setting out why the Sanctuary message was important to us and what we intended to do about it. To some extent, Birmingham had always been a city of sanctuary – superdiverse; a melting pot; a city of a thousand trades. The name “Birmingham” is synonymous with a place that people come to and settle in, to build new lives. It’s a city whose history of migration is one of the most defining features of its social, cultural and economic fabric. Job has done, right?

Since 2015, we have understood that being a true City of Sanctuary isn’t just about the fertile land on which it is built. Fertile land can certainly help – in our case, the people, communities, nationalities, languages that makeup Birmingham created an imperative for the level of backing the Sanctuary message was and continues to be able to secure. The coherence between our unique superlatives (every city has them!) and the City of Sanctuary approach being so palpable gave significant credit and weight to firstly driving the Position Statement through the cabinet, and on an ongoing basis, to embedding it in all that we do. 

But these things alone a City of Sanctuary do not make. The City of Sanctuary Policy Statement that we refreshed in December 2018 is a very different beast to the guiding philosophy we started within 2015, in two main ways. Firstly, the what and the why. Whilst Birmingham plays a significant role as a safe place to those seeking refuge – welcoming 550 refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, at any one time hosting in the region of 1-1,500 asylum seekers, home to two Initial Accommodation Centres and 100-150 Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children – in a city of 1.1m residents of whom around 45% are estimated to have been born overseas, the numbers weren’t adding up. Birmingham is home to more people from a migrant background than our application of the word “sanctuary” was allowing us to make a commitment to. Today’s Policy Statement, refreshed at a time when Brexit and the rights of EU citizens didn’t spend a day out of the headlines, encompasses all migrants who have sought to make Birmingham their home – each a sanctuary seeker in some form or other. This also helped shape the thinking behind the commitments we wanted to make. Sanctuary is more than survival, it’s also a place someone can thrive in. The commitments that constitute today’s Policy Statement are as much about active citizenship, enterprise, and employment as they are about housing, health, and safeguarding. 

Secondly, the who. Birmingham City Council is one of many partners who share ownership and responsibility for Birmingham being a living, breathing City of Sanctuary. The Policy Statement and its Commitments are excellently championed and lead by senior officers and elected members in the Council – the Cross-Council working on migration and integration is chaired by the Assistant Chief Executive, and our City of Sanctuary Partnership Board is chaired by the Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety & Equalities, who also champions the Sanctuary caused around the city and beyond. This leadership is vital, but the engine room behind all of this is the coalition of partners: groups, institutions, organisations, statutory, private and voluntary. These partners make up the City of Sanctuary Partnership Board, where citywide ownership of the Sanctuary agenda and our commitments sits. As our 20:20 vision helps us put more flesh on the bones this year in creating a Resettlement & Integration Strategy to sit alongside the City of Sanctuary Policy Statement, the Partnership Board will ensure the integrity of the Sanctuary message is maintained, and ultimately, that the Strategy delivers.

The new Policy Statement also makes a commitment towards transparency and leadership. Which means… (drum roll) … we now have a web presence! All the information about our approach to the City of Sanctuary, including the Policy Statement can now be found at www.birmingham.gov.uk/cos. Or feel free to get in touch: [email protected] and [email protected].