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.
In March 2020 everything was changed by the Coronavirus pandemic, however, as Birmingham was plunged into the first lockdown at the end of March, Dawn Murray, started as the Refugee and Migration Engagement Officer. Her new role is new and came about through collaboration between the local City of Sanctuary group and the council. A fundamental element of her role is to ensure that City of Sanctuary ethos and aims are understood and realised throughout the council’s directorates and multifarious teams. Part of her role is also to support the expansion of the various streams of sanctuary in the city and to connect and facilitate relevant partnerships. Beginning this new role whilst confined to her house has been challenging but she has been reaching out and has been closely involved in supporting City of Sanctuary UK to set up the new Local Authority Network.
Birmingham City Council, and the refugee and migration team, have carried out impactful and important work during the health crisis to ensure the continuing health & safety, and general wellbeing and progress of people seeking asylum, people with refugee status and migrants. Another element of our work that is an essential part of being a city of sanctuary is our public display and sharing of City of Sanctuary ethos and aims.
In June 2020, despite the pandemic’s restrictions we managed to celebrate World Refugee Day as part of Refugee Week. We produced a video featuring wonderful people who have sought refuge in Brum and made it their home. We engaged with specific local organisations to identify and meet the film participants, and then had telephone conversations with the participants to provide film direction. The resulting individual videos were then produced into a lovely short film by the council’s media team, who enjoyed working on a project that was very different to their usual work. We produced a celebratory article for the council’s public web pages featuring the film, with additional supportive quotes from our Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety and Equalities. We also had an article on the intranet, were mentioned in the council’s CEO updates, took part in a community radio programme, hosted a Yammer ‘ask me anything’ session about refugees and asylum, and posted on the schools notice board. We held a special virtual meeting of the Birmingham Migration Forum and provided information about wider planned events to celebrate refugee week. Thus, we ensured that our city council declared its support for, and participation in Refugee week and shared this ethos with Birmingham’s public.
The last 9 months have been extremely difficult for many people, not least, people who are seeking asylum. In addition to facing the very real and tangible increased difficulties resulting from lockdown, social distancing etc we’ve also witnessed increased hostile behaviour towards people seeking asylum. Therefore, as a Local Authority, committed to being a welcoming place of safety, with the full backing of elected members, it is imperative that we publicly declare and share, our ethos and values, and our support for refugee, asylum seekers and migrants who make Birmingham their home.
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] or [email protected]