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Working with Local Authorities. Case study: Lewisham

Mayor Damien Egan and Cllr Kevin Bonavia sign a letter to government calling for the extension of the refugee resettlement scheme, October 2018.

Lewisham Borough has a long tradition of welcoming those fleeing violence or persecution and celebrating its diversity, and is stronger for it. In line with that tradition, the current council’s administration was elected in 2018 with a pledge to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.

The Council is a founding member of the Lewisham Migration Forum which has been co-ordinating the collective effort for Lewisham to become a Borough of Sanctuary (the forum is deemed the representative City of Sanctuary group) – The aim within the forum is to persuade individuals and organisations across our borough to join us in enacting the principles of the City of Sanctuary movement.

Photo: Tariq Chaudry / Corpix Photography

The Council made it a corporate priority to make Lewisham a more open borough and a place of sanctuary, creating a new role to deliver on this sanctuary commitment. A new dedicated Borough of Sanctuary Programme Manager, Phil Baker, was appointed in March 2020 to continue the work which had already begun and to help services across the council to develop action plans for how they will incorporate sanctuary in service development, design and delivery.

On Wednesday, 11 November, the Council’s Mayor and Cabinet approved a ground-breaking new policy, the Sanctuary Strategy .  This strategy formalises the council’s approach and ensures that the City of Sanctuary principles are part of council officers’ everyday work. It links these principles to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and the council’s Public Sector Equality Duty, recognising the marginalisation of those seeking sanctuary and setting out an approach which will see this mitigated and reduced.

Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability, Councillor Kevin Bonavia stated

“The Sanctuary Strategy is an important milestone on our journey to become a true Borough of Sanctuary and acts as the Council’s specific commitment to the community-wide effort across our borough co-ordinated by the Lewisham Migration Forum” of which the Council is a founding member. Our motivation to act is in 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 here. The principle of sanctuary turns that concept on its head – by offering welcome, listening and support, we are not only being fair to those who have come to us, but we are also building a more integrated community for everyone”..

In addition to ensuring the sanctuary principles are reflected across all service delivery, the Council itself 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 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 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.
Safe Passage

Safe Passage one which is from January 2020 this year (campaign to maintain right to family reunification)

The Council has also used their 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 Council’s action to date will 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.

Lewisham Council have also made an important contribution to the setting up of the City of Sanctuary Local Authority Network, both Councillor Kevin Bonavia, and the Borough of Sanctuary Programme Manager, Phil Baker, are active members of the network’s steering group, with Councillor Kevin Bonavia kindly taking on the role of chair. City of Sanctuary UK are extremely grateful for the support from them both.