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Speaking up for Sanctuary as an Institution: living your values

Megan Greenwood, City of Sanctuary UK’s schools coordinator, reflects on the vital role institutions like schools, colleges, libraries, universities and councils must play in building a culture where we lead with kindness and humanity. 

At the start of October, the Schools of Sanctuary programme was attacked by GB News who criticised schools for helping children to meet people seeking asylum to hear their stories and falsely accused the Schools of Sanctuary programme of promoting open borders and indoctrinating children. 

Rather than bowing to hate and distrust, we reaffirm our belief that key institutions must play their part in leading with compassion and kindness, speaking out about the realities for people seeking safety and standing up for our shared vision of welcome.

Why it is important to Speak up for Sanctuary

As the coverage of Schools of Sanctuary shows – the media can get it wrong. It is therefore imperative that trusted institutions, especially those in education, speak openly and factually about the different reasons people may have been forced to flee and their experiences arriving in the UK.

People seeking safety are one of the most talked about but least heard from groups of people in the UK. Too often discussions about forced migration revolve around statistics or attention grabbing headlines, ignoring the individual stories of the people affected. This leads to dehumanising rhetoric which in turn leads to dehumanising policies and public attitudes. We need to change that. Together we need to tell a different story, one that amplifies the voices and realities of people seeking sanctuary.

At City of Sanctuary UK, we believe in the power of conversations to shift public attitudes and build a culture of kindness and compassion.

In these divided times, people do not trust many sources of information – but we do trust the institutions that shape and support our day-to-day lives. So it’s up to mainstream institutions to cut through the hostility and misinformation, promoting positive alternatives and helping to shift public attitudes. 

For many institutions, the stories of people seeking sanctuary are not abstract – but personally experienced by their staff, students or service users. We believe these institutions have a duty of care to ensure that these voices are heard. 

Public institutions in particular have a moral (and often legal) obligation to speak up for people seeking safety and ensure they are able to access appropriate care and support. For instance, as the UK is a signatory of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, staff within public institutions like local authorities, healthcare settings and schools are actually ‘duty bearers’ who, under international law, have a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill children and young people’s rights. These rights include access to education, reunification with parents/carers, a safe place to live and access to healthy food and good nutrition. The upholding and protection of these rights are not limited to duty-bearers’ personal interactions and behaviors or what happens solely within their institutions – but we also have a legal duty to safeguard rights across the UK as a whole. This means it is entirely appropriate and right that as duty bearing institutions we stand up and speak out for the rights of people seeking safety.

How to Speak Up for Sanctuary?

We are living through an intensely polarised moment. There are of course risks for speaking up – but we believe there are greater risks from not doing so. If we stand together now, we have a chance to break the cycle of scapegoating people seeking sanctuary. 

We want any institution that speaks up for sanctuary to feel safe, supported and confident – so during our annual conference, I facilitated a workshop where together with attendees, we drew out four key principles to adopt in your sanctuary efforts to ensure everyone in our settings remains safe and avoids further alienating those who are hostile.

  1. Centre the voices of people with lived experience

Sanctuary efforts must always be grounded in the experiences and involvement of people who have experienced seeking sanctuary – this should always be done by first ensuring people’s safety and wellbeing. When we root our learning and discussions in these stories and perspectives, we can firstly be confident that the messages we are sharing actually represent our communities’ views and socio-political calls, but it also means that we can speak out whilst remaining apolitical, as people’s lived experiences cannot be disagreed with. 

  1. Tie it to your institutions values

As institutions, our values drive us and are often the reason people choose to engage with us. This means that our values are a powerful hook to bring our communities on board with sanctuary efforts. If we espouse to be a place of belonging and respect, we expect our entire community to live our shared values. This can be particularly meaningful if you are in a faith setting or faith-led setting, like a school where your values are often the basis for people being part of your community.

  1. Keep it authentic/relevant

When speaking up for sanctuary and calling for a change in our approaches it’s important that it feels relevant and authentic to your institution. For some institutions, these calls are not at all abstract, but directly connected with the challenges experienced by your community – so it’s a very natural thing to advocate for them and their needs. 

For others, this might not seem quite so obviously relevant. To ensure you have buy-in later down the line, make sure to involve and explain to your community why this is important. You can do this by tying speaking up for sanctuary into your institutions’ values and/or put these efforts into the wider context. You may want to do this exploring your local area’s historical connections to migration and displacement – this can help your community to understand that today’s events and new arrivals are part of a much longer history of welcome. You could also encourage every member of your community to share a story of migration from their own family and households, revealing how migration is something with which we are all intimately connected, whether recent or distant, global, European or even between the four nations of the UK. This can lead to discussions about common reasons people move, how people feel when arriving in a new place and what might be difficult – highlighting our shared experiences and helping to make our role speaking up for sanctuary seem more relevant to our communities.

Alternatively, if your institution is within a specific sector, it may be logical to focus on the issues related to your setting. For instance, healthcare settings can speak up about access to appropriate care, whilst schools can focus on the rights of refugee children with their own pupils naturally relating to the experiences of children their age.

  1. Work in partnership and join coalitions

We are stronger together – this is especially true when speaking up for sanctuary. Working with others not only helps institutions feel less isolated or vulnerable when speaking out, but also lends legitimacy to our voice – demonstrating the extent of support for kinder and more compassionate responses to people seeking safety. 

These coalitions might be across institutions of the same type (schools, libraries, faith settings etc), but often can be most impactful when involving institutions of many types and forms – helping to show that people of all professions, backgrounds and beliefs share a common vision for a kinder, more welcoming UK. 

We are incredibly proud of the hundreds of organisations and institutions that have been awarded as Places of Sanctuary. As a movement we are in every region and every sector – so when we come together the impact that we could have is huge and far reaching. Each and every one of us shares the same vision of welcome, so now we need to put our compassion into action and work to make that vision a reality. 

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