Community sponsorship in the UK: transforming lives and communities

calais-refugee-camp-plates
Community Sponsorship Scheme allows local people to engage in refugees in helping them settle in

In 2016 the UK introduced its Community Sponsorship Scheme (CSS). The scheme enabled, for the first time, local community groups to become directly responsible for supporting the resettlement of refugees. The initiative was inspired by the Canadian Private Sponsorship scheme and was the second of its kind in the world. Since its establishment others are emerging elsewhere including variations on the model in Ireland, Italy, France, Portugal, and Germany.

Nearly 400 refugees have now been resettled to locations across the UK supported by around 70 groups. In 2019 the UK Government committed to supporting the CSS for a further five years hoping to increase the numbers of refugees arriving under the scheme. Further, the UK’s new Global Resettlement Scheme planned for 2020 will ensure refugees resettled under CSS will be additional to national targets. At the time of writing resettlement is on hold because of the COVID-19 emergency. However, around 120 groups are at some point of establishment and plans continue to be made by communities across the UK to resettle refugees.

The Institute for Research into Superdiversity commenced a formative evaluation of the CSS in 2017. By March 2020 we had completed 250 interviews with refugees, volunteers, thought leaders and wider community members. This Refugee Week we launch three reports and seven policy briefs setting out our findings which, with the growing interest in developing sponsorship type programmes across the globe, have pertinence in the UK and beyond.

While faith groups led the way in pushing for Community Sponsorship around half of our sample were secular groups. Groups have popped up all over the UK largely run by white middle aged or retired people, many of them women. Many of our interviewees were motivated by an emotional response to seeing the photos of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and in particular the photo of Alan Kurdi. Motivated individuals were angry at the UK Government’s lack of action and organised quickly within their communities mobilising their social networks to explore what they could do to help. Many had never been involved with refugee issues before. The emergence of the CSS provided an avenue for action which many have said has been the best thing they have ever done. Getting involved in the movement strengthened local communities, enabled the development of new relationships and fundamentally enabled people to feel they could make a difference “the power of the little people” in the face of geopolitical turmoil.

Refugees supported by CSS groups told us about feeling overwhelmed by the care and support received by groups which far exceeded anything they expected and stood in stark contrast to the discrimination and harassment many had experienced in refuge countries. Many have developed kin-like relationships with volunteers which span multiple generations and after years of instability are beginning to feel safe. Life however was not always as expected and after the initial joy of arrival and flurry or resettlement activity there have been disappointments. These include struggles associated with learning English and getting work which are refugees’ top priority yet take years rather than the weeks anticipated. Despite excellent relations with volunteers many refugees living in less diverse areas feel isolated and all refugees we spoke with found it hard to move forward while their friends and family are still in danger.

Interviews with wider community members in less diverse areas who received resettled refugees for the first time revealed that not only had CSS transformed the lives of volunteers and refugees but also influenced local attitudes and practices. Initial resistance to refugee resettlement was replaced with acceptance or indifference with local people talking developing a new understanding of refugee issues and talking about becoming more outward looking. Fear about the presence of refugees in the community appeared to dissipate and local institutions such as schools and Jobcentres learned how to support refugees sharing their learning to other colleagues working with newcomers.

The CSS continues to evolve with the UK’s Home Office and the resettlement charity Reset actively engaging with our recommendations and with the wider charities promoting CSS. Once resettlement recommences post-pandemic, we should see the launch of a reworked scheme with more straightforward application processes. The range of support offered to groups by Reset and others is constantly expanding. Although it is still early days for Community Sponsorship in the UK our evaluation shows that the scheme has potential to transform the lives of refugees, volunteers, and wider communities. Hopefully, it will continue to expand and thrive for years to come.

Here are the links to reports which were launched:

Community Sponsorship evaluation.

Refugees and Community Sponsorship.

Wider Impact and Community Sponsorship.

Jenny Phillimore - Professor of Migration and Superdiversity.