Sheffield, United Kingdom

Cities of Sanctuary, Communities of Welcome

City of Sanctuary

June 11, 2009

An official city policy to welcome those in need builds a community supportive of refugees and new immigrants.

Imagine coming to a new city, from across the globe, unsure of the local language or customs and with little support from friends or family. A small gesture, a welcoming sign and a reassurance that you are wanted and welcome in this new community could make all the difference.

The “City of Sanctuary” movement is intended to build a culture of municipal hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in the UK and with it dispel the misconceptions around refugees and instead, create an environment of broad based support and understanding for their reality.

In 2007, with the support of the City Council and over 70 other local organisations the City of Sheffield became the UK’s first “City of Sanctuary.”

The City of Sanctuary movement compares itself to the idea of a “Fairtrade City.” In the latter a wide range of community groups and organisations make a commitment to using and selling fair trade goods. Similarly, in a “City of Sanctuary” a broad range of local organisations, community groups and faith communities, as well as the local government publicly commit to welcoming, supporting and including within the community all those people seeking sanctuary.

Craig Barnett, the City of Sanctuary national coordinator says that the project aims to dispel misconceptions and build a culture of hospitality. “It’s about offering a positive vision of our city as a place of sanctuary,” he says.

The Journey to Sanctuary

Since 2005, 96 organisations in Sheffield, including schools, community projects, student groups and faith communities, have made a commitment to welcoming asylum seekers. Their role is to offer friendship and advocacy and invite asylum seekers within their organisations to participate and hold positions of responsibility.

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council cites the mix of grassroots support as one of the unique aspects of the Sheffield City of Sanctuary Movement. “It comes from the wider community. These aren’t people who work in the refugee sector or campaigners necessarily. They are just ordinary members of the public who want to provide a place of safety to people who are forced to flee to the UK.”

The journey towards becoming a “City of Sanctuary” began when community and faith groups pledged their support to the idea. Over the next two years, the movement grew and Sheffield city council came on board. Supporting organisations agreed on a long-term vision of inclusion for asylum seekers and refugees, set out in a ‘City of Sanctuary Manifesto’. These include ambitious goals for the participation of people seeking sanctuary in city life, and their access to essential services and support such as education, healthcare and accommodation.

Gathering wide community support and drawing up an inclusion strategy are two of the main criteria for becoming a City of Sanctuary.

The City of Sheffield estimates that around 1000 asylum seekers are supported in Sheffield by the government’s UK Border Agency, plus up to 1000 who have had their claims refused but who are unable or unwilling to leave the UK – however, it is not possible to estimate how many asylum seekers the project has helped as its purpose is to spread goodwill and change cultures rather than offer direct assistance.

Among the successes visible around Sheffield are signs throughout the city that read, “We welcome asylum seekers and refugees”.

A Growing Movement

Since Sheffield led the way by becoming a City of Sanctuary, the movement has grown across the UK. There are now an increasing number of City of Sanctuary working groups in towns and cities in the UK including Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leicester, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield and Swansea.

This national network of groups meets regularly to share learning, supported by a national co-ordinator who is responsible for promoting the movement throughout the UK. The national City of Sanctuary movement has also published a handbook ‘Becoming a City of Sanctuary’, which contains guidance on building a local initiative, and case studies from City of Sanctuary groups around the UK.

For some organisations, the challenge is that unlike other projects, the concept of a City of Sanctuary is not one based on fixed numbers or quantifiable targets, but rather a long-term vision of cultural change.

It is also an idea with global interest. In the United States, approximately 31 cities have designated themselves Sanctuary Cities. For instance, in 1989, San Francisco passed the “City of Refuge” Ordinance (Sanctuary Ordinance) which prohibits City employees from helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with immigration investigations or arrests unless such help is required by federal law or warrant. The Ordinance is rooted in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s when churches across the country provided a refuge to Central Americans fleeing civil wars in their countries.

Mayor Gavin Newson of the City of San Francisco and Supervisor Tom Ammiano recently re-affirmed this commitment to being a City of Refuge when they launched a public awareness campaign to promote San Francisco’s “sanctuary” policy for undocumented residents and to assure all residents that accessing city services does not make an individual vulnerable to federal immigration authorities. “As a Sanctuary City, San Francisco has and will continue to provide compassionate services to all immigrants regardless of status,” said Supervisor Ammiano.

Making it Work for You:

  • Reaching new communities, new audiences and building broad based support for the movement (beyond established organisations) was essential to Sheffield's success.
  • Refugees themselves have been powerful advocates for the movement by sharing their experiences in talks to schools and community groups, in the media and through performances.
  • Celebrations, festivals and cultural events have been organised to emphasise the positive contribution of refugees and asylum-seekers to the city, and to encourage a sense of pride in being a place of safety among the local population.