Support Ukraine in Vienna
Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragic reminder that many millions of families are displaced by armed conflict – globally we are now facing the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War. Many of us in public service are using the best co-operative principles in harnessing our communities to provide effective sanctuary and support for our fellow human beings.

There are not many council cabinet members with responsibility for refugees in their portfolio title, but it has been a special privilege to be Lewisham’s Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability. In agreeing the remit of the role with our Co-operative Mayor for Lewisham, Damien Egan, he was clear about the importance of including refugees in the title: it demonstrates to officers in the council and to the wider community our political priority of ensuring that Lewisham is open and welcoming borough for refugees and all those seeking asylum.
We have since realised our ambition to make Lewisham the UK’s first accredited Borough of Sanctuary by working in partnership with local community groups to create and deliver on a strategy that is designed to challenge the Government’s “hostile environment” policy against migrants.

At the heart of our sanctuary strategy is London’s biggest refugee resettlement programme, by which we have welcomed more than 60 families from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In practice, our welcome and integration support for refugee families is provided in our partnership with the Refugee Council and the diverse local communities acting through the Lewisham Migration Forum. Supporting 3-4 new families a month, families are met with by the Refugee Council support workers at the airport and helped with moving into their new homes, schools and other local services. Informal group meetings are then held to help families navigate their new surroundings and discuss their hopes and concerns.

Understandably, families fleeing persecution are often fearful of the state, and we want their first interactions with the Council to be as stress-free as they can possibly be, so we ensure that useful information is provided through trusted channels, including earlier refugee arrivals. A little further down the line, we run a formal welcoming ceremony for groups of refugee families – a more public way of showing our support for the newest members of our borough.

Beyond our resettlement programme, our sanctuary strategy covers all local public services, and at times it’s appropriately edgy. We don’t shirk away from refusing to collaborate with the Home Office’s new immigration rules on rough sleeping. We guarantee that no child in Lewisham should be denied free school meals because of their immigration status. We removed the Home Office’s embedded officer in the Council’s No Recourse to Public Funds service – and used the money we saved to pay for independent legal advice.

When it comes to how we should respond to those seeking sanctuary, Co-operative led councils like Lewisham are providing a humane and effective alternative to the Government’s hostile environment which panders to people’s fears of others. It’s perhaps a cliché, but I use my role to emphasise that it is not a question of “them and us” when it comes to refugees. Rather, “they are us” – people like you and me, who deserve the chance to live their best lives in a place of sanctuary.