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Lewisham Council formally recognised as the UK’s first ‘Council of Sanctuary’

Lewisham Council taking a stand against the “immoral and dysfunctional” hostile environment. 

Lewisham Council’s pioneering work in challenging the ‘hostile environment’ towards migrants, and leadership in demanding the UK government restart the country’s refugee resettlement scheme, was recently acknowledged with the council becoming the first to be formally recognised for its work to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary.

A leading national charity, City of Sanctuary, granted Lewisham the title ‘Council of Sanctuary’, the first time a local authority in the UK has received this honour.

The council’s approach to sanctuary is a whole borough approach that recognises the need to collectively encourage and enable change in partnership with other local public services and civic society groups across Lewisham. Borough-wide action plans were created with each council service and partner organisation agreeing to specific, measurable steps they can take to improve the way they work with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. In 2020 the Council appointed the country’s first Sanctuary Programme Manager. 

Rosario Guimba-Stewart, Chief Executive Officer,Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network :

Almost three years after launching the campaign to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary, we are glad to see Lewisham Council awarded the Council of Sanctuary Status. This is one step closer to making Lewisham a place of sanctuary, where everyone, regardless of their immigration status, can build a life, be part of the community and get help when times are tough. 

“Since 2018, Lewisham Council has already done many things to achieve this vision. However, we know the Council is only one part of the puzzle. There are many complex and controversial issues we still need to tackle together – such as the cruel nature of the NHS charging regime, along with homelessness and destitution amongst refugees and migrants. 

“We all deserve a safe place to live, where we can thrive and be in control of our lives. But this government is creating a hostile environment for many people living in our communities by pursuing policies that divide and exclude people with migrant backgrounds. Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network will continue to chip away at this hostile environment, by continuing to campaign on becoming a Borough of Sanctuary.  

“Becoming a borough of sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is a deep commitment which requires cultural change, political will, community engagement, resources and great respect for human rights. It is a long and difficult journey but we believe that by working together we will get there one day.”

The Council’s participation in the UK’s Refugee Resettlement Programme has already helped over 30 refugee families, making Lewisham London’s leading borough for Resettlement. In the last two years the Council has also welcomed 90 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. The Council aims to resettle 100 families in total, though much of this work has been disrupted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions. 

Some examples of the work and commitments that contributed to Lewisham council being recognised as a Council of Sanctuary include:

  • Committing to welcome an additional 100 unaccompanied minors over the next 10 years
  • Removing Home Office staff embedded in the council and using the funds saved to pay for independent legal advice for residents with uncertain immigration status
  • Ensuring that no child in Lewisham is denied free school meals because of their family’s immigration status
  • Publicly refusing to collaborate with the Home Office on the new immigration rules on rough sleeping
  • Playing a leading role in urging the Government to restart the refugee resettlement programme. In November 2020, Lewisham Council coordinated a pan-London letter to the Home Secretary.
  • Organising a pan-London COVID-19 vaccination webinar focused on the needs of refugees. In this meeting, the council arranged for a range of health professionals to provide information on the COVID-19 vaccine, and address concerns from refugees. 
  • Promoting Doctors of the World’s “Safe Surgeries” scheme so that undocumented migrants can safely visit every GP practice in Lewisham to obtain medical advice and receive Covid vaccines.
  • Acting as a founding member of the Lewisham Migration Forum, which is coordinating the collective effort for Lewisham to become a Borough of Sanctuary, welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries and protecting the rights of all migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. 

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability, stated: 

 “Lewisham’s moral mission to support refugees comes from our area’s shared history of welcoming generations of migrants and offering sanctuary to those fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous places. We are deeply honoured to accept this award, but we also recognise this is only a milestone in the collective effort with our partners across Lewisham to build a genuine Borough of Sanctuary. The changes we have made as council have only been possible with the involvement of so many civic society groups that we are so lucky to have in Lewisham.

“Sadly the national government is continuing to push to create an immoral and dysfunctional ‘hostile environment’ for migrants that is harmful for them and for the well-being of all of us. The Government’s so-called “New Plan for Immigration” would be a dangerous step in this wrong-headed and cruel approach. Local governments can and should challenge the hostile environment approach in how we provide services and support to all our residents regardless of immigration as well using our position to campaign for change where we cannot affect it ourselves.

“We will continue to work with our partners in Lewisham on the long journey towards creating a truly welcoming place for refugees, asylum-seeking and other migrants, a place that fully respects their human rights and the spirit of international law.”

Cllr Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham, stated:

“I am immensely proud that Lewisham has been awarded the Council of Sanctuary Award and that our historic work in providing a safe haven for refugees is being recognised. We will continue to strive to make our borough a welcoming home for those who need it. Lewisham’s refugee resettlement programme is the most ambitious in London a is the Council’s keystone commitment in making Lewisham a genuine Borough of Sanctuary for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

“We are keen to welcome many more in the future; however, without national targets and committed government support, local authorities and our delivery partners will be unable to plan ahead with a very real risk that many resettlement opportunities will be lost. We hope the Government will reconsider the proposed approach so that our country can truly offer protection to those fleeing conflict and persecution and become a stronger community where everyone is included and able to positively engage.”

Background information

  • The Sanctuary Awards are provided by a network of groups and City of Sanctuary UK to recognise and celebrate mainstream organisations’ commitment to the values and vision of the City of Sanctuary Charter.