Community-sponsorship in the UK: breaking down barriers to diversity

Is private sponsorship a sustainable policy option for the resettlement of refugees?  In this piece Hannah Collins compares government-led resettlement programmes and private community sponsorship schemes (CSS) for displaced Syrian families resettled in the UK. Based on interviews with both host communities and Syrian families, Hannah reviews the schemes and examines both the positive aspects of these schemes and the potential problems they may create. Hannah also explores and problematises the concept of integration and the creation of identities by and for newcomers and their host communities. In doing so Hannah contributes to the ongoing work of the Refugee Hosts’ research project which seeks to develop a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities that arise when local communities engage in activities designed to enhance the quality of life of displaced populations.

If you find this piece of interest please visit Refugee Hosts Representations of Displacement series or the suggested reading at the end of this post.

This piece was posted on 27 February 2019.

Community-sponsorship in the UK:  breaking down barriers to diversity. 

By Hannah Collins, DPU-UCL

With Brexit, and the rise of populist politics, opinions relating to migration are dividing societies. Distrust is exacerbated by dominant media, political and social rhetoric which perpetuates misinformation and negative stereotypes. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is being grossly distorted by the language that we use – hence, we use the term ‘newcomer’ to refer to people who were once refugees but have now been resettled in a host country through the UNHCRs resettlement programme.

There are 25.4 million registered refugees in the world. Only 10,500 have been welcomed into the UK since the government promised 20 000 by 2020 in 2015. Forced mass displacement and migration is not a new issue or anomaly. It is a fact of human existence. As such, migration policies must be sustainable and long-standing unlike the reactive and ad hoc policies that have arisen, mainly in Europe, since 2015.

Resettlement is one of three ‘durable’ solutions for refugees mandated by the UNHCR (the other two being voluntary repatriation and local integration). It is not a solution for all refugees as the numbers and places available are low and it does not help to address the root cause of their displacement. Resettlement policies change according to the country who accepts refugees and can be inherently discriminatory with selection criteria such as ‘women at risk’ or ‘family reunification.’ Resettlement is a life-changing experience for people who are forced to make a home where the society, culture and language are often different from their own. About 1.2 million refugees need resettlement but there is a decline in refugee resettlement worldwide.

Private sponsorship is promoted by policy makers globally as an opportunity to provide refugees a chance for a better life and is a sustainable policy option for refugee resettlement. It enables communities to take on the costs of integrating refugees who need a safe haven. Until recently Canada was the only country to offer private sponsorship of refugees which has helped resettle 300,000 people since the mid-1970s. Advocates for private sponsorship argue that its primary benefit is not to reduce government costs and commitments but to enable more refugees to be reset­tled, complementing the government’s role. At the core of successful private sponsorship is a respectful partnership between the government and civil society. They argue that the scheme strengthens host communities, builds powerful bonds between sponsors and newcomers and fosters positive attitudes towards refugees.

Last year a colleague and I, with the support of UCL’s Development Planning Unit and Citizens UK, compared government-led resettlement and the newly instated community-sponsorship scheme (CSS) for newcomers in the UK. Modelled on the Canadian private sponsorship scheme, in CSS community groups in the UK sign up to sponsor and support a family displaced by the Syrian conflict to resettle in their local community. They are responsible for the newcom­ers from the moment of their arrival, providing airport pick-up, housing, access to medical and social ser­vices, English language tuition, schooling, and support towards employment and self-sufficiency. In this sense, sponsors take on the same role as local authorities in many government-led resettlement programmes.

We travelled around the UK speaking with volunteers, community groups, local councils, NGOs and newcomers who had experiences with either scheme. While my colleague focussed on the experiences and perspectives of the newcomers I looked at those of the host communities. Only 10 families had arrived through the CSS when we were investigating, so while our research offers insights into the schemes it is not an exhaustive study.

Central to the resettlement process is the complex concept of integration. Integration involves the active engagement by policy makers, state institutions, local communities and the newcomers, with all groups interacting with and adapting to diversity. As integration is a process and the newcomers and host communities we spoke with had only been involved with the schemes for a year or less, they were in the beginning phases of integration.

We found that the participation of host community members leads to positive impact on the process of integra­tion. Such participation occurs in different ways in CSS and government-led resettlement. Under CSS the role of the host community is structured, which encourages an efficient management of resources, accelerating the integration process through clear communica­tion channels, well planned flexible interventions, and a sense of responsibility of the host community.

In the words of a host community member,

I don’t think local authorities have that capacity, even with the funding they have, to offer that level of support. They generally offer one worker to look after five families, that’s what I understand, in most places. One full time worker to do all of that. We have team of 15 looking after one family…we have different roles for each person… I think CSS offers a wider opportunity for support and more knowledge base coming in and people with real expertise on different areas.”

Under current cuts and increased stress on public services, navigating the system of entitle­ments is increasingly difficult for people whose situation is already precarious, creating further marginalisation

By framing people as the ‘most vulnerable’ or the ‘worthiest of protection’, the system can work to further exclude others, usually young men, who have become vulnerable due to the framing of what constitutes ‘vulnerability’. In the words of one newcomer we interviewed,

Apart from the current problems we have such as language, cultural shocks, and vulnerability, we have too many other problems and concerns, we all suffered from war and bloodbath and persecution, some of us have trauma, family members at risk, loss of loved ones to war, our suffering started seven years ago and is still going on, even if we are safe here. Please do not compare us with others. I understand and really appreciate we have same rights as citizens, but sometimes we need more consideration, attention, and flexibility when accessing services.

Extra support is required for the ‘most vulnerable,’ beyond what the government provides, and a rethink needed to address those who are not seen as ‘vulnerable’ to access their rights. CSS is more adaptable to respond to individual needs and differences with the help of their sponsor group.

An effective response to the newcomers needs is crucial and depends upon treatment, com­munication, time and flexibility. Our findings show that CSS has more capacity to respond to these issues because it does not depend on overstretched, bureaucratic and rigid state institutions or outsourced NGOs. However, in both schemes engaging the host community in access­ing services can be beneficial and there are examples of host community engagement in access to services in both schemes, but in CSS the role of the host community is structurally built into the scheme.

When we live in and engage with only our own private spaces and circles we exacerbate and actively contribute to the dilution of public goods and lose a sense of common interest and shared values.  Populists get around the human values of empathy and solidarity by propagating falsities to discredit facts and stoke fear rather than compassion for the benefit of no one but themselves and those ‘like’ them. CSS is an opportunity to move beyond this, to help those in need, to challenge the status quo bias and to create a functioning society through diversity. So far about 138 refugees have come through the community-sponsorship scheme sponsored by 24 community groups.

Our interviews showed that, with CSS, host communities work with newcomers to show them how things work so newcomers build trust and under­standing of the systems of their new government. At the same time the host community changes; stereotypes are broken and the community cultures adapt and are strengthened by their new members. For example, a host community member remarked,

the effect [CSS] has had on us is probably the biggest success of the whole thing really… you are supporting the family and you can see the effect it’s having on them, but on many levels it has given us a common purpose as a group… we have interacted with all sorts of people that we haven’t met before. Taxi drivers who brought us back from the airport who heard what we were doing and then didn’t charge us the bill… the local Lebanese restaurant gave us all this food for free and they kept saying thank you to us… it’s just created community.

CSS offers opportunity for individual change and engagement with diversity. It may be a policy, however, that actually helps expand neoliberal ideologies as states become further removed from providing social support. After witnessing individual journeys, success stories and some proud community groups I feel hopeful for the opportunities to take action that CSS provides, while recognising that this may obscure a further devolvement of social responsibility from the state.

**

This research was undertaken by Mahdy Alraie and Hannah Collins, supervised by Dr Andrea Rigon at the Development Planning Unit, UCL.

**

Recommended reading:

Rayes, D.  (2018) In God we trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States 

Thieme, T. 2018 World Refugee Day – DIY Humanitarianism in Paris

Jordan, Z.  (2018) Why host refugees?

Rowlands, A. (2018) Turkey – crossroads for the displaced. 

Weatherhead, K.T. (2017) Thinking though the concept of ‘welcoming’.

 

Featured image: Resettlement houses in central Port Charlotte – geograph.org.uk.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

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