This has been a miserable month for anyone on the move in Europe, but especially for asylum-seeking refugees trying to cross the Channel from France to England. Both the UK and French Governments are seeking to wash their hands of responsibility for this humanitarian crisis, which has seen a young man drown and wash up on a Calais beach, after a failed attempt to row across the Channel in a 16ft dinghy with spades for paddles. What hope of refuge is there for those who leave the nightmare that was home only to be rebuffed, demonised, and, at best, given temporary shelter in a crowded detention centre? One answer comes from the City of Sanctuary movement.
The idea of sanctuary has a long history, being primarily offered by the Church, from Roman times onwards, to people who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. While many of those early sanctuary seekers were also bona fide criminals, those who need protection from the power of the State in 2020 have usually committed no crime at all. Lacking proper status in the countries to which they have travelled in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families is not illegal.
The concept of sanctuary cities started in the United States, with San Francisco being the first place to offer refuge to migrants from Central America. The city subsequently passed laws preventing local funds and resources from being used by the Federal Government to identify asylum seekers and migrants without proper legal status. San Francisco became an official Sanctuary City in 1989, inspiring cities around the world to follow suit, though they have interpreted the notion of refuge in many different ways. For example, in The Hague in 2018, an Armenian family was saved from deportation by a 97-day religious service, as Dutch law forbids arrest during worship in Church.
Cities, towns and villages throughout Britain have embraced the idea, with Sheffield becoming our first city of sanctuary in 2005. Brighton and Hove, with its history of welcoming asylum seekers, immigrants and those whom society rejects, was recognised as a City of Sanctuary in 2015. As part of the process of recognition, the city undertook to receive refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The original aim was to work with the Government in the resettlement of Syrian families, but as the Conservatives’ attitude to asylum seekers and refugees has hardened, the movement now aims to create a nationwide network “to build a culture of welcome, hospitality, safety and inclusiveness” for people seeking sanctuary and “to promote understanding, recognition and celebration of the ways in which people seeking sanctuary enrich society.”
Thus, in contrast to the hostile rhetoric employed by the current government and right-wing media towards refugees, sanctuary cities like Brighton and Hove offer an environment which seeks to affirm and encourage those who have lost everything, yet still have much to give by way of skills, education, and culture. This local movement comprises an astounding range of council departments, organisations, businesses, faith-based and community groups, plus individual citizens, collectively working to ensure this is a city where people may thrive, whatever their background. Some of these bodies stand out, such as the library service, which has been awarded its own sanctuary status and is training all its staff in Refugee, Asylum Seekers and Migrant Awareness; the first Youth Club of Sanctuary, provided by the excellent Hummingbird Refugee Project; and the Brighton Table Tennis Club , which offers migrants ‘Pinglish’ – a combination of ping-pong and free English lessons, an initiative that has earned it the status of Sports Club of Sanctuary. In addition, the University of Sussex was recently declared a University of Sanctuary for welcoming refugees by offering scholarships, help with English, and free legal advice via the highly regarded Migration Law Clinic.
Even in our strange summer of lockdown, Refugee Week went ahead in June and brought the city together. Richard Williams, Chair of Sanctuary-on-Sea, commented: “We found different ways of connecting people inside our city and far beyond…[with] dozens of online events to make participants laugh, cry and be inspired, in an imagined world where everyone feels safe and welcome and can realise their dreams.”
Is it fantasy to believe that this imagined world can still be a reality in this seaside city, which offered places to a hundred young refugees under the now-terminated Dubs’ scheme? Where free English classes and spare rooms are made available for homeless migrants? Where migrants and locals come together in cultural exchange, whether through cooking, language, art or music? Where the International Network of Women in Brighton and Hove made scrubs bags for NHS staff because their members wanted to give something back to the place that had made them feel safe?
Even in 2020, this dream does still feel achievable somehow, at least in Sussex’s Sanctuary-on-Sea, which is clearly living up to its name.
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