Dilemmas in Community Sponsorship
By Harriet Lamb.
It’s a movement built on cups of tea and homemade crumbly cookies; the biscuits were even raised once as Any Other Business. Under the Government’s Community Sponsorship scheme, you take responsibility for enabling a vulnerable refugee family to come to Britain. Being part of our community group, Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees, has probably been the best thing I’ve done recently. But that doesn’t mean there are not dilemmas – indeed, as with anything worthwhile, we are constantly stumbling. In particular, one question has been nagging us:
Is it right that so many volunteers give so much time to support just one family while other refugees get so little?
Some of the Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees Committee at work. A few months ago, they hadn’t met. Now friends working together to make a home for a vulnerable refugee family, thanks to #CommunitySponsorship. @HHWR_ @SponsorRefugee #HerneHill. Can you spot the group’s mascot?! pic.twitter.com/Sd5c7mXxB7
— Deepak Sardiwal (@d_sardiwal) March 29, 2018
Soon it will be two years since neighbours in South East London formed our group, sitting around a kitchen table. Knowing that the world has the largest number of people forcibly displaced ever – at over 70 million, or as many people as the whole of Britain - and frustrated that the Government was accepting so few refugees, we wanted to play our small part. We realised that it was just one family. But for that one family it would make all the difference in the world.
So we set about meeting the Home Office criteria: to raise £9,000, find a house which the landlord would rent at local authority benefit rates (ie: way below the market, furnish it, meet safeguarding criteria, have a bank of teachers for English as a Second Language, translators and interpreters, and people ready to support the family regularly. Pulling all this and more together to satisfy the Home Office’s justified rigour (since you are taking responsibility for a family) was a huge amount of work: hours and hours of volunteer time. Sometimes it was a nightmare – we have torn out our hair over the Home Office form (since simplified) and cried over Universal Credit that took months to come through.
But mostly we have cried with joy or because we have been moved by people’s generosity: by the shop owner who donated falafels for a fundraiser; the florist who donated window boxes for the home; the decorator who gave hours to fixing the shower. At every stage, we have been overwhelmed by people’s kindness and wish to play their part in supporting the family. We wanted a core group of 5 at the start; instead we have a core group of 25 with others involved sometimes. And we have needed every single person.
Two years later we are proud that the family who came to Herne Hill are settling in so well, give us all joy, and are part of the group planning to sponsor a second family. For all of us, the process of working together has been such a pleasure, getting to know new neighbours. But all the time, playing on our mind, has been the worry about the imbalance in people’s time and energy that goes to just one family under Community Sponsorship.
Just down the road, Lambeth has enabled 112 refugees to resettle in the UK under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Schemes. Local Authorities in the UK receive a share of £129 million from the Government to provide the housing, translation and basic needs of the families over a 5 year period. Locally people have organised to provide the softer side of care – from the extra English classes to half-term outing. But each family receives a fraction of the support given to those coming via Community Sponsorship. And then there are all those asylum seekers who risk their lives to reach Britain and wait endlessly to know if they can stay, unable to work or even claim proper benefits, sometimes ending in detention; not forgetting those millions stuck for years in difficult living conditions, refugee camps, unable to return home or to build a new life, lost in limbo. And of course, you can look at people struggling on London’s deprived estates and worry about overlooking their needs too.
These are dilemmas with which we are wrestling. You could ask:
Should we give more support to other refugee families instead of organising to enable a second family to join us under Community Sponsorship?
We don’t know the answers and continue to discuss the dilemma. But we have decided that we are best placed to organise very locally, to use our experience and skills to support another family.
We also believe that we are having a wider impact. The strength of community support is a strong signal to Government that accepting refugees can be popular. Our experience shows popular support to extend the hand of friendship to people in their hour of need.
From Day One, part of our aim has been to put that wider message to Government and press for policy changes. We argued that since the community takes on the cost and work, refugees coming this way should be additional to any Government targets. So we were thrilled when, during Refugee Week on 24 June, the Home Office announced that from 2020 onwards, refugees sponsored by communities will be additional to those coming under the government scheme. Campaign success!
We know that our sponsorship has inspired others to follow suit. We talk everywhere about Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees, because our goal is to encourage other communities. We know of groups in other parts of London, Newcastle, Northern Ireland, Devon, Edinburgh, Bristol, and in Leicester who have been inspired by our shameless twitter feed! Overall, 281 refugees have now come under the scheme and it’s growing fast.
You can always belittle community efforts as too much effort for too little reward But efficiency is not their yardstick. Take another example: many countryside villages still have pubs and shops only because of communities organising hours of volunteer time. They are wildly inefficient – better by far to drive to the nearest supermarket or chain of pubs. But of course that’s not the point: people need a local shop, especially the elderly or sick or over-stretched parent with crying babies, or those who cannot afford cars. People enjoy volunteering, keeping a local service going, chatting with each other and the customers for hours, checking up on the sick or sad. That is the heart of community life and it matters far more than the balance sheet.
— Harriet Lamb (@HarrietLamb_) May 8, 2019
Likewise, in Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees, we all enjoy the fact that, in the midst of a vast anonymous city, we can work together like a village, chatting about our latest problem by the bus-stop or at the market. The process matters. And so does the intensely personal involvement: enabling one family to find safety, meeting the kids at the school gate, taking them to the park is transformative. In one village, people opposed Community Sponsorship, saying refugees were not welcome; until that is, they met the family. Once they saw the disabled boy struggling to get on the bus, and the young mother with complications in childbirth, the village lost their hostility and joined the support team.
In Canada, the inspiration for Community Sponsorship, it is estimated that one-third of the population have had some contact with a family who came under the scheme which has so far welcomed over 327,000 refugees. In Canada, the racism and xenophobia of the far right have not taken root. There may be no causal connection; or there just may be a link.
Of course, it would be best to have a golden combo: The Government accepting significant numbers of refugees, who are welcomed by organised communities. When Germany accepted a million refugees at the height of the Syrian war, people rallied around to teach German, provide clothes and blankets, and went on meeting when difficult issues came up.
Yes, so much time spent one family at a time, does feel imbalanced. But for those refugees coming this way, it is a lifeline that we should keep extending. Again and again. And hope that we can send the ripples of compassion wider and wider, in our own lives and far beyond.