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“I'm so proud of the communities across Devon that have come together to welcome refugees”

So far 8 families have been welcomed to Devon since Community Sponsorship began in the UK. Here the Resettlement Coordinator at Devon County Council, Stephen Matthewman, shares their experiences of working with Community Sponsorship groups reflects on the benefits that welcoming refugees has had on Devon communities.

When the Community Sponsorship programme was launched in 2016, it enabled people in the UK to sponsor refugees for the first time. Several communities in Devon mobilised really quickly. Back then we were in uncharted territory – the scheme was brand new. But at Devon County Council we quickly recognised that the benefits of Community Sponsorship could be huge – not only for sponsored refugees, but also for the communities themselves.

I’m so proud of the communities across Devon that have come together to welcome refugees. I’ll explain the main benefits of Community Sponsorship that we’ve observed at Devon County Council.

1. Increased connection between refugee families and host communities

Firstly, there is more opportunity for bonds and connections to develop between refugee families and the people supporting them. This is due to the capacity of the Community Sponsorship Group members. When a refugee family is resettled through the Local Authority, our caseworkers might only be able to visit the family 2-3 times a week because they’ll be working with lots of vulnerable families. But through Community Sponsorship, families have daily contact with Group members. This increased contact helps to develop strong bonds between families and the people in their new local areas.

2. More opportunities for learning English

Secondly, we’ve observed that the increased contact between the families and their local communities seems to enable families to learn English more quickly. With Community Sponsorship, there are so many opportunities for family members to absorb English, practice their conversational skills in relaxed settings, and build up their confidence.

3. Local expertise, local solutions

The third benefit of Community Sponsorship that we’ve observed is that refugee families receive support from people with local expertise. Something that I’ve been really impressed by is the resourcefulness of Community Sponsors. Any problem that comes up, no matter how niche, Community Sponsors come together to find someone in their community with the right knowledge to offer a solution. I think this is a testament to the strength of the local networks that Community Sponsors tap into.

Local Authority caseworkers have clients across large areas of Devon so it’s just not possible for them to have detailed local knowledge of every town and village that they visit. By tapping into the local networks of the Community Sponsorship Group members, it’s possible to really harness all of the opportunities and support available for refugees.

4. New friendships and enhanced community cohesion

Very early on, even before the first sponsored refugee families arrived in Devon, we began to see the benefits of Community Sponsorship for Devon residents: new friendships, enhanced community cohesion, and a chance to put commitments to equality and diversity into practice in everyday life. Some communities in Devon don’t have much experience of diversity and Community Sponsorship provides them with an opportunity to learn about and appreciate cultures and experiences that previously they might only have encountered through sources like the media. This increased understanding benefits everyone in a community.

Overall, I’d say that mobilising host communities to play an active part in refugee resettlement has a really positive effect on integration. I’d estimate that, in terms of integration, a Community Sponsorship Group can get done in 2 years what a Local Authority gets done in 5 years, and I’d put this down to the capacity of Groups to provide intensive, wraparound support and their local expertise.

None of this is to say that Local Authorities don’t have a very important role to play. Community Sponsorship isn’t about local people competing with Local Authorities to resettle refugees. Instead, it’s about Local Authorities working with local people in a different way. To find out more about how Local Authorities can successfully work with and support Community Sponsors to provide effective support to a resettled family, make sure you check out my next blog which will published here shortly!

If you work for a Local Authority and you’d like to find out more about Community Sponsorship from a Local Authority, Stephen is happy to be contacted via refugeeresettlement@devon.gov.uk.

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