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Building Sanctuary in Our Communities

By Sophie Gregory, Campaigns and Communications Manager at Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network

Greenwich Borough of Sanctuary group at a recent meeting

Everyone deserves a safe place to live, where they are able to be a part of the community, to thrive, and be in control of their lives.

However, the government is making this increasingly difficult for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Through a set of policies called the ‘hostile environment’, they seek to divide and exclude sanctuary seekers. Recently, this has included the Nationality and Borders Act, the Illegal Migration Bill and the Rwanda Plan: legislation that positions the UK as anti-refugee, and threatens people’s human rights.

At Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, we’re campaigning against the hostile environment and instead build communities of welcome. We are committed to opposing policies that seek to isolate and exclude people because of their immigration status through our campaigns for change. One of the main ways that we do this is through the Borough of Sanctuary movement.

This campaign, part of the City of Sanctuary movement, seeks to build wide networks of people and organisations working together to fight the hostile environment. Some of the activities of Borough of Sanctuary groups include campaigning, raising awareness and offering training and support.

We started this work in Lewisham, which soon became the UK’s first Borough of Sanctuary!

Through our consistent work in partnership, Lewisham Council committed to providing free school meals for children whose parents cannot access public safety nets, to resettling 100 refugee families (a pledge they recently fulfilled!), to stop sharing data on rough sleepers with the Home Office and to remove their embedded Home Office worker.

We’ve also worked with Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust to run an inquiry into harmful migrant charging practices, set up a consistent Migration Forum to discuss challenges, and helped 100% of GPs sign up to the Safe Surgeries Scheme.

Our work has taken us over the border into Greenwich, where we are currently working to establish Greenwich Council as a Council of Sanctuary and build on our Safe Surgeries work. We’re also working to support Lambeth and Wandsworth in delivering their plans to establish sanctuary in their communities.

As we do this, the most important thing has been working in partnership with our communities. LRMN’s Community Forum brings together people from migrant backgrounds who want to get involved in campaigning and community organising. We work alongside our community to identify the issues that matter most, and then focus our work on that area. So far, our Community Forum has given school assemblies, sat on Council of Sanctuary assessment panels, worked on mental health campaigns, and contributed to local election campaigning work. The Forum is a resilient, skilled and insightful team, which plays a key role in ensuring that the sanctuary work stays close to the real challenges faced by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in our neighbourhoods.

A secret shopper event run by our community forum members

The power of the Borough of Sanctuary movement is in partnership. In Greenwich and in Lewisham, the Borough of Sanctuary groups are made up of charities, the local authority, local schools, statutory bodies like the NHS, individuals, people who have experience of the immigration system, businesses and many more.

Working together, we are able to campaign for changes in policy that allow everyone to live a dignified life and get the help they might need. In our Borough of Sanctuary campaigning, we always seek to make practical, meaningful and impactful change that removes the barriers that many people face when they’re trying to rebuild their lives.

Our vision is that London becomes a place that is safe for people seeking sanctuary and where all people are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their immigration status. Across London, and the UK, more of our local communities are signing up to join this movement of welcome. We’re always looking for more partners to join us as we build safe and inclusive communities, so get in touch if you’d like to learn more or follow us at @LRMNetwork!

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