Community Sponsorship in the UK: A win-win approach for resettling refugees?

channel crossings
7 min read
02 December, 2021

The English Channel has once again become a site of tragedy. The 24th of November marked the largest single loss of life since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began keeping records, as 27 people drowned in an attempt to reach British soil.

The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project estimates that at the very least, 194 migrants have died there since 2014. Most of the people making this dangerous journey plan to seek asylum upon arrival, hoping that the government will recognise them as refugees.

Following the tragic deaths, charities and human rights organisations have called for a greater provision of safe and legal routes for people to seek asylum in Britain.

While the UK government has instead placed the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill at the centre of its response, one scheme that has so far proven successful at resettling refugees is Community Sponsorship.

"Charities and human rights organisations have called for a greater provision of safe and legal routes for people to seek asylum in Britain"

How did Community Sponsorship come about?

In September 2015, the tragic images of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose small body washed up on a Turkish beach, shook the world. He drowned alongside his family and countless others fleeing conflict. 

A few days later, then British prime minister David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 Syrians through a new national scheme by 2020. 

In parallel, tens of thousands took to the streets in London, demanding that Britain accept more refugees. This overwhelming support pressured the government to harness the power of people eager to help.

By the following year, the Community Sponsorship Scheme for local groups to directly welcome and support a refugee family had been designed by the Home Office with input from civil society partners, including Citizens UK, the Salvation Army, and the Catholic Church.

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Different routes, different results

According to The Migration Observatory, 75% of the roughly 29,500 refugees in the UK from January 2010 to December 2020 that came through a government resettlement scheme were from the Middle East.

However, those arriving outside of a resettlement scheme have a dramatically different experience. 

When migrants set foot in the UK hoping to be granted asylum, they must wait for a decision about their refugee status, which often takes at least six months. In the meantime, they can’t work and are placed in short-term holding centres. 

The poor and unsafe conditions of some of these hostel-type accommodations have been reported as grim, resembling “slums” or even prisons with rats and cockroaches, despite the large amounts of money handed to the private companies running them. Clearsprings Ready Homes, one of the three contractors the Home Office relies on for accommodating asylum seekers, has so far received profitable contracts worth over £3.2 billion.

channel migrants - Getty
At least 194 people have died while attempting to cross the English Channel since 2014. [Getty]

Is Community Sponsorship effective? 

The way the scheme was co-created is one of the programme’s strengths, increasing the chances of integration. Involving and having the buy-in of the receiving community is crucial, as there is often widespread prejudice against refugees.

A 2020 study about Community Sponsorship Groups by the University of Birmingham found that direct contact with refugees helped reduce the concerns expressed by some residents.

“When we’ve met groups across the country, we’ve seen how beneficial it is – both for the refugees, in helping them settle, but also in bringing locals together,” UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh told The New Arab

Over 300 local groups have formed across the UK (with more on the way), spanning from people that go to the same church, mosque or synagogue, to school parents, rugby, running or book clubs, and even a pub quiz team.

"When we've met groups across the country, we've seen how beneficial it is – both for the refugees, in helping them settle, but also in bringing locals together" 

What does Community Sponsorship mean for refugees?

Around 549 refugees have benefited from the initiative so far, in addition to the total number of refugees resettled through a national scheme. Although it might seem like a drop in the ocean, it has had a life-changing impact. 

When Ahmad Alhammoudi and his family arrived at Birmingham airport in 2019 without knowing what to expect, a group of friendly faces waved at them. They hugged them. 

The family were taken to Cardigan, Wales and shown into their new home, where a Syrian meal had been prepared in advance to greet them with a familiar smell. 

The group had raised funds to help them during the first few months and secured a place for them to rent. They helped Ahmad and his wife set up Universal Credit, open a bank account, register at a GP and organised networking events in the community.

They also helped them with their English, coming every week to their home, where he and his wife like to cook food for them. “I like it when they are smiling,” he told The New Arab.  

Their children - three, five, and seven years old - are now well adjusted and fluent in Welsh and English and play with their neighbours. His wife Enas al Bashir created a Syrian cookbook with the volunteers to improve her vocabulary, share recipes, and raise funds to sponsor a new family in the community. 

Alhammoudi is currently working as a barber and hopes to open his own place in the future. The one thing he repeats over and over again is “many thanks”, as he expresses his gratitude towards the volunteers, who he describes as family. 

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Preparing for a life-changing experience

Tim Finch, a 58-year-old freelance writer living in Peckham, southeast London came together with others in his street to sponsor a Syrian family. After sorting out the logistics, they were nervous about finally meeting them. He admitted there was some anxiety about how serious the community commitment was and entering something so new and open-ended. 

He already had extensive experience working in refugee charities but became frustrated with how things were run, often encountering misconceptions and assumptions about what refugees need. 

While the global plight of refugees is overwhelming and too much for one individual to tackle, Community Sponsorship seemed more manageable. 

He explains that the great thing about this community-led scheme is that it is not as formal as government approaches. There is some structure, but the flexibility leaves room for creativity in helping the family. 

Ultimately, the strength of the group is how diverse it is, because everyone brings something to the table. You don’t have to be an expert in refugee resettlement, he says, just an expert in your community. 

Although he admitted that volunteering can be demanding, his voice still carries energy and passion about the project, which he describes as “incredibly rewarding, genuinely enjoyable and one of the most valuable things I have done”. So much so that he is currently involved in helping another family. 

"Finding affordable accommodation in a country with a housing crisis is certainly one of the major challenges"

What are the limitations of the scheme?

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul in August, all eyes have been on Afghanistan. The government unveiled plans for a new national resettlement scheme, with a promise of welcoming up to 20,000 in the next five years, handled by local authorities who opt-in. Community Sponsorship would be in addition to this, as it is run separately.

Although it could sound like a model solution to integrating refugees, Community Sponsorship is not for everyone. It can be intense, time-consuming, and a lot of effort is directed at helping just one family. The preparation takes on average six months, in which people need to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops.  

Finding affordable accommodation in a country with a housing crisis is certainly one of the major challenges. In some areas, groups deliberately avoided placing refugees in social housing to prevent conflicts with residents who resent non-British citizens being helped.

As things stand today, volunteers have no say in the selection process, so they can’t choose who they sponsor. Other countries, like Canada - which created the first version of this scheme - offer Private Sponsorship, so that groups can lead refugee resettlement efforts independently and bring over people they know, such as extended family or friends. 

However, as one of the volunteers told The New Arab, the one thing that their sponsored family found most strange since they arrived was why the group was helping them. Helping someone you care about is natural, instinctive even. But helping a complete stranger? That is humanity at its best. 

Carla Rosch is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in London, with a Solutions Journalism approach.

Follow her on Twitter: @carla_rosch