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The Story of Community Sponsorship in the UK

For centuries, refugees have come to Britain seeking safety and a chance to rebuild their lives. In recent years, one of the most successful ways has been through resettlement.

Resettled refugees are brought over to this country from camps or conflict zones. They come with their status assured and with plans in place to welcome them and help them integrate.

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the government introduced the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian nationals (VPRS) in 2014. The scheme was significantly expanded in September 2015 when the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged that Britain would take in 20,000 Syrians via the VPRS by 2020. (This was later expanded further to include another 3,000 places for vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa region).

Citizens UK took a lead in pressing the government to allow local groups to play a bigger role in resettling refugees. One idea being urged on ministers was sponsorship of refugees, through which community groups take on the responsibility of welcoming, supporting and settling refugee families. Canada was the main inspiration. Through its Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, Canada has resettled more than 300,000 refugees since 1979.

In October 2015, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the government would look into developing a refugee sponsorship scheme. A unique and powerful aspect of building the scheme was that civil society organisations, like Citizens UK, and pioneer sponsors worked closely with officials from the government’s resettlement team on its design and implementation.

In July 2016, the Community Sponsorship scheme was officially launched at Lambeth Palace, with the Archbishop of Canterbury welcoming a family to live in a house in the grounds of the palace. In November of that year, the first community group – in Flixton, East Manchester - welcomed a refugee family through the scheme, with more pioneer groups piloting the programme through 2017.

Sponsor Refugees was launched in October 2017 and has since worked in partnership with a number of other organisations to promote and support Community Sponsorship. Groups started across the country, with hot spots in the South West of England, South Wales and London. Pioneer groups in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Newcastle, Yorkshire, Leicestershire and the West Midlands were established or welcomed families.

By March 2020, 449 refugee men, women and children had arrived in the UK through sponsorship and more than 200 groups had welcomed families or were in the pipeline to be sponsors, in every region and nation of the UK.

But the question still remained – what will happen after 2020? We campaigned to #ExtendtheWelcome, and in June 2019 Caroline Noakes, then Minister for Immigration, announced that resettlement would continue for at least one more year.

Just as the UK was about to reach its target of resettling 20,000 people by 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Fridges were stocked with food, beds ready made, and a number of families were about to step on planes – when all flights to the UK were cancelled.

It was devastating news for the families, and the communities who had worked so hard to welcome them. But we were not deterred. We brought together the movement and worked with the wider refugee sector to lobby the government to urgently restart the scheme.

Thankfully, in November, they announced that they would welcome 242 people, who would meet the target of 20,000.

This was great news, but 242 people was not enough. So, Citizens UK convened hundreds of people for the Refugees Still Welcome Assembly. We invited the new Minister for Migration, Rt. Hon Chris Philp MP, and asked that he urgently extend the scheme.

Starting at the faces of hundreds of people, including many resettled families, he announced that the UK would continue to resettle refugees, and that a new UK Resettlement Scheme would replace the VPRS once we reached our target of 20,000.

In the first few months of 2021, families started to arrive again to the UK. We reached our target of welcoming 20,000 people by February.

Resettlement is continuing without pause, through the new UK Resettlement Scheme. Through this new scheme, families welcomed through Community Sponsorship will be additional to government resettlement. That means that Community Sponsorship groups are directly increasing the number of refugees who can resettlement to the UK.

Initially, the UKRS will focus on resettling those from the Middle East and North Africa region who have been waiting the longest for resettlement places. Over time, the UKRS will develop a broader global scope so that it can respond quickly to emergency need for resettlement.

We have now welcomed over 500 people through Community Sponsorship since the movement began. The movement has grown to over 250 communities across the country.

What next for Community Sponsorship?

We have proved that Community Sponsorship works. We have shown that we are willing. We have secured government commitment for the scheme.

Now, we need to significantly scale, from welcoming tens of families each year, to hundreds, and then thousands.

Will you join the movement?