Safe and Legal Routes: Community Sponsorship in the UK and Reset
Not only do Safe and Legal Routes change the lives of refugees, they can also be transformative and rewarding for the host communities that welcome them. This is particularly demonstrated through Community Sponsorship, a branch of refugee resettlement that is focused on the development of meaningful relationships between refugees and host communities. It enables local volunteer groups, such as charities, faith groups and neighbours, to support the resettlement of refugees and help them gain independence in a new country.
One nation where community sponsorship has seen positive resettlement and integration outcomes is the UK. The Community Sponsorship scheme was formally launched in 2016 as part of the UK Government-UNHCR refugee resettlement programme, and since this time, 449 refugees have been welcomed through the initiative. An essential aspect in realising the potential of Community Sponsorship is ensuring that sponsorship groups and sponsored refugees can access training, support and advice throughout each stage of the process. In the UK, this vital role is undertaken by Reset Communities and Refugees, a charity established in 2018 to enable as many communities as possible to welcome refugees. To gain a greater insight into community sponsorship and the work of Reset, we spoke to Monika Kruesmann, Co-Director at Reset.
MOAS: What is community sponsorship?
Monika Kruesmann: Community sponsorship is about ordinary people in a community coming together to welcome a refugee family in their neighbourhood. It’s a really practical activity, but it’s also a very profound, personal thing. It’s about making connections, building relationships and learning some new skills along the way. In formal terms, the way that sponsorship connects with safe and legal routes is that it is a part of the UK Government Refugee Resettlement Scheme. So, refugees who come to the UK through sponsorship have been selected by UNHCR on the basis of vulnerability through the normal procedures.
MOAS: What are the roles of community sponsors?
MK: There are many things that sponsors do. Of course, for every family and group, their needs are a bit different but it’s basically about equipping the family with the skills, knowledge and social connections they need to live independently in the UK. That usually means things like helping the family access English classes, helping connect them to services like doctors and often connecting them with job opportunities. The group also have quite a lot of important activities to do before the family arrives. Before a group can welcome a family, they need to demonstrate that they have raised a certain amount of money to help support the family. They also find and secure housing for the family for at least the first two years that they are in the UK. Usually, the group would welcome the family at the airport when they step off the plane which is a really important moment. The thing that the families usually say is the most important for them is just the sense that they’ve got a local supportive person who’s got their back. If the family has a problem or a question, then they know who they can turn to and there’s somebody right there locally in the neighbourhood who can help them. I think that is tremendously important, especially in those first weeks and months when it’s a new country and language, and it’s all quite stressful.
MOAS: How does community sponsorship benefit the refugee families that are supported? Do you have any particular stories or examples that you can share?
MK: We have so many amazing stories. One that is really special is about a man called Abdullah Alkhalaf, who has been resettled in Oxford. The things he has emphasised when talking about his experience has been the sense of support, the connections, the local personal support. He says as soon as he stepped off the plane at Gatwick Airport, he felt like he had a community. Abdullah also highlights how members of his group connected him with volunteering activity which then actually led to him getting paid employment. So, a critical part in his family becoming independent was the opportunities that the group could broker for him.
The other thing that people often emphasise when they’re talking about their experience is the way the groups give them the confidence to become independent. There’s a woman called Amneh who was resettled in Devon and who recently spoke about her experiences to the UNHCR. She really emphasises how the group always encourage her to do it herself and tell her you can do it. That kind of encouragement really helped her to become independent and empowered. That’s ultimately what community sponsorship is really about, helping people to become independent and to lead their own lives in the UK.
MOAS: Can you tell us about the work of Reset? What do you do?
MK: We’re a national charity in the UK and our mission is to see community sponsorship thriving across the UK and that means we want to see more people welcomed through sponsorship and we want to see more communities taking part. But it is also about wanting to maximise the impact and benefits of community sponsorship and the outcomes for families and groups. We do a lot of work directly with groups and families. We carry out regular support visits with all community sponsorship groups and families. When we do those support visits, we really do learn a lot about what’s happening on the ground and the real kind of challenges that are coming up for families. So, we take care to collect those learnings and use that to improve our training and convey that information onwards to people like the Home Office, the UK government agency in charge of this scheme. We also do a lot of training work.
MOAS: What kind of training do you provide to those wishing to become a sponsor?
MK: We have a range of training available depending on the groups and the families and their needs. All groups have to undertake some compulsory training which we run as part of preparing an application to sponsor a family. We also run refreshers and issue-based training for groups at different stages of the process. For example, we have a particular training module that’s about boundaries and how the group and the family interact with each other, what is the role of the group and what’s not. We’ve done specific issue-based training around things like helping people access benefit systems. It used to be in–person training done by members of our training team, but we obviously can’t do that now so it is a big online offer. We’ve also got an extensive online resource bank which is available to all groups who register with us and we have an amazing team of really friendly and committed people who are always happy to pick up the phone anytime to answer a question or have a chat, whatever the issue or question. We really do work hard to keep it grounded in reality, so what the families are experiencing, and we do try to feed in what groups and families tell us are their issues into the training.
MOAS: What would you say to someone considering starting or joining a community sponsorship group?
MK: I would say that there is probably no other way to have such a close and personal connection with a refugee family at one of the most stressful times in their lives. If what you want is to make a difference for good in someone’s life, then definitely please do consider sponsorship because it is unique in that way. I would say that it is a commitment and is quite a long one. We’re talking about a couple of years. But that said, what we’ve also learned is that the rewards for groups and what group members take away from it is beyond anything they expected. We’ve had really amazing stories about group members. For example, we had a group member that had suffered a bereavement and they were really struggling with that and becoming a member of a sponsorship group, she described it as getting purpose back into her life. That might be extreme but the point is that it can be really transformational and that is something worth considering.
Most of all, I would say get in touch with us at Reset because we are right here and it is our job to help, guide and support every step along the way. I also think that hearing from the families themselves about the difference that is made can be really compelling. A young man called Sam recently wrote a blog for us. He’s been on both sides of the sponsorship equation. He was sponsored with his family to settle here and went on to join a sponsorship group and resettled another family. He said he can’t think of anything more meaningful. I think coming from somebody that has been both a refugee and a sponsor, that’s a really compelling message to consider.
MOAS: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted community sponsorship opportunities in the UK?
MK: No question there’s been challenges. No refugees have arrived into the UK through resettlement since March last year. Although that is about to change soon. It has certainly been a difficult time and different groups have had different experiences of the pandemic. Those who were waiting to welcome refugees have had to be really patient over the last twelve months. Those groups who had already welcomed families have really had to be creative and flexible and find different ways of doing the support when they can’t actually meet with people because of social distancing and shielding. But the groups have been amazing honestly, we had so many examples of group members reading bedtime stories to the children over Zoom and those kinds of things.
Another thing which I think is really important is that we have actually seen an increase in people contacting us with interest in sponsoring refugees. When the pandemic started, we really worried that we would see a drop in the number of people contacting us and putting in applications and that actually hasn’t happened. We’ve seen even in the last few months, as we have been running our Communities for Refugees campaign, a 400% increase in people contacting us to express interest in sponsoring. That has been so encouraging to us. The other thing about the pandemic that has been incredibly special, is when we’ve seen examples where it’s a little bit like the tables have turned between the groups and the families. During the pandemic, Abdullah, who I mentioned before, started delivering food parcels to people in his sponsorship group who were shielding. There’s been so many examples of sponsorship becoming a real mutual and reciprocal relationship and that has been completely brilliant. It’s been a hard time but there have definitely been positive and special things coming forward.
MOAS: What are your hopes for the development or expansion of community sponsorship in the coming few years?
MK: We definitely want it to grow. We are really interested in finding ways to extend the benefits of sponsorship to more and more diverse groups of people. We are looking at ways to engage with different cohorts of vulnerable refugees. In partnership with a fantastic organisation called Talent Beyond Boundaries, we’re launching a pilot programme called ‘Neighbours for Newcomers’ which is particularly about a type of sponsorship support for welcoming skilled refugees who are coming to the UK to take up employment. We’re hoping to do more of that kind of work and extend the benefits of sponsorship to more and more vulnerable people and getting more communities involved as well. As we know that it’s brilliant and transformative and really leads to positive integration outcomes, and we’d like to see that shared as widely as possible.
We are very grateful to Monika for providing us with her perspectives and knowledge on community sponsorship, and for the inspirational stories she shared with us. At MOAS, we believe that including and engaging local communities in issues regarding migration, resettlement and integration is crucial, and community sponsorship represents both an important practical and personal way for members of the public to directly change the lives of refugees.
For more information about Reset and how to start or join a community sponsorship group in the UK, head to their website: https://resetuk.org/
To support MOAS’ campaign for Safe and Legal Routes sign up to our advocacy group now: https://www.moas.eu/safeandlegalroutes/
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