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Why Britain Chose to Partially Privatize Refugee Resettlement

Britain has agreed to private sponsorship of refugees. Tim Finch, one of the architects of the breakthrough, tells Refugees Deeply why it can help countries successfully expand resettlement programs.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
In this Sunday, June 14, 2015 file photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis, File

You could be forgiven for missing the British government’s recent announcement of the “full community sponsorship scheme.” It was not accompanied by much media fanfare. The coverage it did receive tended to focus on the hosting of a Syrian refugee family by the Archbishop of Canterbury at his Lambeth Palace residence.

In reality, the acceptance of private sponsorship of refugees marked the success of a committed campaign to persuade the British government to follow Canada’s lead and allow private groups to shoulder most of the costs and responsibility for resettling refugees.

Tim Finch, who helped set up the National Refugee Welcome Board, was among the leads in making this happen. The former head of research at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank, persuaded the new refugees welcome board to make the push for private sponsorship central to the mission.

Down in the detail of a July 19 statement from Britain’s new home secretary, Amber Rudd, was the acceptance that the British public’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis had been “overwhelmingly generous,” and that changes in the law must follow to unleash this potential.

Britain’s backing for the scheme, which is under consideration in other countries including the U.S. and New Zealand, is being billed as the best practical step in improving the chances of success for refugee resettlement programs, whose past success has been patchy at best.

Finch, who was also served as director of communications at Britain’s Refugee Council, liaised with experts in Canada and lobbied for interested groups in the U.K. to come forward and volunteer as sponsors.

He is also the author of a novel, The House of Journalists, which revolves around a place of refuge for exiled writers who have sought asylum in London.

Refugees Deeply: Why is the community sponsorship an important step for the U.K.?

Finch: One thing that was clear when there was outpouring of sentiment following the death of Alan Kurdi last year was that a significant number of people in Britain wanted to commit to helping refugees personally. That’s to say, they wanted to do more than donate to a refugee charity, or sign a petition, or go on a march, or even volunteer at a refugee center. They wanted to provide a home and a welcome in their community for people fleeing conflict. As things stood, there was really little way that such generous offers could be taken up. True, people could and did work with their local councils on resettling refugees through the government scheme, including offering houses, sometimes for free or at well below market rates. But quite often, and sometimes for understandable reasons, members of the public were kept at arm’s length by the professionals.

That caused some frustration. Early on we recognized that the idea of private or community sponsorship offered a way for particularly interested civic society groups or even groups of individuals to be more directly and personally involved in resettlement, because through sponsorship, they would be taking the lead in welcoming, housing and supporting arriving refugees. It’s a huge commitment, of course, including a financial one. As well as having to find suitable accommodation and demonstrate they are capable of supporting refugees, sponsors have to raise a sum of something like £10,000 ($13,300) to cover the costs of a refugee family. But as we’ve found, there are a lot of generous and committed people out there who are not put off by that.

Of course, the scheme is starting small. But, even so, in effect it is the first new form of refugee protection introduced into this country since the Labour government introduced fully government-funded resettlement back in 2004. In an environment where in general successive administrations have been trying to restrict ways for refugees to find safety in the U.K., this is a small step in a more positive direction. We’ll see how it turns out, but if there’s a fair political wind, I see no reason why community sponsorship shouldn’t lead to many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of refugees being resettled here in coming years. Certainly there is lots of interest around the country in being part of this.

Refugees Deeply: Is there a model for the community sponsorship that was influential?

We leaned very heavily for inspiration and information on the Canadian sponsorship scheme. It’s been in operation for more than 25 years, and in that time some 250,000 refugees have been resettled in Canada through the private sponsorship route, and that’s on top of full government resettlement schemes. There are differences between there and here, of course. Housing is much less of an issue in Canada: It’s more available and less expensive. On the other hand, our scheme gives refugees more access to benefits from the day they arrive, thus reducing the financial burden on sponsors compared with Canada. Nonetheless, there are large elements of the Canadian model that we thought were adaptable to Britain, and if you look at our government’s scheme, that’s how it’s turned out.

An important factor in taking inspiration from Canada is not just that sponsorship has led to many more refugees being able to build new lives in Canada than would otherwise have been the case, but also what it has done to create a culture of welcome there. Almost every community in Canada will have a sponsorship scheme in its midst, and over there this it isn’t something that’s done almost secretly, fearing a public backlash. It’s a cause of celebration. This helps to build a sense in Canada that welcoming refugees is both normal and a good thing. It’s become part of the country’s sense of itself. Canadians are proud to welcome refugees, not begrudging about it. And I think that if community sponsorship works here and grows considerably, a similar thing could happen. It’s not the only way to build a culture of welcome, of course, but because local communities have such a hands-on role in sponsorship, it is an important element.

Refugees Deeply: Sponsorship is sometimes referred to as privatization of the resettlement of refugees. Is it free of costs for central and local government? If not, how are the costs shared?

To the first part of the question, yes that is sometimes said, and to a certain extent it is true. And I’d say, what’s the problem? Why should the general taxpayer pay for all the costs of resettling refugees in this country, what’s wrong with people in civic society who want to and can afford to contribute to the process playing a part? It is a very old-fashioned, statist view that says that the government has to do everything in this area. And of course in other aspects of refugee protection, and in a much less organized way, charities and civic society groups are already doing a lot to support asylum seekers, for instance. Indeed, in too many cases, they’re picking up the pieces when the state walks away.

I think it is a good thing that people who really care about refugees are able to demonstrate that commitment, including through putting their hand in their own pocket, to help provide homes for refugees in their neighborhoods. But of course this doesn’t mean the government or local councils are free of all costs. Refugees being resettled through sponsorship will still be able to claim benefits and use public services. At least in the early months, refugees do need support from the state and others to get back on their feet in a new and strange country. But we should always remember that previous waves of refugees, going back to World War II and before, have gone on to be among the most productive and successful people in our society. Refugees need a helping hand at the start, but they more than give back in the long run.

Refugees Deeply: Can you tell us about the lobbying effort: How did this get done? What approach proved most persuasive?

Above all, we took a collaborative approach with the excellent government Syrian Resettlement Team that was set up under the then minister Richard Harrington last October. Yes, we made public calls for sponsorship to be introduced, we held meetings in parliament and elsewhere, and we held campaigns and made some noise in the media. But almost from the start we knew we were pushing at a half-open door. In a generally pretty negative speech at the party conference last year, the then home secretary, now prime minister, Theresa May signaled that she was supportive of the idea of sponsorship. So our main approach was to say, “Great, how can we help?” A lot of work done by many people at Citizens U.K., the National Refugee Welcome Board, Refugees Welcome and others was around trying to identify groups – we called them “vanguard sponsors” – who might be able to be early adopters of sponsorship, to be part of the pilot phase.

It was a lot of hard work for those groups who came forward (it still is!) but we were able to act as a conduit between them and the Home Office, offering support and guidance and indeed encouragement. But it was very much an insider track, which for many of us was quite a change. Over the years, even though avenues of communication are of course open between refugee agencies and government, it’s tended to be quite grueling to get change because the two “sides” often have very different viewpoints and agendas. In this case, we both wanted the same outcome, while of course have differences of emphasis, so it was really refreshing.

Refugees Deeply: Which groups have so far come forward wanting to sponsor refugees. Can you give us an example case?

Most of the early groups have come from faith communities, which is not surprising given that these are established groups in their local areas and that helping refugees is often central to their values. But more recently we have seen more general local groups – people who are part of the refugees welcome network or involved in Cities of Sanctuary for example working to form sponsoring groups. These people are mobilizing around this particular idea and are not part of a local church group, for example. As for actual cases, well, there are few I could highlight. One of the very earliest groups to get involved was the Methodist District in Birmingham, with strong early support from their church nationally. An inspirational driving force there was the Reverend David Butterworth who forged links with a local body that was able to offer potential accommodation, always a key first step.

In Manchester, a number of Catholic churches got together in the Salford diocese to work up plans for sponsoring – it seems the first families to arrive through sponsorship might end up Manchester, though there are still negotiations with the council there. In London, two synagogues in Finchley have taken a lead and are tackling some of the particular issues that come with welcoming refugees into one of the most expensive parts of Britain.

Over in East London, one of the country’s biggest mosques has been gearing up to become a sponsor, but there are early groups from as far and wide as mid-Wales and Bude in Cornwall. In each case, a key element is having an individual who really drives things forward, a strong group around that leader who are committed to certain roles, and ideally, some help from other groups, particularly those who already have some experience of working on the resettlement of refugees.

Refugees Deeply: The British government has committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees. This number has been criticized as insufficient. What number would you say Britain could and should receive?

Given the scale of displacement from Syria – 5 million people outside its borders, another 6.5 million internally displaced – 20,000 is a small number. That said, it is quite a task to find places in the U.K. for 4,000 a year, as the government’s been finding. The issue is that, unlike Canada, for instance, this country is not geared up for resettlement. Until David Cameron made his announcement last September, we’d been resettling fewer than 1,000 refugees a year for the last 10 years or so. And these refugees were only going to a handful of cities and towns in the country. Now many more places are open to resettlement, but finding homes and putting in support does take time. But that doesn’t mean we should simply accept that we can’t do more.

Citizens U.K. and others have suggested 50,000 would be a fairer number. Its certainly a bigger number, and a country of our wealth and size certainly shouldn’t be overwhelmed by resettlement on that scale, even while recognizing that people also seek protection here through the asylum route. One way to increase resettlement, as Canada has shown, is to have a mixed economy of fully government-funded schemes, led by local authorities, alongside full sponsorship, with civic society groups taking on most of the responsibility, and a mix of the two, what the Canadians call a “blended scheme.” If government, local authorities and local people worked more closely together and there was strong support for resettlement from the very top – from Theresa May, I mean – then we could be doing so much more.

Tim Finch is the coordinator of the National Refugee Welcome Board in the U.K. He’s a former political journalist with the BBC and head of migration research at the think tank IPPR. His novel on a refugee theme, The House of Journalists, is published by Jonathan Cape in the U.K. and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.

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