human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

A life transforming experience

Community Sponsorship is a new way to welcome and resettle refugees, putting local communities at the heart of a family’s journey to a new life in the UK. The community assumes responsibility for a refugee family, from first arrival through to settled independence as part of their local community. In September 2015, the Catholic community in England & Wales responded to Pope Francis’ call: “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family”. In November 2016, St Monica’s, Flixton, in the Diocese of Salford, became the first Catholic parish to welcome a Syrian family under the scheme, with many more following their lead.

On 9th November 2016 at Manchester Airport, a small group of parishioners waited excitedly for the first Syrian refugee family to arrive in Britain under the new Community Sponsorship scheme for refugee resettlement. Two years later, the parish community of St. Monica’s Flixton are still excited about the family they helped resettled and now, even though the two year resettlement commitment has officially ended, the bonds of friendship that have developed will continue to support, stand by and speak up for their family and all refugees seeking sanctuary in their community.

Was it chance or was it providence that the first refugee family to come to Britain under the new Community Sponsorship scheme ended up at St. Monica’s Parish, in the Diocese of Salford with Caritas? We like to think it was Providence, as the family has brought many blessings and gifts to a local Church and community and has opened the door to many new opportunities for Caritas to serve and respond at a national level to a tragic refugee crisis.

The St. Monica’s story is now being replicated all over the country and today Caritas has supported over 60 parishes to register under the scheme. A typical example of how community sponsorship is enabling communities to play their part in this refugee crisis by helping to resettle refugee families is described by Felicity Brangan, Project Manager, St Michael and St Bernadette’s Community Sponsorship Scheme in Manchester. She says,

We began with a core group of 6, and are now 25 volunteers forming different sub-groups in health, education, finance, housing, and employment. We worked with a Housing Association and secured a property in the heart of our parish. With the help of the whole parish community, the team furnished the house, created ‘Welcome packs’, found interpreters, and organised English lessons. When people invest their time and energy into this scheme it becomes personal, empowering and joyful. It gives the grass roots, the little people, like me, like our community, the power to change lives for the greater good. It is a wonderful feeling.

For every community sponsorship group that registers under the scheme we estimate at least 25 volunteers come forward to take responsibility to resettle just one refugee family. With over 60 parishes now engaged we can say that there are over 1,500 people who have come forward to take up the responsibility to help a refugee family to find a house, learn English and seek employment. Every person that becomes a volunteer under the scheme is vetted under a safeguarding process, receives training to be a sponsor and is supported by Caritas both through local and national networks that are developing the scheme.

The scheme will grow and with growth comes organisation. To coordinate the growth Caritas appointed Sean Ryan as the first national coordinator of the scheme. Sean’s enthusiasm and commitment to community sponsorship is contagious. Sharing this passion for his work he asks,

transforming the lives of people who have lost everything, whilst utterly transforming the togetherness and vibrancy of your whole community to the soundtrack of jokes, songs and raucous laughter …what’s not to like?

Sean is supported and managed jointly by Caritas Diocese of Salford and Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN). He reports nationally to a steering group that was formed in 2016 by Caritas Social Action Network that was asked by the Bishops’ Conference to establish a national coordinating group. The purpose of the group is to provide national leadership to support the contribution of the Catholic Church to the UK’s Community Sponsorship of Refugees Scheme. The Group brings together leaders from England & Wales to:

  • Raise awareness of the Scheme in the Catholic community in our nations.
  • Ensure that the Bishops and the Conference officers are kept informed about the Scheme.
  • Promote high standards of practice amongst Catholic host communities and lead sponsors.
  • Inform advocacy work in relation to the Scheme.

Community Sponsorship, here in the UK, is a new legal pathway to resettlement but has been working successfully in Canada for over 40 years and has resettled over 300,000 people in that time. Since 2004, Britain has been resettling around 750 refugees every year through the Gateway Protection Programme but in September 2015, the UK Government pledged to resettle 20,000 refugees via the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme. This scheme operates through the local authorities who deliver the scheme directly or contract out the responsibility to deliver it to either the private or voluntary sector. In July 2016, the UK government, through the Home Office launched the new Community Sponsorship scheme modelled on the highly successful private sponsorship programme in Canada. Syrian refugees coming to the UK under the new Community Sponsorship model are included in the 20,000 resettlement quota up that the government announced.

This July, The Rt. Hon Caroline Nokes MP, Minister of State for Immigration, here in the United Kingdom underlined the support for community-based refugee sponsorship in advance of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly and agreement on the Global Compact on Refugees. She said,

Refugee resettlement through community sponsorship is made possible by the dedication, hard work and compassion of community groups across the UK. The UK has one of the world’s largest refugee resettlement programmes, based on referrals by UNHCR of the most vulnerable refugees in need of resettlement. We are pleased to be working with Canada and others to share our experience of community sponsorship and support more countries who want to implement community-led refugee resettlement programmes.

As well as the work of national governments, here in Europe the International Catholic Migration Commission, together with Caritas Europa, has established a Working Group on community sponsorship. The overall goal is to explore ways to further build upon and support sponsorship experiences in Europe and inspire local communities to set up similar programmes across Europe.

To bring the community sponsorship model to life requires a legislative framework to enable host countries to empower its citizens to take ownership and responsibility for the process. It also requires inter-agency cooperation and buy-in from a variety of government and non-government organisations to work together. Given the legislative framework can be put in place in a country to allow community sponsorship to thrive, a new partnership between government and civil society can be created with the ultimate goals of increasing refugee protection, mobilizing the compassion that exists in communities and bringing together people to help each other.

Exactly two years on from the first refugee family arrival under the Community Sponsorship scheme, Caritas is as excited about its role in refugee resettlement as the first refugee family is to be here in the UK. Even with Brexit there will be no exit from this life transforming scheme.

About the author
Mark Wiggin is the Director of Caritas Diocese of Salford and part of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) an agency of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales promoting the Community Sponsorship scheme with the Catholic Church. To date there are 62 parishes and 14 dioceses supporting the scheme.