UK sanctuary network offers vital backstop for refugees, asylum-seekers

City of Sanctuary, a 'movement for cultural change', is expanding often in deprived areas, helping instil values of hospitality and welcome

Syrian refugee Mohammed hangs out with his new friends at Widden Primary School in Gloucester. The school supports seven refugee families, including 12 children.  © UNHCR/William Davies

BOLTON, England – Upstairs at Victoria Hall Methodist Mission, a warren of meeting rooms tucked around a 1,250-seat concert hall in this once prosperous northern English city, the strains of a Mozart serenade fill a makeshift studio where untrained dancers move with surprising grace.

Half a dozen women from Albania, Kurdistan, India and Somalia are interpreting a passage from the story of Orpheus in a workshop run by the nearby Octagon Theatre. Here they find hospitality, friendship, and an escape from worries about the status of their asylum claims.

“It’s a safe space for women, working with a lot of drama and movement, helping them gain confidence and relax and feel welcome,” said Imogen Woolrich, who devised the classes that link dance, sound and storytelling, while also fostering the use of English.

“It’s a safe space for women ...  helping them gain confidence and relax and feel welcome”

Etleva Bala, an asylum-seeker from Albania, concurs. “It’s a good atmosphere for learning.”

On a recent Wednesday morning -- drop-in day -- this run-down, listed building, which welcomed Channel Island evacuees during World War II, is bustling. In addition to Woolrich’s workshop, the building hosts English lessons and craft sessions, and its supply room receives weekly donations of clothing and food.

Downstairs, meanwhile, the aroma of cooking wafts through a common room filled with mothers and children, and men playing billiards or table football.  Alan Brown, a chef with the Mutual Aid Project, is preparing vegetarian chilli for as many as 200 people from quality ingredients that supermarkets ditch, being past their sell-by date.  “I never know what I’m going to get,” says Brown, of the morning’s delivery, which he prepares with untrained helpers.

In the northern city of Bolton, 39 organisations and 80 individual supporters have joined the City of Sanctuary movement.  © Robert Linsdell (

More initiatives are scattered around the city. Malcolm Ngouala helps run a welcome centre known as BRASS (Befriending Refugees and Asylum-Seekers), which offers English classes to new arrivals and counselling on issues like medical care. Helen McHugh teaches sewing-machine skills at the Quaker Meeting House, where meals and children’s craft classes are provided at the weekend.

Welcome to Bolton, an economically deprived city in northern England, whose citizens are proud to support the refugees in their midst. This one-time industrial powerhouse, like the northern struggletowns of Middlesborough and Rochdale, last year joined an extraordinary grassroots movement called City of Sanctuary, which over the past 10 years or so has spread to more than 90 cities and towns.

The movement originated in Sheffield in 2005, from a conversation between Inderjit Bhogal, a Nairobi-born Sikh turned Methodist theologian, and Craig Barnett, a Merseyside Quaker.

Disturbed by polarising opinion over asylum, they wanted to shift the culture, to make support for refugees mainstream. The idea was to foreground the values of hospitality and welcome among organisations already in place.

In 2007, Sheffield became the first City of Sanctuary, and suddenly the two founders were inundated with requests from other towns. “At the start it seemed so utopian and ambitious,” Barnett said. ”It took everyone by surprise.”

A second wave of adherences came amid the 2015 refugee crisis, after publication of the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned off Turkey.

The Gloucester school opening its doors to refugee children. (UNHCR/Dalal Mawad)

In Bolton alone, a city of 280,000 where the hulls of abandoned cotton mills loom darkly out of the landscape, 39 organisations and 80 individual supporters have now joined the movement, embracing a challenge brought by London’s dispersal policy, which means asylum-seekers end up in low-rent cities.

The government outsources management of asylum-seekers’ support to firms like G4S and Serco, awarding them contracts to house asylum-seekers. They, in turn, offer shelter where it costs less while meeting standards.

”Rochdale, Middlesbrough and Bolton were named as three of the areas of highest dispersal numbers,” said Jon Lord, chief executive of Bolton at Home, a charity which manages more than 18,000 ex-council properties.

Those three cities are among the 10 local authorities that support over 35 percent of all asylum-seekers in Britain; median incomes  are among the lowest 25 percent.

“Local people, and people seeking sanctuary – ­it’s a movement for cultural change”

Census data show that Bolton’s population has risen by 15,000 in the decade to 2011; in Lord’s view, most of the increase is likely to be attributable to new arrivals, including refugees and asylum-seekers.

“Unlike other public service-type contracts, this was purely commercial,” Lord said. “They clustered people in areas of greatest need and poverty, so that where you have the most stretched communities and services, you have more vulnerable people coming in.”

Which is where City of Sanctuary plays such a vital role.

Fostering relationships between local people and those seeking refuge in Britain, the movement is a loose grouping of organisations committed to including refugees in their activities, and which adhere to its inclusiveness aims.

Theatres, cinemas, schools and universities, faith groups, cafes, sports and chess clubs – virtually any organisation that commits to welcoming refugees can join.

Take the Widden Primary School in Gloucester, which was named a School of Sanctuary in 2017 for its work with asylum-seekers and refugees. There are up to 40 languages spoken at the school, where seven refugee families, including 12 children, are supported.

Even whole districts, like Yorkshire’s Sanctuary Kirklees, have joined the movement, while Wales is hoping to become the first sanctuary nation.

Participants of the 'Sanctuary in Parliament' event stand outside the 'Dignity not Destitution' banner. The event was organised by City of Sanctuary at the UK Parliament in November 2017.  © City of Sanctuary

In November, City of Sanctuary headed to Westminster for its fourth annual Sanctuary in Parliament day. There, refugees from sanctuary cities met their representatives and raised the issue of destitution caused chiefly by asylum-seekers being barred from working.

Bolton’s head of City of Sanctuary, Shaheda Mangerah, offers assistance through the Destitution Project, with the help of four volunteers.

“The numbers are going up,” said Mangerah, who manages 10-20 cases at any one time from a miniscule office in Victoria Hall. “Recently one Wednesday we had 30. It’s tripled in the last year.”

Her first initiative was to set up a hosting project, asking if local people could offer a refugee or asylum-seeker a bed. Eight households expressed an interest; three have registered so far.

Back in Sheffield, which even has a sanctuary choir, Barnett has seen the movement deepen and expand. “The main thing is that it keeps its grassroots ethos, with the emphasis on relationships at the local level,” Barnett said. “Local people, and people seeking sanctuary – ­it’s a movement for cultural change."

Find out more about the City of Sanctuary's work around the UK