“The generosity of the group has taken us aback,” says Hassan Al Shaabin, a Syrian resettled in south London. “Our children are safe now. Our papers are all done – we had help with the medical side. Everyone treats us like family.”
Hassan is one of many refugees who have, along with their families, been transferred to the UK from war-torn countries to start a new life over the past five years under the UK’s community sponsorship programme.
The scheme, which has been running since 2016, enables community groups to become directly involved in supporting refugee families resettled in the UK. It operates through the government’s main resettlement programme, which has settled nearly 20,000 refugees since it opened in 2015.
However, refugee resettlement to the UK has been suspended since it was temporarily paused at the start of the pandemic. Communities resettling refugees thought it would be a month or two before it resumed again – but seven months on, they are still waiting.
Other developed countries including Italy, France and Spain have resumed their refugee resettlement schemes after pausing them during the lockdown.
Charities are calling on ministers to reopen the scheme. "By sponsoring refugees, local people are able to draw on their local expertise to support newcomers to build fulfilling lives in their new communities,” says Dr Kate Brown, co-director of Reset, which helps to facilitate arrivals under the sponsorship scheme.
“It’s clear that we urgently need these programmes to resume so that more refugees can reach safety."
And there are calls for the scheme to be expanded further when it does restart, particularly in light of the tragic death of a family who died while trying to cross the Channel to Britain on Tuesday.
“The generosity of people is both moving and breath-taking," says Vicky Moller, of the welcome group in Cardigan, Wales. "Community sponsorship is a lovely thing to do, it’s very rewarding, it’s a little kernel of affection but it’s too small in Britain."
Echoing her remarks, Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s UK representative, says: “Community sponsorship is transformative. It provides refugee families with a support network to help them adapt, learn and become independent more quickly.
“But it also has a real effect on local volunteers, binding them together in a common cause and allowing them – in a small way - to be part of the global solution to forced displacement.
“The tragic events in the Channel this week demonstrate again the need for concerted international efforts to address the complex root causes of displacement.
"Re-opening and expanding legal pathways for more refugees to come to the UK in safety is one tangible way that this country can help.”
Last year, UNHCR travelled the UK chronicling the lives of five refugee families and their community supporters in West Wales, Devon, Liverpool, Greater Manchester and London.
Ms Pagliuchi-Lor says the resulting photographs and videos demonstrate the enormous potential of the scheme if expanded.
She adds: “We hope that resettlement to the UK will restart very soon – once reception capacity is confirmed and any remaining logistical issues related to Covid are overcome by the authorities.
“The pandemic has presented new, acute hardships and uncertainties for refugees. Needs are greater than ever.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has always provided sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny and the Home Secretary has been clear that we will fix the asylum system to make it firm and fair, compassionate to those who need help and welcoming people through safe and legal routes.
“Due to the unprecedented restrictions and pressures caused by the pandemic, the UK alongside many other countries had to temporarily pause the resettlement of refugees until it is safe for them to resume. We expect arrivals to restart as soon as conditions allow.”
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