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Brighton is a City of Sanctuary |  ©Alex Mellon
Brighton is a City of Sanctuary | ©Alex Mellon | © Alex Mellon

The City Welcoming Syrian Refugees With Open Arms

Picture of Alex Jordan
Travel Editor
Updated: 7 February 2018

Standing on Brighton’s pebbled beach is like standing at a crossroads. On one side, Palace Pier with its twinkling lights and promenade, boisterous tourists, and chattering amusements – ‘come ride the dodgems, they’re so much fun!’

On the other, the burnt-out shell of West Pier and its once-famous concert hall. Neglected over time and destroyed by two fires, the hall is now a hulk of tangled metal, silhouetted against the evening sun, like the beginnings of a charcoal sketch on paper.

Beyond them both, across the English Channel, lies Northern France, where the greatest humanitarian crisis for a generation rages on. In the last census taken before the infamous ‘Calais Jungle’ refugee and migrant camp was demolished yet again, about 10,500 people were reportedly camped on the north coast. Today, no one knows how many people await their fate, stuck between an uncertain future and a past to which they cannot return.

Of those who manage to escape the ruins of Aleppo, Damascus, and beyond – where the landscape is lined with countless hulks like West Pier – very few will see Brighton and its famous landmarks for themselves. But for 23 Syrians, granted asylum via the United Kingdom government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, a new life on the south coast starts now. How they came to be here is down to the incredible work of a community with a long history of welcoming outsiders.

In Europe, ‘sanctuary city’ is a somewhat nebulous term used to describe a borough, town, or city committed to welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers into the community and cultivating an atmosphere of hospitality. Whether this is people opening their homes to strangers, or volunteers donating their evenings to help teach English, the designation recognises the sum effort of countless individuals trying to do right by a marginalised minority – increasingly difficult, as post-Brexit legislation has imposed tougher restrictions on immigration.

In the United States and Canada, sanctuary cities are those that promise to protect undocumented immigrants from government persecution – such as prohibiting local police from checking someone’s legal status while on patrol, or detaining anyone suspected of being undocumented without a warrant. In recent months, such communities have come under pressure from the Trump administration, which has threatened to cut federal funding to areas that offer sanctuary, despite lingering questions over the legality of holding immigrants in jail, or in cases when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has mistakenly asked for American citizens to be detained.

The antipathy towards immigrants sweeping the US and Europe, means there has never been a more important time to fight back, particularly as a sharp rise in the number of racist incidents after the Brexit referendum threatens to undermine the success stories of positive migration.

‘I think all cities should be places of sanctuary for those who have had to flee their homes … it’s simply a question of whether or not we want to be part of a humane global community,’ says Brighton resident Leo Littman, whose motion to the city’s council helped bring six Syrian families to the seaside.

For Littman, the issue is a personal one. He says, ‘Seven of my eight great-grandparents fled to the UK to escape religious persecution in the pogroms of mainland Europe.’ It is impossible not to notice the ghosts of Brighton’s immigrant past springing up on every corner, which you can see on a walking, cycling or helicopter tour of the city.

For example, the Black Lion pub, on a narrow, winding capillary that feeds the beating heart of the seafront, is built on the same spot where, in the mid-16 century, Flemish refugee and protestant martyr Deryk Carver founded the city’s first brewery. Just down the road, a former church built by Brighton’s French-speaking community is being converted into a block of flats. The city’s Jewish community can trace its roots back to those who fled here during World War II, and in following decades, Brighton welcomed hundreds of asylum seekers from Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. ‘Melting pot’ doesn’t even begin to describe this 275,000-strong community.

‘Brighton has a history of accepting people from all backgrounds,’ says Elaine Ortiz, a founding member of Hummingbird, an organization which provides free psychological support and art therapy for Sudanese, Afghani, and Syrian refugee children. ‘In the 1990s, the community accepted people with HIV even when they were turned away from other towns and cities across the country.’ Today, Brighton is unofficially recognised as the UK’s LGBT capital.

This legacy is part of the city’s DNA, and in 2015, the people of Brighton responded to the ongoing refugee crisis by filing a motion asking the city council to apply for City of Sanctuary status and accept Syrian refugees on a government resettlement scheme. Even with social housing already in demand, the people of Brighton pooled together to make the new arrangement work and joined over 90 other UK boroughs, towns, and cities – including Sheffield, Swansea, and Camden – by becoming part of this grassroots movement.

Every sanctuary context is different; however, one aspect that unites this movement is the desire to promote inclusion and reduce isolation through cultural events. In Brighton and Hove’s ‘Sanctuary on Sea’, for instance, English classes and football clubs have been organised to provide newly arrived Syrian refugees a chance to get involved in their local communities.

Richard Williams, chair of Sanctuary on Sea, the Brighton branch of the City of Sanctuary movement, believes that seeing its certificates in public buildings and shopfronts across the city ‘provides a banner behind which the whole community can mobilise, from schools to sports clubs, theatres and businesses.’ He says, ‘We will continue to hold the city authorities to account and ensure that they live up to the name.’

For Ortiz and Hummingbird, currently crowdfunding a new drop-in art therapy project, there is hope that those severely traumatised young people will recover from their ordeals and learn to cope with their past. She says, ‘We hope to welcome, embrace, learn from and engage with them to promote positive change. On a recent visit to the Houses of Parliament, the children expressed their immense gratitude to being offered a fresh start.’

Faith groups also play an important role. The Baptist congregation at One Church Brighton is very energetic in its work with vulnerable migrants, and the Quakers have offered a programme of English classes for Syrian refugees at the Friends Centre. Brighton Migrant Solidarity has been raising rent money for those in need, while last year, Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) became the first sports club in the UK to be awarded Club of Sanctuary status, working with 15 unaccompanied refugee minors from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Vietnam.

Hussein Tawil was one of the first Syrians to arrive in Brighton in 2015. A civil engineer with over 15-years experience, he was forced to leave his home for opposing the Assad regime. ‘I came to the UK to make my children safe,’ he says. ‘I have good friends in Brighton, most of them British, who are willing to help me all the time.’

Now working in a fish and chip shop, 46-year-old Hussein says that the Syrian community is slowly picking itself up and putting down its roots. ‘About a year ago we started organising activities like Arabic and music schools. We are making a life here in the UK and are starting to get a good idea about this country.’

If there are any lessons to be learnt from the US (which can trace the roots of its sanctuary movement to the 1980s, when asylum seekers from central America were given shelter in churches), it is that there are practical as well as moral and political benefits to positive migration.

Research shows that when police start enforcing immigration law in the streets, immigrant communities are less likely to trust them. ‘They don’t come forward to report crime and are less likely to help them solve it,’ says CityLab’s Tanvi Misra, who has been following the issue closely. ‘There is even evidence that crime and economic conditions actually worsen.’

However, critics say the term can be misleading. Of course, cities in the US don’t, and can’t, shield anyone from deportation. ‘The current wave of raids and deportations in various sanctuary cities is evidence of that,’ says Misra. ‘In fact, many so-called sanctuary cities cooperate in the deportation of serious non-citizen criminals.’

In her book Sanctuary Cities: A Suspended State?, author and lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter Jennifer Bagelman argues that the contemporary sanctuary city movement contributes to a hostile asylum regime, by holding asylum seekers in a limbo where their rights are indefinitely deferred.

Like many others, Bagelman feels that more should be being done to dismantle the current state system predicated upon colonial bordering practises that restrict the free movement of some peoples more than others and allow governments to make sweeping bans in the name of national security.

‘Border controls,’ says Bagelman, ‘are most severely deployed by those Western regimes (for instance in the US, UK, Australia and Canada – where I grew up as a settler on Coast Salish territories) that create mass displacement. At the same time, as Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism, has argued, these border controls are most severely deployed against those whose very recourse to migration results from the ravages of capital and military occupations.’

She says, ‘It has been well documented that instead of welcoming asylum seekers, the UK actively detains, deports, and disperses people who have been forced to flee their beloved homes. For instance, the UK Refugee Council estimates that in 2016, almost 13,230 asylum seekers were locked up in detention centres. Half of all asylum seekers find themselves detained during the asylum process. To my mind, this represents a very hostile asylum regime.’

The UK has shirked its international responsibility to protect those who have a well-founded fear of prosecution as enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. Globally, the UK takes on a disproportionately small amount of asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Mid-year Trends in 2015, while developing countries accept 86% of the world’s refugees, the UK only receives 1%.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd have been accused of closing the door on young asylum seekers after the government voted against the Dubs amendment to bring another 3,000 young unaccompanied asylum seekers into the UK. The amendment, sponsored by Labour peer Alfred Dubs, whose family fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia during World War II, had already brought 350 vulnerable refugees to our shores but has now been withdrawn to the consternation of everyone at City of Sanctuary.

‘For many, it will be a very very difficult and challenging future,’ laments Ortiz. ‘Many will be deported back to their country of origin, predominantly Afghanistan – even though what we see with unaccompanied minors is that they are the most determined, inspirational people you will ever meet. They are all incredible human beings.’

The sanctuary movement in the UK is also working harder towards promoting tangible support for peoples with precarious status. This involves supporting people not only when they are accepted as refugees, but through the entire asylum process by providing legal aid for those undertaking an appeal and by lobbying elected and unelected governments to end the militarisation of borders that create forced migrations.

‘What I see increasingly is a sanctuary movement that is becoming more politically astute,’ says Bagelman. ‘That is, I witness a sanctuary movement that seeks not simply to enact cultural celebration of difference, but to refuse compliance with hostile bordering practices at various registers.

‘For instance, the “university stream” of the sanctuary movement encourages those employed in academic institutions to provide educational support, rather than become border guards who enquire about a student’s citizenship status. Drawing on a longstanding tradition of sanctuary practices in the US, the UK is learning to engage in modes of sanctuary as civil disobedience.’

Despite the provision to have them on our shores, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, young and old, will remain on the other side of the channel; the lights of Brighton’s pier may be more out of reach now than they have ever been. For those already here, the work of Sanctuary on Sea and other members of the City of Sanctuary movement is a small but incredibly noble cause. The next steps are to tackle the system higher up the chain in order to readdress a worrying trend.

This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.