Ways to welcome refugees

Ways to welcome refugees

There are lessons to be learned from the reception systems in Germany and Canada. Turning on the news, one might be forgiven for thinking that the protracted and bloody conflict in Syria over the previous 8 years was over and that, with Isis supposedly defeated, the region could somehow return to stability. No longer are our screens filled with migrants crossing borders into and across the European mainland – heading for safety, for reunions with their families, for chances at prosperity.

"For any newcomer, a place to stay is the bedrock from which civil society has a base to work."

The impact of this influx made me wonder how different countries respond to international refugee crises, both those at the heart of the population movement and those responding to their international humanitarian duties from afar. Here in the UK, being an island, we are somewhere between the two: we have always used our island nation status to maintain a tight border, but also used our economic and historical status to respond to crises the world over. In 2017-18 I was lucky enough to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to Germany and Canada, to try and understand how both countries had responded to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Canada and Germany initially appeared to be different worlds to the UK. However, the places I visited and the people I met, over eight weeks of travels, left a deep impression on me – one that shaped how I view the way governments and organisations respond in the UK. Both my host countries had systems different to our own here and were facing pressures in different ways. Despite this, there were common themes across all three nations from which we can learn.

Firstly, the need for a range of good quality housing that can provide both emergency and short-term accommodation for those most in immediate need, while also a place to call home. For any newcomer, a place to stay is the bedrock from which civil society has a base to work in partnership with state integration services. A home without community creates greater isolation and seeds lack of integration.

Secondly, access to good quality advice for newly arrived refugees navigating alien immigration systems. In the UK, cuts to legal aid for immigration purposes have been severe, so it was inspiring to see the innovative models of support provided by the Canadian legal profession, both for individual refugees in need and also for Canadian citizens who were prepared to welcome them through the private sponsorship programme.  

Finally, support from a range of sectors, such as regional or city administrations, and the resident communities themselves. Challenges remain, but I was inspired by communities in both countries stepping up to the challenge of accepting refugees – but doing so in partnership with statutory organisations.

These themes struck a chord with me as, at the time of my Fellowship, I worked at Homeless Link, where I was managing a national project that brought together key agencies from the housing and homelessness sector in partnership with key refugee and migrant services. The themes reflected my own work in developing training courses, sharing good practice and building partnerships between organisations in order to develop better solutions for refugees and migrants who found themselves homeless.

Reflecting on the countries I visited, I’m left with the bittersweet belief that while NGOs and communities in the UK can do a lot in the current climate, much more could be achieved if there was greater political will and genuine leadership. The very different approaches taken by Canada and Germany, in response to a refugee crisis, were not perfect by any means. However, as the case studies in my report show, there is much to learn - for example around how to fully utilise the goodwill of local communities through refugee community sponsorship programmes, or how to build 125 units of short term refugee accommodation in 100 days, as shown in the Dantebad Refugee Housing Project in Munich.

I was lucky enough to visit some of the most inspiring and thought-provoking projects during my Fellowship. Even though I have now moved jobs, this has left a deep impact on me. In times of great crisis or immense pressure, the resilience of civil society, community and statutory structures is tested greatly. But within this lie innovative ideas, adaptation and a sense of collective responsibility – to respond to those in most need.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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