11 March 2022

Welcoming refugees: How to get sponsorship right

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If the government is serious about making its new sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian refugees work, it must allow potential sponsors to name the individuals that they would like to sponsor, argues Sunder Katwala. All the evidence from successful schemes shows that this is the best way to proceed. Getting that right would help unlock the huge wave of public sympathy for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

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People in Britain want to play a part in welcoming refugees from Ukraine to this country. So the government has been under significant pressure, from all sides, over how quickly it can make that possible and streamline the processes and reduce delays in the UK’s new family visa scheme, which have been considerably longer than under the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive.

So the government will begin next week to unveil the humanitarian route for Ukrainians without family links. The Cabinet is still trying to settle the details. The choices that are made will have a significant impact on whether this next phase can shift the story of the Britain’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis: from barriers getting in the way, to people having an opportunity to help.

Refugee sponsorship can take many different forms. Canada has been doing refugee sponsorship at scale for decades. It is not a coincidence that the country has usually been an outlier for comparatively high levels of public confidence in refugees. The experience of direct contact with refugees spreads across a much wider geography than in most democracies.  The Canadian model was influential in Britain adopting refugee sponsorship over the last six years.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was first to take in a Syrian family at Lambeth Palace in 2016. That helped to publicise the opportunity to participate, but also reflected the scale of capacity needed to be approved to take part.

Up to 700 refugees have been part of the UK’s community sponsorship scheme since 2016. In the year to March 2021, 73 refugees were resettled under a refugee sponsorship scheme, about a quarter of those who came under resettlement programmes that year. Each one of those individual stories is an incredibly powerful account of the connections made. “I know people say what you are doing is a drop in the ocean, but then the ocean is made up of the drops”, Olwen Thomas of Fishguard Sponsorship Group says of their group’s experiences of welcoming a Syrian family to the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. So the Ukraine sponsorship scheme can draw on those positive lessons – but it needs a completely different design to meet the scale of expectation and demand.

The current UK community sponsorship scheme requires completion of lengthy application forms, submission of multiple plans and a series of evidential proofs of funding and housing. The process typically lasts 12 months to get started.

Sponsor accreditation can and should be fast and much more straightforward. In Canada, the simplest point of entry is that a group of five individuals can join together to sponsor a family. A similar ‘Sponsor Circles’ approach is now being piloted by the Biden administration in the United States.

There are essential checks for security and safeguarding. The sponsorship scheme will be designed to address the crucial issue of housing – so those offering to be sponsors should reasonably be required to provide accommodation for six months, or have raised the cash equivalent to secure accommodation, which could mean setting a threshold in the region of £5,000. Every additional requirement will slow down the process and limit the take-up.  MPs should scrutinise carefully whether they are necessary.

The other key feature is how the matches are made.  The government is set to announce a hotline and online portal for those who want to be part of this.  Thousands of people, charities and businesses are ready, willing and waiting to play their part, as the initial efforts of civic groups such as the Sanctuary Foundation has shown in receiving pledges ahead of the government scheme.

Will Somerville, Visiting Professor at the University of Sheffield and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, sees a clear expert consensus among those who have reviewed the comparative evidence on refugee sponsorship about this being the key feature to unlock take-up. He says:

“Refugee sponsorship schemes, where groups of citizens and other institutions take on the primary responsibility of supporting refugees from the government, exists in different forms in around a dozen countries. The design of such schemes, from how sponsor groups are registered through to the selection of refugees, makes an enormous difference to take-up.

“The single most important element is what policymakers refer to as ‘naming’ – i.e. where sponsoring citizens groups can nominate individuals that they know, for example an employee or former colleague, or a person they have identified through a congregation or charity they belong to. 

“The existing UK refugee sponsorship scheme does not permit naming, so it is not a prerequisite for a scheme to exist. What we have seen in other countries is that naming is the most important element in leading to scale. This is likely because the motivation to help someone you know directly, or know indirectly through membership of a church, charity or business, is greater than for someone you don’t.”

So the single change that would make the process most scaleable and most effective would be to allow potential sponsors to name the individuals that they would like to sponsor.

Without introducing this element to the scheme, the government risks replaying the frustrations of the past fortnight. There would be two lists being maintained by civil servants – one with tens of thousands of British people, civic groups and businesses eager to play their part at the Department for Levelling Up, another at the Home Office with the Ukrainians who have signalled an interest in coming to Britain.

There will be a major challenge, not just to run checks on both sides but also to then begin the process of matching. That is a recipe for delay – while people are frustrated that their relatives, friends, former colleagues are lost in the computer system.

Introducing a naming track or option would do much to resolve this inventory challenge for government. There are necessary vetting and security procedures, but they are facilitated and made easier by many of those coming forward having some connection or link. And both business and civic networks would find entrepreneurial ways to create potential matches for those who do want to sponsor strangers that they don’t know.

So this should appeal to a Conservative government as a way to help unleash the energy across society, rather than putting all of the work of making these links onto a department of state already under pressure to process the family scheme.

This should be a new era for welcoming in the UK.  The new humanitarian sponsorship programme follows the commitment to an Afghan Warm Welcome scheme, being developed in the months following the emergency evacuation of Kabul airport last August. The Syrian resettlement scheme and the growing community sponsorship of refugees also offer useful insights.

The Home Secretary told the Commons that that the government wants to learn from the successful Hong Kong welcoming programme. This was the biggest immigration decision after Brexit – and has one of the most extensive welcoming and integration initiatives, including UK-wide projects like HKUK, Hong Kongers for Britain and the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers, supporting many of those doing welcoming work locally. Yet a key feature of the Hong Kong scheme is that the schemes are complementary. The visa decisions do not require a sponsorship element but civic engagement supports welcoming efforts once people are living in communities in the UK.

Getting welcoming and sponsorship right carries many benefits both for refugees who come to Britain and the communities they join. It makes this a joint enterprise of the welcomers and the welcomed. It can help to manage change fairly – by contributing to the practical issues, such as housing and the childcare and flexible working needs of a Ukrainian cohort made up primarily of women, children and the elderly.

If the sponsorship scheme is perceived as a source of unnecessary hurdles and delays, then the potential to mobilise public engagement risks being frustrated at precisely the moment when it is needed most.

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