Briefing – Refugees & Sanctuary update for all members & MPs – March 2021

 This note sets out the support that we as a Council are giving to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants during the coronavirus pandemic. It also includes its impact on our two corporate strategy objectives of resettling 100 refugee families and making Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary.


Various information setting out support for migrants has been created as part of the Council’s Covid-19 information hub at

It currently includes:

  • Covid-19 guidance in other languages
  • General guidance for non-UK nationals
  • Council support for migrants impacted by Covid-19, including those with NRPF
  • ESOL availability
  • Links to local community organisations providing advice and support to migrants
  • Campaigns for changes to national policies impacting on migrants


Our 30 refugee families in our resettlement programme are so far keeping safe and well. Following our letter to the Government (co-ordinated with 15 other London Boroughs) last November, the Government finally agreed to restart refugee resettlement, and we are due to receive 3 of the 7 families due to arrive in March/April last year. However, all future resettlement remains suspended.

The Council’s trailblazing Sanctuary Strategy was approved by Mayor & Cabinet on 11 November 2020

  • Recent policy announcements and campaigns include:
  • Safe Surgeries initiative reminding Lewisham GPs of best practice for migrants during Covid
  • Refusal to collaborate with Home Office in providing details of rough sleepers in response to new grounds for deportation
  • Calling on Government to provide sanctuary to refugees on Greek islands
  • Calling on Government to resume UK refugee resettlement scheme


The pandemic has disrupted all of our lives one way or another, but obviously some much more than others, not least those of our residents who are also migrants. Our approach must be to help ensure that nobody’s access to the support they need faces barriers by reason of their experience as migrant, whether it be for example one of language, culture or legal immigration status. We can address many of those barriers in the services we provide and by working with local community organisations, though of course there are some, mainly legal and resource ones on which we need Government action and so our role must be to support campaigns for change.

I am very grateful to many organisations and individuals across Lewisham who through their community work have had an extra positive impact on vulnerable residents with migrant backgrounds. Many of those individuals are migrants themselves, including refugees supported by the Council’s resettlement programme – I have written to each of them to thank them for all their volunteering effort.

Lewisham Donation Hub

I also want to mention the amazing Lewisham Donation Hub at Place Ladywell. By providing a hub for donations and collections of clothes, laptops and other essential items, they are providing a lifeline that is especially helpful to those people who cannot easily communicate in English or use the Internet. When asked to close recently, the Council worked to help the Hub comply with Covid regulations by agreeing a risk assessment plan. See BBC story.

 Vaccination – Safe Surgeries initiative

We have worked in partnership with Lewisham and Southwark Clinical Commissioning Group, Doctors Of The World (DOTW) and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN) to coordinate a letter to GP practices promoting the DOTW Safe Surgeries initiative and reinforcing the need for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to be registered with the NHS in order to receive the Covid vaccine.

We will continue to work with all our local partners to promote access to healthcare and vaccinations for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and, where possible, mitigate the barriers to access that exist. We are also participating in an independent review that is looking into the charges applied by the Lewisham & Greenwich Hospital Trust.


The Council has made a commitment to resettle 100 refugee families by 2022. As of March last year, we had welcomed 30 families to Lewisham under the UK’s resettlement scheme already the highest of all London boroughs.

Our families are generally coping well during the pandemic, with the support we provide via the Refugee Council and LRMN being mostly online. The families are regularly in touch with each other and the der community with a regular newsletter to which they contribute and a number of online social events which the Mayor and I have joined from to time.

Restarting resettlement

Sadly, due to Covid-19 the Home Office paused the scheme in March 2020 and since then we have been unable to resettle further families. However, we have repeatedly advocated for the scheme to be reopened and made clear to the Home Office that we stand ready and willing to resettle further families.

In November 2020 we coordinated a letter written to the Home Secretary on behalf of 16 London councils, which pushed for the resettlement scheme to be reopened.

On 6 November 2020, we authored and coordinated a pan-London letter to the Home Secretary, emphasising the willingness and capacity of London local authorities to continue to resettle refugees and the humanitarian case for doing so. Within days of receiving our letter, the Home Office committed to resettling 232 families in the UK, in order to reach the 20,000 target set in 2015 for resettling victims of the Syrian conflict under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

Of these 232 families, four families were previously referred to Lewisham Council as part of the seven families due for arrival in March 2020. These four families are being resettled in Yorkshire.

On 3 February 2021, three families were referred to Lewisham for resettlement. We have accepted these cases and are aiming to house them in Lewisham in week commencing 12th April. We are currently completing the logistics to ensure that we can welcome the three families, including organising accommodation and making sure arrivals can be Covid-safe.

At present, the Home Office has only restarted the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) in order to resettle the remaining 232 families to meet their target of resettling 20,000 families by 2020. A new UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) was due to start in 2020, but this has been paused pending a Government review of all resettlement.

This is unacceptable. The success of VPRS has shown that refugee resettlement can and should continue while the general review is undertaken. We continue to lobby Home Office strongly in this regard.

Citizens UK Award

In December 2020, at the Refugees Still Welcome Assembly 2020, hosted by Sponsor Refugees and Citizens UK, we were awarded Local Authority of the Year for “leading by example in refugee resettlement”, and “galvanising other councils to follow suit”.



Our commitment to becoming a Borough of Sanctuary was part of the Lewisham Labour election manifesto in 2018 with the aim of making Lewisham a borough that welcomes and ceIebrates refugees and asylum-seekers and migrants and challenges the Government’s approach of a “hostile environment”. In order to make this a reality we helped create the Lewisham Migration Forum which has a mission of encouraging individuals and organisations to commit to the principles of sanctuary and implement them in their behaviour towards migrants. As a Council we have been enacting the principles of sanctuary in our services and in our campaigns for change where we do not have the power ourselves.

 New Sanctuary Strategy

Our commitment as a Council is enshrined in our new trailblazing Sanctuary Strategy – its purpose is to ensure that the needs of all these residents are considered in the development and delivery of Council services, and that they are as open and accessible as possible.

We publicly announced our plans at our Borough of Sanctuary Conference in June 2019, and the Borough of Sanctuary Strategy was formally approved by Mayor and Cabinet on 11th November 2020. It can be seen here.

Our Borough of Sanctuary Programme Manager has been in post since March 2020 and has been working towards the completion and adoption of the Strategy, building relationships with relevant Council services and local partners, and developing action plans with services to improve our service offer to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Lewisham.

 City of Sanctuary Local Authority Network

In December 2020 the City of Sanctuary movement launched its Local Authority Network which brings together Local Authorities to share good practice and work in partnership to further the aims of the movement. The Council is a founder member and I currently chair the steering group for the network.

Also in December 2020 we submitted our application to City of Sanctuary to be formally recognised as a Borough of Sanctuary. As part of the application process they will be approaching local refugee and community organisations to take their views on the work of the Council towards our objectives. We are currently awaiting the outcome of the application but we expect to be one of the first Boroughs to be accredited and this process should be completed in the coming months.

Refusing to collaborate with the Home Office on new immigration rules on rough sleeping

In December 2020 the Council announced that it will not collaborate with the Home Office in enforcing new immigration rules that make rough sleeping a legal ground to cancel or refuse permission to stay in the UK. We will continue to support the Greater London Authority in lobbying the government to immediately reverse these changes.

Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC)

We are committed to welcoming an additional 100 child refugees over next 10 years as part of Safe Passage’s Our Turn campaign. There are currently 43 UASC under the age of 18 in the Looked after Children’s Service. There are 91 young people who have become UASC care leavers to Lewisham in the last rolling year. They were all formerly Looked After and were also classified as Asylum Seeking Children. Lewisham has welcomed 29 UASC children from August 2020 to Jan 2021. The council has accommodated UASC children through the government voluntary national transfer scheme (NTS), referrals from Lewisham police and referrals from solicitors representing unaccompanied minors.

London Must Act Campaign

We have been working closely with the London Must Act Campaign which is a chapter of Europe Must Act, a Europe-wide campaign. In June 2020, Greece cut spending on a programme aimed at housing the most vulnerable people in the camps. This meant that many asylum seekers who had been placed in temporary accommodation are now left with no option but to return to the islands’ camps. We have been working together with London Must Act to urge the UK Government to relocate these camp inhabitants. On 22 February 2021, the Mayor and I on behalf of the Council and Lewisham’s 3 MPs wrote a letter to the Government calling on it to use the UK resettlement scheme to take in refugees from the Greek islands.


Assisted by the personal connections of Rob Keeling, a Lewisham resident and co-chair of the voluntary group Lewisham Refugee Welcome, the Council have connected with colleagues at our twinned borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf in Berlin. As part of our Borough of Sanctuary work we held online meetings with counterparts in their Immigration Integration team to share our experience and good practice in supporting refugees and migrants. We have agreed a framework for continued dialogue and to look at further opportunities for partnership working and the exchange of good practice.

Kevin Bonavia

Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability

Link to Instagram Link to Twitter Link to YouTube Link to Facebook Link to LinkedIn Link to Snapchat Close Fax Website Location Phone Email Calendar Building Search