Cllr Kevin Bonavia – Lewisham Cabinet member for Democracy, Refugees & Accountability

This week marks Refugee Week, a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. But just as importantly it is an opportunity to challenge this Tory government’s assumption that creating a cruel “hostile environment” both works and is popular.

Labour in power locally is showing how an alternative approach of welcome and integration of refugees benefits both those seeking sanctuary here as well as the wider community.

Lewisham is among many Labour local authorities that are adopting City of Sanctuary principles in how we provide local services for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Essentially the hostile environment is turned on its head: whenever someone seeks help, instead of asking them prove why they are here, we offer welcome first and seek to understand their concerns.

The current Labour administration in Lewisham was elected on a pledge to create a Borough of Sanctuary and our work with local volunteers groups and residents with lived experience has been recognised by City of Sanctuary UK with its first sanctuary award to a local council.

Our keystone commitment in creating a Borough of Sanctuary is our flagship refugee resettlement programme.  Its origin was the sight of the drowned body of three year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Greek island in 2015. We wanted to respond to the public demand to help including the offers of homes. This eventually turned into a commitment to welcome 100 refugee families making Lewisham the leading local authority in London for resettlement. This is no arbitrary number – it reflects the amount of refugees that Lewisham should accept if all forcibly displaced people arriving in Europe were shared in proportion according to local population.

Our ability to welcome refugees depends on the Government’s commitment to national resettlement schemes. These were suspended in March last year with the arrival of Covid 19, but while other countries were able to resume resettlement within a few months the UK did not. Sadly it took another drowning to spur action, this time a family of Iranian Kurds, Rasul Iran Nezhad and his wife, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, and two of their children, Anita, nine, and Armin, six, killed in the English Channel as they tried to reach the UK by boat.

Lewisham led a London-wide request from councils to the Government for an immediate restart of the UK refugee resettlement scheme in order to save lives being lost in dangerous crossings to the UK. And that pressure paid off with the Home Office confirming resettlement soon after, but the long-term future remains uncertain.

Creating the safe and legal routes is what central government must do rather than its cruel, unjust and illegal two-tier plan for those seeking asylum here. Local government in turn can and must help them integrate them into our community, so that it not a case of “them and us”, rather “they are us”

In Lewisham, refugees are helping other refugees such as Waed, who arrived in Lewisham in October 2019 with her husband and three children, fled Syria in 2013. Waed lived in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for seven years where she taught primary school age children. Now she is helping Arabic speakers with interpretation and learning English. And Aliyah, a junior doctor from Damascus working in our vaccination centres and helping overcome vaccine hesitancy in London-wide seminars for refugees. They and many others bring both compassion and skills that can be widely appreciated.

This Government relies on there being a large public fear of being overwhelmed by “others” who get undeserved special treatment. This is the politics of division and it will win, unless we make the unity case. Time and time again it takes the individual human examples rather than cold numbers that will appeal to people’s better natures. That is why we should celebrate refugees both this week and every week.

For more information about Lewisham Council’s work in making Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary visit:


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