Can America’s Sanctuary City Model Work in the UK? A North London Borough is About to Find Out

In autumn 2016, a group of residents in north London won a protracted battle against a local authority to have ten vulnerable Syrian families resettled in their borough. The fight was particularly drawn out: Haringey Council is notorious for showing migrants little sympathy or respect, with the Children’s Services department known for abetting immigration enforcement and regularly threatening to separate families facing destitution instead of housing them together. But aside from this, the initiative was unremarkable. At the height of the refugee crisis, shortly after the tragic, graphic photograph of drowned Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi made the front page of every major British newspaper, ‘Welcome’ campaigns up and down the country were pushing for the same thing.

Eighteen months later, Haringey Welcome has lost the word ‘refugees’ from its name and relaunched as something altogether more interesting. While other campaigns dissolved or moved on to providing humanitarian aid to resettled families, the residents group made a conscious decision not to trade in the power it had discovered to hold local politicians to account in exchange for charity status or funding.

Instead Haringey Welcome has taken inspiration from the sanctuary cities that refuse to enforce Donald Trump’s racist immigration laws in the US. Working in collaboration with local and national migrants’ rights groups, the residents organisation is attempting to replicate a meaningful version of the US model here for the first time. Since it officially launched in this new capacity in February, Haringey Welcome has been publicly lobbying the council to oppose and challenge Theresa May’s hostile environment policies and to make their borough safe for all migrants.

When I spoke to the group’s convenor Lucy Nabijou, she described the current council leadership as a “tricky bunch” – alluding with a wry laugh to just how difficult it has been to deal with Claire Kober and her cohort – and explained why it felt so important to put the wisdom gained from 14 months of gruelling negotiations to good use. “There are already a lot of organisations providing services,” she explained, adding that since the New Labour era charity funding has become a sort of political gag. “We felt that although it was a very frustrating and slow process, ultimately we managed to make a very small difference through our [first] campaign. We served a purpose and had a voice in a way that other voluntary sector organisations can’t.”

Akram Salhab of platform Migrants Organise played a key role in developing the Haringey Welcome model. He explained that since the phrase ‘hostile environment’  was first used by May in 2012 to describe the society she aspires to create – one in which undocumented migrants live in fear and struggle to access basic services – the Tories have increasingly outsourced immigration enforcement duties previously performed by the state to “an auxiliary militia” of school teachers, nurses, doctors and landlords. These groups are asked to perform immigration checks at various points of access to public services, to renting property, to acquiring employment or even to opening a bank account.

“We do a lot of service provision and what we’ve seen over the past few years is a progressively worse situation for migrants and refugees,” Salhab said. “While lots of people are campaigning, the legislative framework is actually getting worse and worse. On the ground, that means people are much more scared to come forward, much more wary of officials and given that these are often the most vulnerable people in the country, it means early prevention of disease is delayed, people are driven into destitution and so forth.”

Charities like Doctors of the World also report serious issues in healthcare in particular, where women who have been trafficked and raped are being charged to give birth and cancer patients are being routinely denied treatment. Meanwhile, groups like North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and Project 17 have long been campaigning on how particularly pervasive hostile environment policies are in Haringey, where people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) – including failed asylum seekers, overstayers and foreign students – are regularly denied any assistance and left destitute, despite having children or other needs that legally entitle them to assistance. Activists say the council often refuses to house families in this position and instead when approached for help threatens to take their children into care.

Until November, Nabijou explained, an immigration enforcement officer was actually embedded in Children’s Services, and paid a large salary by the council presumably to help it strike families off its books more efficiently by fast tracking them into detention and deportation. For Nabijou, “muddling up public services and immigration enforcement is a complete red line,” and a Labour council “going beyond the call of duty in servicing Theresa May’s hostile environment policy” is a complete outrage.

There has also been an enormous problem with transparency within the council leadership which Nabijou described as having a “bunker mentality”. For instance, in response to criticism, two audits of Children’s Services and the NRPF team have been conducted in recent years; the executive summary of the second independent audit appears highly critical of the departments, but the council has so far refused to make the full document public – even to groups and individuals that were asked to testify.

Issues with the council’s attitude and behaviour triggered residents to have a discussion that became central to the Haringey Welcome project, around what it would take to get the local authority to act differently. It was in answering this question that lessons were taken from the US where entire communities have mobilised collectively on shared values and principles. The sanctuary city model, Salhab pointed out, provides a living example of successful bottom-up, broad-based organising, involving local organisations, migrant community groups, activist groups, councillors and MPs.

There is no specific legal definition of what constitutes a sanctuary city or legislative area, but the term is widely used to refer to American cities, counties or states that protect undocumented immigrants by refusing to cooperate fully with federal immigration authorities. There are currently more than 300 states or local governments that fit this description. Sanctuary policies can be mandated expressly by law – a key example being the Trust Act, first passed in California, which prohibits state and local law enforcement from holding people for immigration enforcement officers – or practiced unofficially.

Generally, US states and cities have a stronger legal framework to resist immigration enforcement than their UK counterparts, Salhab said, “but actually there’s still quite a lot councils can do.” For instance British local authorities can choose to either bid on or decline a four year ‘immigration management’ fund worth £100m which is ring-fenced for undertaking immigration enforcement: doing joint raids, informing on people, and so forth. “One thing the council can do is say to the Home Office: we refuse to take the money, this isn’t our role” said Salhab. Councils can also be proactive in fulfilling their duty to house NRPF families facing destitution and they can process data gathered from residents in a way that protects migrants, before sharing it with the Home Office.

While a major aim of the Haringey Welcome campaign is to influence the council, residents are also working with organisations like Docs Not Cops and Schools ABC, groups of healthcare professionals, parents and teachers who oppose the hostile environment in the places they work. But both Salhab and Nabijou are quick to stress that they don’t want to pressure individual workers to put their necks on the line, or see this as helpful – a collective solution is needed. Instead their work with these groups is predominantly about raising awareness. Hostile environment policies work to make refugees and migrants “invisible and silent”, Salhab said. As a result, lots of people know very little about the legislation and the impact it is having – “even people who are responsible for certain areas of policy in the council.”

When members of the campaign have raised the issues affecting migrants in the borough with councillors, they have been met with genuine surprise and usually a willingness to work on the issue, Nabijou explained, with several councillors even attending the launch event alongside Labour MPs David Lammy and Catherine West. The group is currently asking residents and local politicians to sign a pledge promising to respect, protect and welcome migrants. “I think there’s definitely appetite and interest in working on this,” Salhab said. “But it isn’t something that’s been raised in a coherent way on a local level before.”

There is a sense the campaign has a window of opportunity now, with long time council leader Kober having sensationally announced earlier this year that she won’t stand in the May election, citing ‘bullying’ from the left, primarily over her support for projects that campaigners say are gentrifying the area.

“The May elections are pretty significant – there are a lot of new candidates which in our view is an opportunity to improve things,” Nabijou said. “There’s been a lot wrong with Haringey council and its leadership for a long time. There is a lot of dysfunction and we hope the new administration will take care of that. It is an opportunity, at least to get the message out there.”

Ultimately though, Salhab said, it’s important to remember that the campaign is part of a bigger fight. They must remain flexible and take stock of the gains they have already made in terms of building a culture of engagement with the local authority. “The biggest lesson from the US is that there is room for creativity,” he said. “Sanctuary cities [alone] are not a solution – the problem is coming from central government and these hostile environment policies need to be reversed. But what it does do is create a buffer to protect undocumented migrants, and it brings councillors onboard in understanding what the issues are and makes them allies in lobbying and speaking with the government.”

Salhab says other boroughs and cities have already expressed interest in the scheme. He hopes Haringey may be the first of many sanctuary cities in the UK.

Published 24th April 2018

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