About the city

Lewisham (London)

How to challenge discriminatory authorities

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    The Council have expanded the meaning of sanctuary in the UK to address issues affecting migrants of all kinds, not only asylum seekers and refugees.

  • 2

    Migrants participated in designing what a sanctuary borough should look like. This allowed them to take back their political agency, and be recognised as experts in the field of migration policy.

What is unique about Lewisham?

Collaboration with local residents and organisations: Lewisham was the first local authority in London to commit to becoming a Borough of Sanctuary in 2018, and has developed strong collaborative relationships with civil society since then. In working directly with the communities affected by the ‘hostile environment’ policies, the Council have enacted change to longstanding issues in a relatively short space of time, and expanded the meaning of sanctuary politics in the UK to include migrants of all kinds. Lewisham sets an example of how local authorities can effectively respond to issues identified by migrant communities themselves.

What is the focus of local migration policies? What are the key factors?

Opposing national hostile environment policies: Lewisham’s story is one made possible by the Council’s positive response to the activism, campaigns and demands of local residents. As a result, the local authority can be seen as resisting national ‘hostile environment’ migration policies, achieving a number of small successes that improve migrants’ living conditions. Their approach is especially progressive because migrants have been directly involved in building sanctuary and shaping policy and procedural changes.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

Changes to the Council’s Social Care (NRPF) Teams: Until recently, Lewisham Council was known for aggressively deterring migrant families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) from accessing their rights to care, housing and financial support. However, the council responded effectively to a campaign led by a group of migrant parents. They have conducted an Independent Review of their NRPF team, and now provide free legal advice to unregularised migrants and to those affected by NRPF. The Council have also received case assessment training from migrants themselves, recognising those with lived experience as experts in field of migration policy

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Lewisham has helped pioneer an expansive notion of ‘sanctuary’ that advocates for the rights of all migrants. This broad remit is a significant contribution to the national sanctuary movement, which currently only focuses on asylum seekers and refugees. Lewisham’s approach more accurately captures the social complexity of large cities, where local migrants hold a range of precarious immigration statuses.

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The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

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Political context of United Kingdom

Migration policy in the UK

Migration policy in the UK is relatively complex because it involves multiple levels of administration and has been developed over a relatively long period of time. While immigration policies are centralised, integration policies are decentralised. Under the Localism Act of 2011, local authorities, along with the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland, are responsible for establishing guidelines on the issue of refugee inclusion. At the same time, the central government – under the responsibility of the Home Secretary – is responsible for immigration.

Historical background

Immigration policies are traditionally complex in the UK because they have been historically developed in response to different racialised migration movements. The 1905 Aliens Act was enacted in response to Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, while legislation during the 1960s and 1970s focused on increasing restrictions for “new” Commonwealth (i.e., non-white) immigration from Britain’s former colonies. Since the late 1980s, UK immigration policy has increasingly focused on restricting so-called “illegal” immigration and on creating harsher conditions for those seeking asylum in the UK.

Racialised immigration and asylum policies initiated by Conservative governments continued under “New Labour” in the 1990s. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act introduced dispersal (a new system of asylum reception based on “reception zones” across the UK) and replaced welfare support with a centralised National Asylum Support Service (NASS). The principle of “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) for those with temporary residence status caused widespread destitution among migrants and asylum seekers. Labour’s restrictive policies continued throughout the 2000s.

Key developments of recent years

“Hostile Environment”

When the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, UK migration policy was already extremely restrictive. The right to travel to, work in and take up residency in the UK had been made considerably harder to access. The ground was thus already prepared when, in 2012, the then Home Secretary Theresa May declared: “We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception”, a statement that marked the beginning of the government’s so-called “hostile environment” policy – a series of punitive anti-immigration measures against those deemed not to be “playing by the rules”.

The 2014 Immigration Act set out rules designed to prevent so-called “sham marriages” or “sham civil partnerships” and to prevent access to key public services. New penalties were imposed on landlords renting to those without leave to remain in the UK, making it even harder for migrants to find housing. New checks were also introduced into the National Health Service, with fees applied to those without access rights. In addition, “disqualified persons” were prohibited from opening a bank account, while driving licences could be revoked on the grounds of immigration status.

The 2016 Immigration Act extended penalties for “illegal working” and prevented access to rented accommodation, banking services and driving licenses. It also gave immigration officers the power to impose civil penalties on anyone complicit in any behaviour deemed to be unlawful. Through the ‘hostile environment’ policy, those without the right to remain therefore became subject to checks and monitoring not just by the authorities, but by citizens more broadly.

In the summer of 2013, the Home Office launched a controversial project with the code name “Operation Vaken”. It involved billboard vans being driven around six London boroughs to advertise the risk of arrest for those in the UK without authorisation. The advert included a contact number for those deciding to “GO HOME” rather than “FACE ARREST”, and was heavily criticised by local groups for inflaming “community tensions”.

These developments occurred in parallel to a harsh politics of austerity which saw a drastic reduction to spending on welfare and key public services, which left vulnerable communities and local authorities facing budget cuts under increasing pressure. In 2016, a referendum campaign to leave the EU was launched within the UK on a racialised anti-migration platform; it won by a small margin that ultimately led to the UK’s “Brexit” from the EU.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

Charities and campaign groups have also had successes after exerting political pressure in the UK. For instance, in 2014 the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (VPRS) for refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was established. VPRS was extended in September 2015 to include the resettlement of 20,000 of the “most vulnerable” Syrian refugees by 2020. A Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) was also initiated for children from the MENA region in 2016, and the Dubs scheme was set up following a sustained civil society campaign in 2016 to resettle unaccompanied minors from other EU states.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous criticisms of the government’s limited commitment to these schemes and UK policy remains resolutely hostile, particularly for people arriving by unauthorised routes. There was a spate of deaths in the British channel in 2020 after France stepped up checks on migrants, causing people to flee in unsafe dinghies. Several people were subsequently charged with people smuggling for steering the vessels.

Yet it is not only new arrivals or those arriving by unauthorised routes who have borne the brunt of UK’s hostile environment. In March 2020, a review of the “Windrush scandal” was released, documenting the ways in which hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, deported and denied rights based on the UK’s “deeply flawed and discriminatory” immigration policy. This example also points to the deeply rooted and historical nature of the UK’s hostile and racist migration policy.