About the city


Pioneering the sanctuary movement in Wales and the UK

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Paid staff ensured a more consistent collaboration between different civil society groups and local authorities.

  • 2

    Discursive positioning as a welcoming city: The recognition as the UK’s second official City of Sanctuary in June 2010, became an occasion for civic pride.

  • 3

    A strong cultural and national Welsh identity coexists with intercultural openness.

What is unique about Swansea?

A culture of hospitality: As the second city in the UK to become a City of Sanctuary, Swansea is a hospitality pioneer in both the UK and Wales. The local civil society-led sanctuary movement has a long record of promoting a culture of hospitality for refugees and asylum seekers.

What are the key factors?

A civil society focused on impact: Swansea achieved City of Sanctuary status with the support of over a hundred local groups, and a unanimous resolution of support from the city council in 2010. This made it the first Sanctuary City in Wales, and the local movement went on to play a central role in lobbying the Welsh government to declare Wales as the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary. Swansea City of Sanctuary was the first within the national network to secure independent funding to pay its staff: two full-time employees and one part-time employee for a period of three years. This has enabled the group to have a strong bearing on local authority policies.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

Advancing social rights for migrants: Advancing social rights for migrants: Swansea has pioneered social opportunities for migrants in the city, and helped advance their social rights. Recently, the local council helped top up asylum seekers’ food scheme cards during the COVID-19 pandemic. This marked the first time that local funds have been used to supplement UK Home Office payments.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

The Welsh action plan to “monitor and seek to mitigate the worst effects of UK Government welfare reforms” has helped Swansea to indirectly challenge the normative framing of the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy.

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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.