Wyon Stansfeld spoke to us on 12 February 2017 about the situation with refugees in Oxford and how we as individuals and as a community can take concrete action to help people in dire need. Wyon has been active in the Oxford community for many years, helping to set up Emmaus Oxford and more recently working within Oxford City of Sanctuary to establish Sanctuary Hosting.
Wyon began by giving an overview of the current situation. Divides within our society are growing starker, particularly around the issue of immigration. How can we build bridges?
The current refugee crisis worldwide has been called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. We have all seen the images of people pressed against fences, washed up on beaches, drowning in the Mediterranean. Borders are being fortified, and walls are going up – refugees and asylum seekers are not only being turned back but are also being blamed for society’s ills, and accused of being terrorists.
Empathy fatigue has set in. Wyon spoke about the distinction between empathy, in which we identify with someone and put ourselves in their shoes, and compassion, in which, having empathised, we ask what we can do and move to take action to help. Neurological research has shown that while empathy is related to suffering, compassion is also related to the emotions of joy and uplift.
It’s therefore important, rather than preaching and pointing the finger at the people we see as responsible for the situation, to give people the means of taking action and helping in concrete ways – dealing with empathy fatigue by converting empathy into compassion.
Sanctuary Hosting came out of an effort on the part of Wyon and colleagues to revitalise Oxford City of Sanctuary. The City of Sanctuary is a national movement aimed at making cities, towns, and institutions of every kind welcoming to refugees. Guided by the motto ‘Serve first those who suffer most’ (proclaimed by Abbé Pierre, founder of Emmaus), Wyon and his colleagues realised that those people seeking sanctuary in Oxford who were suffering the most were those who were homeless, and they decided to confront the problem by setting up the Sanctuary Hosting scheme (originally called Host Oxford).
The idea behind Sanctuary Hosting is simple: to match homeless refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants many of whom have no permission to work or recourse to public funds with people who have a spare room and can host a single person for a defined period of time. After modest beginnings, they now have about 50 approved hosts across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. They have provided 4500 nights of accommodation for 34 people, and are currently housing 14 people. They have two part-time members of staff.
They can help single men and women, but aren’t in the position to be able to take families, who (at least in theory) should be the responsibility of the city council. Guests and hosts are both vetted and approved, to make sure the accommodation offered is of an adequate standard, and that both parties are ready for what’s involved in living together. A matching process then takes place, in which Sanctuary Hosting staff and volunteers find good matches between hosts and guests, who are then introduced over time in order to ensure that they are well suited. Ground rules are set by the host (regarding, for example, food, keys, and guests) and made clear from the beginning.
Placements range from 2 weeks onwards, and people can live with several hosts during the time it takes for their status to be decided and for them to be able to work and live independently.
Wyon outlined four ways in which people can help:
- Become a host. This involves an initial stage of filling out applications and speaking to Sanctuary Housing during which there is no commitment. Then a placement is arranged – as described above. Hosts’ friends are also important, helping out with meals, when hosts are away on holiday, etc.
- Become a volunteer support worker. This involves supporting hosts and guests, and conducting initial appraisals of hosts and guests, and is a 3-4 hour/week commitment.
- Join the management committee. They are particularly looking for people with expertise in social media/PR, charities and governance, and fundraising.
- Make a donation. They run very cheaply, housing people for only 2000/year (which includes subsistence payments made to guests who have no recourse to public funds and travel support given to guests.) Money also goes towards paying the 2 part-time members of staff. If 250 people contributed £10/month it would be enough to support the organisation and mean it didn’t have to rely on grant-giving bodies.
The merits of the scheme are that it is community-based, and is symbiotic in its effects, helping asylum seekers and refugees in great need while also enriching hosts’ lives.
Further points raised during the Q&A
- While they have spare capacity with registered hosts at the moment, they are always looking for more volunteer hosts, since they expect growing demand, and many existing hosts have committed to short time periods, meaning for each guest, several hosts may be needed.
- The average length of a placement is 56 days. The minimum stay is usually not less than 2 weeks, but beyond that the length of stays varies widely.
- A person may no longer need accommodation through Sanctuary Hosting if they are granted refugee status (and thus the right to work) and are able to get employment and afford their own place to live. The main need is from asylum seekers who are not permitted to work, get very reduced benefits and poor accommodation; and from asylum seekers whose application for asylum has been refused – they don’t get anything.
- Sanctuary Hosting has close links with Asylum Welcome, Refugee Resource, Red Cross, Crisis and other organisations in the area of refugee support and homelessness. All these organisations refer people in need of housing to them.
- We were very pleased to have two refugee families from Syria with us for the talk. Carol Ghadimi and others who have helped these families raised the severe difficulties securing housing for families when the Council isn’t prepared for various reasons to help them. They often receive housing benefit, but experience overt discrimination from private rental agencies. Asylum Welcome works with the city council to find housing for Syrian families who have come to the UK from camps in Lebanon, Jordan, etc, as part of UN-run resettlement programmes, and can support these families in other ways, but housing is a big problem. Wyon said that while Sanctuary Hosting can’t house families, it might be possible to launch an appeal for houses/flats for entire families. The BOAZ Trust in Manchester had some success with a similar appeal.
- While Sanctuary Hosting is a successful example of community action to confront a problem that the state is not dealing with, it is still highly important to put pressure on the government to improve the situation for refugees and asylum seekers through writing to our MPs and government ministers, protesting, etc.
Heartfelt thanks to Wyon for giving his time to speak to us about these vital issues.
Contact details for Sanctuary Hosting: