Hope, hospitality, hostility in Cities of Sanctuary



On the train on the way to the City of Sanctuary (CoS) AGM on 15th May I read an article about a new type of sanctuary city – a sanctuary for gun owners. While the context in the USA is completely different, reading this article on the way to the CoS AGM certainly put me in a funny frame of mind. What does sanctuary really mean? When we talk about ‘welcome’, ‘sanctuary’ and ‘hospitality’ I kept thinking – for who? And on what terms?

For me, I certainly received a very warm welcome from everyone at the conference. I didn’t necessarily expect it. If a researcher rocked up an event and said their research was turned on me I don’t know whether I would feel particularly welcoming. Maybe it was because there were three other researchers there. Or maybe by now the CoS team are used to people coming along and having a look at what they’re doing. It is an attractive proposition – a potential light in the dark of the hostile environment. And by all accounts they are growing – spurred by the media publicity of the Syrian civil war and the continued interest (good and bad) in all things migration.

There were people attending from Glasgow to Dover, Norwich to Swansea. Every city seemed to have their own sanctuary trajectory, with some starting from grassroots organisations and making petitions to local authorities, while others such as Cambridge where I was told ‘everything happened at once’ as part of the outpouring of feeling provoked by the photo of Alan Kurdi in 2015.  Devolution was also thrown into the mix with stark contrasts – Wales is bidding to be the first nation of sanctuary while England is fighting off the worst effects of the hostile environment and the manifold problems with the proposals of the ‘Integrated Communities’ Green Paper.

Some groups were brimming with ideas, events and getting all manner of institutions involved – sanctuary services (policy, fire services); sanctuary theatres; sanctuary museums; sanctuary churches; sanctuary cathedrals; sanctuary schools; sanctuary universities – someone on my table joked that there would be sanctuary tapas bars next (which I didn’t think was a bad idea). Some groups didn’t even have refugees or asylum seekers living in their towns but they wanted to enact a culture of sanctuary anyway. In some cases this was an open call for refugees to come and live in their town – (#penrithwelcomesrefugees) reframing refugees as agents of change. The Leeds group also displayed photos from a sanctuary project:

#refugeeswelcome in parks was also being shared (thanks to Clare Rishbeth).

While there was a lot of discussion about being inspired and sharing good practice the event was framed by the national hostile environment. Speakers also drew on the global context and the figures from the UNHCR that there are more than 65 million people on the move across the world. Conversations changed from inspiring good practice to the challenges and the scale of the work. The problems with austerity, the problems with only helping Syrian refugees, the problems with slum housing and irregular work – the list went on and on. At one point the compere asked how many people felt overwhelmed and response was resounding – everyone. It was clear to me that the hostile environment is not confined to those subject to its policies (see also OHCHR report). It was also clear that the hostile environment is deeply affecting all those involved in this sector, many of whom also have a migrant background.

There was a discussion event at the conference about safeguarding for volunteers as well as clients. I began to wonder whether the whole conference was a form of safeguarding for those engaged in this kind of work and if it wasn’t – whether it needed to be. This also seemed to be the purpose of the City of Sanctuary timeline – hope. The increasing activities, the constant calls for action, the widening scope to different institutions and places all created this feeling. Hope for what, is yet to be seen.




What does integration mean for today’s young migrants in Britain?

adults-black-and-white-casual-1374542This blog was originally posted on the superdiversity.net blog on 16th March 2018.

The Integration green paper places much emphasis on integrating young people in its proposals especially in relation to education. Dr Rachel Humphris and Dr Nando Sigona consider the factors that may determine success and failure of integration policy for this diverse cohort.

What does integration mean for a young migrant in Britain today? To what extent do young people’s aspirations meet the expectations of the British government? The answer to these questions is less straightforward that it may seem. Let’s take for example young unaccompanied minors. While resilience and capacity to adapt to a new society and build social connections may seem obvious candidates of a successful integration, it also happens that these very criteria are used by the Home Office to argue in asylum appeal hearings for the forced removal of unaccompanied asylum seeking minors to places like Afghanistan. The argument goes a bit like this: this young person has shown a great capacity of adaptation during his/her stay in Britain, and therefore can be expected to successfully reintegrate into the Afghani society if returned to Kabul, even if Kabul is not where they came from.

Leaving aside these questions for now, research shows that the successful integration of young people in the UK may depend upon a range of factors, including their age, gender, whether they migrate alone or accompanied, and the circumstances surrounding their movement.

However, our research shows that a primary, if not the most important, factor shaping the integration of young people in the UK is the security of their migration status, and the process through which this was achieved. For example, young people may not have a legal residency status (undocumented) or have failed in their asylum claim (either in a family group or as the primary claimant if migrating alone). Migration status will dramatically impede their ability to integrate into UK society until their legal status claim is resolved for practical reasons such as being unable to access resources to fund further or higher education and issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing. Children who have been detained or are in fear of being detained will also suffer impediments to integration. In our study on transitions to adulthood of formed unaccompanied migrant children (Becoming Adult), we found out that a protracted, delayed, tortuous pathway to secure status, even if this is ultimately achieved, can have long term negative impacts on young people’s wellbeing and their capacity to integrate into society.

In light of this, emphasis should be placed on securing young people’s legal status earlier rather than later and on ensuring the process is ‘best interests’ proofed before. All public services should adhere to the legal binding principle that migrant children are children first and make decisions in accordance with a child’s ‘best interests’ according to the UN Convention for the Right of the Child.

To promote young people’s integration education and involvement in school and learning environments play central roles. Effort should be placed on providing additional support for young people to learn English as quickly as possible. Routes to further and higher education should be made available to them.  Ensuring young people’s right to dream about meaningful and successful future should be a priority in state policy.  School’s may not only be key to children and young people’s integration but can also act as a key contact for a new migrant family to become acquainted with the administrative systems in the UK and a place where English language can be practiced in a supportive environment.

In addition to schools, youth clubs and groups may provide important spaces for young people to meet and engage in activities that are crucial to ensure they are positively engaged in their local communities. This is reflected in the government green paper which acknowledges that ‘youth social action is a valuable bridging activity through which young people play an important role in helping to establish the norms of cooperation and reciprocity in their communities and to make positive use of their skills, knowledge and capabilities’ (page 31).


Research highlights

Chase, E. and Sigona, N. (2017) ‘Forced returns and protracted displacement’, Becoming Adult Research Brief no. 7, London: UCL

Sigona, N., Chase, E., Humphris, R. (2017) ‘Understanding causes and consequences of going ‘missing’, Becoming Adult Brief no. 6, London: UCL

Sigona, N., Chase, E., Humphris, R. (2017) ‘Protecting the ‘best interests’ of the child in transition to adulthood’, Becoming Adult Research Brief no. 3, London: UCL


Six new research briefs on unaccompanied children

20181013_083625.jpgThis was originally posted on the Becoming Adult blog.

The Becoming Adult team has launched today six new research briefs. The briefs are available in pdf in the Resources page and address some key issues affecting unaccompanied youth.

  • Protecting the ‘best interests’ of the child in transition to adulthood (no. 3)
  • Transitions into institutional adulthood (no.4)
  • Health and wellbeing (no. 5)
  • Understanding causes and consequences of going ‘missing’ (no. 6)
  • Forced returns and protracted displacement (no. 7)
  • Unaccompanied minors and secondary migration between Italy and the UK (no. 8)

Outrage Over Unaccompanied Minors Highlights Massive E.U. Data Gap

DREF food and aid distribution on Lesvos

This blog was originally posted on Refugees Deeply.

Early in 2015, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency, Europol, denounced the disappearance of 10,000 unaccompanied minors with a warning that they may be victims of criminal networks. Despite questions over the validityof this figure, it sparked a moral outcry. The “killer number,” as charities and aid agencies privately referred to it, was too powerful a call to action to bother deconstructing.

Valid numbers, however, do matter.

A more rigorous scrutiny of the available data can improve our understanding of the phenomenon of “missing” children and its main structural causes, and help refocus policy efforts to address the actual situation of child migrants.

Child migration to Europe is diverse. While unaccompanied minors are prominent in the public debate and official data, other children – particularly undocumented minors or those with asylum-seeking parents – are often invisible in data and policy.

Over 1 million people reached Italy and Greece by sea in 2015. The large majority of them are young men and women, including 250,000 children. According to data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration, 94 percent of these children came to Greece, while a far smaller contingent – around 16,500 – arrived in Italy.

A closer look at the data on children arriving in Italy and Greece shows remarkable differences in their countries of origin and whether the children traveled alone.

The overwhelming majority of minors from Egypt – 98 percent – and Gambia – 96 percent – traveled alone on the treacherous sea crossing from North Africa. The opposite was the case for the young Syrians.

In Greece, where Syrians and Afghans make up the largest national groups of migrants arriving by sea, Syrian children are more likely to travel with someone responsible for them, but this is not the case for Afghan minors.

Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM

Sea arrivals should not be conflated with asylum data. Not all migrants arriving by boat apply for asylum, and not everyone applying for asylum came on a boat. E.U. asylum data shows that 1.26 million first-time asylum applications were lodged in 2015, and 365,000 of the applicants were under 18 years old. Only 90,000 of them were recorded as unaccompanied minors.

Yet, there are substantial differences in international, European and national definitions of unaccompanied children. These definitions are important because different categories provide different levels of protection in law or in practice.

Some countries, including Italy, Spain and France, afford protection to unaccompanied children mostly on the basis of age and separation from relatives, leaving the consideration of the child’s asylum claim as secondary. In other countries, the status of the child’s asylum claim is paramount and is initiated at an early stage. This can lead to the quick dismissal of claims made by minors from so-called safe countries. There have been attempts to achieve some coherence at the E.U. level, but these have not always been successful.

There are also significant differences in the way data are collected on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and how identification occurs. In the U.K., each of the four nations differs in the way they collect and publish their statistics.

Data on unaccompanied minors in the E.U. is aggregated from national statistics. As children may be moving between European countries, this process paradoxically can produce two opposite results: double counting and missing children.

A child may be recorded as unaccompanied upon arrival in Italy, for example, and then join family members elsewhere in Europe and lodge an asylum application as an “accompanied” minor. The paradox here is that a child can be counted as missing in Italy, reappear in another E.U.country and then be counted again under a different bureaucratic label. This phenomenon may be more widespread than many assume.

This can happen even within countries. Evidence from the research project Becoming Adult, for example, shows that double counting of unaccompanied minors is common in Italy.

E.U. data collection has struggled to adjust to the rapid movement of people across European borders. For example, age and gender are not often disaggregated for children arriving at the E.U.’s southern borders, in all transit countries, or for all dependents in asylum claims.

Disaggregated data would reveal the hitherto invisible children in Europe who are identified as “accompanied.” This is crucial because the majority of migrant and refugee children who reach Europe by sea are accompanied.

There is also an absence of data on family reunification and deficiencies in data on detention and return, particularly those who arrived as unaccompanied minors but have since reached 18 years of age.

The Europol announcement was far too appealing for well-meaning NGOs, advocates and politicians who were genuinely concerned with the plight of this invisible army of potential slaves. While the existence of cases of exploitation and trafficking is unquestionable, scrutiny of the data raises questions over the magnitude of the phenomenon and how Europol reached its figures.

Better data can improve our understanding of what drives unaccompanied children to go missing and help us to refocus our efforts to address the structural causes of the phenomenon, not least the E.U.’s policy and practices towards these children, in order to improve the situation of lone refugee and migrant children.

A full breakdown of this analysis of comparative data is available here.

Children and Unsafe Migration into Europe: Understanding the Evidence base



It is estimated that over 250,000 child migrants crossed irregularly into Italy and Greece in 2015. For Italy, of 16,500 child migrants, over 12,000 (72 percent) were unaccompanied. For Greece, no official distinction between accompanied and unaccompanied is made at entry for the purposes of data collection, although the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that at least 10 percent arrived without parents or guardians.

“Child migration into Europe is diverse and often invisible in data and policy. European States consider children as “accompanied” or “unaccompanied” differently.  This not only affects the rights and entitlements they receive, but how they are counted in the data,” notes GMDAC Director, Dr. Frank Laczko.

The Briefing, written by Dr. Rachel Humphris and Dr. Nando Sigona of the University of Birmingham, UK, highlights the gap between available data and public debate, showing the limitations in data collection and inconsistencies in terminology. Although in some cases data are collected daily on arrival in Greece and Italy, there is a lack of detail.

“When children are identified as “accompanied”, the data are not disaggregated by age or gender.  Children remain invisible in the figures and the true numbers are unknown,” note Humphris and Sigona.

According to the researchers, not only are there gaps in data coverage, but also children are “double-counted”. This occurs when different recording mechanisms aggregate, rather than consolidate, their data.

Most attention has focused on the number of “missing” children. The briefing shows that children can be counted in more than one jurisdiction and may be recorded as “missing” at various points throughout their journey. “This double-counting is an important consideration when mapping child migration,” note Humphris and Sigona.

To download the report, please visit: https://publications.iom.int/books/global-migration-data-analysis-centre…

Mapping unaccompanied children in England


The aim of this Research Brief is to report on data collected via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to all local authorities in England concerning unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC). The request asked for local authority statistics from the previous three years (March 2012 to March 2015).

Key findings

  • Increasingly children are accommodated outside the local authority with statutory responsibility to support them
  • Receiving local authorities are rarely informed of these transfers and keep no record of unaccompanied minors placed from other LAs
  • Figures of missing children from Local Authorities do not match the one provided by the Home Office.
  • Definitions of ‘missing’ children vary considerably across England casting doubt on the comparability of data across local authorities
  • Data on care leavers are extremely patchy and inconsistent across Local Authorities. As a result, little is known about what happens to young people after they reach 18 years old.

Download ‘Mapping unaccompanied asylum seeking children in England‘, Becoming Adult Research Brief, no.1/2016

Immigration bill and unaccompanied children – update


This was originally posted on Becoming Adult blog.

The Immigration Bill is continuing to roll through UK Parliament. On Tuesday 12th April the House of Lords gave the Bill its third and final reading, ready to send back to the House of Commons [1]. Amendments to the Bill will be considered by the House of Commons before Royal Assent [2].

At the same time, the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee continues to hear evidence for its inquiry into ‘unaccompanied minors’ in the EU [3]. Oral expert evidence was heard on 13th April and written evidence was published yesterday, 18th April [4]

Tomorrow, 20th April 2016, selected Government Ministers will give evidence regarding their actions to support separated children in the UK. This can be watched from 10:30am here.

They will address:

  • The number of unaccompanied minors the UK, and how they differ in terms of age, gender and nationality
  • Whether England should adopt a guardianship scheme for unaccompanied minors
  • How proposed legal changes under the Immigration Bill will affect unaccompanied minors
  • Family reunification for unaccompanied minors in the UK
  • The challenges facing unaccompanied minors throughout the UK and other EU Member States
  • Individuals and organisations that the Children’s Commissioner cooperates with in order to provide advice and assistance to unaccompanied minors and the effectiveness of this


[1] http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/immigration/stages.html

[2] See the Immigration Bill stages here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/immigration.html)

[3] http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-home-affairs-subcommittee/inquiries/parliament-2015/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu/

[4] All documents can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-home-affairs-subcommittee/inquiries/parliament-2015/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu-publications/