This week, Martin Parker considers whether the University of Leicester should commit to being a University of Sanctuary for refugees.
A sanctuary is a place which is sacred, or more generally, somewhere that is protected from the outside. A room of one’s own, a walled garden, a refuge, a defence against the hostility of the world. Under medieval law, fugitives or debtors enjoyed immunity from arrest in certain churches. Nowadays we also have the word used to describe somewhere that is protected for wilderness too, set aside for wild plants or animals.
The idea of a university already contains the idea of sanctuary. It is a place set apart from the turmoil of the world, somewhere for students and teachers to think, write and stroll the cloisters, slowly talking of great things. Of course most universities don’t have cloisters any more, and the world and its needs are much noisier, but the university is still a distinctive institution. It stands for something, for an ideal of community and the rational life.
One of the ways in which this ideal is being pursued by several US universities in a post-Trump era is the idea of a ‘sanctuary campus’. Portland State, Wesleyan, Pennsylvania and quite a few others have now declared their campuses to be sanctuaries for students who are undocumented migrants. The term is modelled after the idea of a ‘sanctuary city’, a status adopted by over 30 municipalities in the USA.
In November 2016, students around the USA staged demonstrations, walk-outs, and sit-ins in an effort to push their schools to oppose Trump’s avowed policy of mass deportations. Though this is a new movement, proposed policies on sanctuary campuses include – not allowing immigration officers onto campus without a warrant; not allowing campus police to enforce immigration law; and not sharing student immigration status or citizenship status. As well as these attempts at protection, there have been proposals to provide tuition support; distance-learning options for deported students; and legal support to students with immigration law questions and issues.
The American Association of University Professors has endorsed the sanctuary campus movement and urged more colleges and universities to adopt sanctuary policies. Is there anything that universities in the UK could do? More specifically, is there anything that Leicester University could do?
In the UK, the ‘City of Sanctuary’ is a movement which attempts to build a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary. Its goal is to create a network of towns and cities which are places of safety for people seeking sanctuary, helping them integrate into their local communities. It’s not a new movement. In September 2007, with the support of the City Council and over 70 local community organisations, Sheffield became the UK’s first ‘City of Sanctuary’. Leicester followed soon after.
Since then, the movement has supported the development of over 90 City of Sanctuary initiatives in towns across the UK and Ireland. Schools, health and maternity services, theatres and arts venues, churches and other faith centres, sports clubs, communities and businesses become ‘places of sanctuary’. A key element across all these initiatives is awareness raising, telling the stories of refugees to those who never hear them. Local groups work to build coalitions which make a public commitment to welcome and include refugees and people seeking sanctuary in their usual activities. The endorsement of government is sought on the basis of demonstrated community support, rather than being a ‘top-down’ council initiative.
When local organisations and communities include people seeking sanctuary in their activities, personal relationships are formed which lead to greater understanding and support from the host community. City of Sanctuary seeks to influence the political debate on sanctuary through cultural change and through a commitment to awareness raising right across society.
Out of these streams has come University of Sanctuary, an initiative to celebrate the good practice of Universities welcoming asylum seekers and refugees into their university community. Bradford, Sheffield, Gloucester and Wolverhampton are among the universities that have signed up so far.
The idea is to develop a culture of welcome in institutions of Higher Education. Universities are in a powerful position to secure equal access to higher education for sanctuary seekers. This means reaching out to and supporting sanctuary seekers in their local communities who could benefit from University resources.
Since the refugee crisis hit the news in 2015, there has been a surge in interest and support for refugees, in universities and across society more widely. A University of Sanctuary should be a place where anyone can welcome and able to pursue their education. University can seem like an impossible goal for some. This should not be the case. University should be a possibility for everyone, and even for those who do not wish to study, universities can be welcoming and safe places, even just by letting people use the facilities who may not otherwise have access to books in their own language, computers, sports facilities and more.
Universities like Leicester are well placed to be able to lead on initiatives which would help refugees locally and globally. Can we become a place of sanctuary too?