Meeting for Sufferings: Private sponsorship of refugees

Friends considered how Quakers might respond to the refugee crisis

Friends at Meeting for Sufferings, held at Friends House on Saturday 6 February, addressed the subject of the plight of refugees and how Quakers might respond to the present crisis.

Those present were asked to help test whether Quakers might support a private sponsorship scheme that would enable a significant number of additional Syrian refugees to be welcomed to the United Kingdom.

The subject was brought to Sufferings by the Quaker Peace & Social Witness Central Committee (QPSWCC) and was the main item on the agenda on Saturday morning. The final decision on what action might be appropriate will be taken by QPSWCC. At the end of February QPSWCC will be considering a paper of options for possible work to address the refugee crisis.

Helen Drewery, general secretary of QPSW, spoke to the concern and explained that Citizens UK was the lead agency working through the National Refugee Welcome Board (NRWB). The NRWB is setting up a new public register listing people, groups and institutions who have agreed, in principle, to support refugees in their communities.

She explained that the government has stated a willingness to set up a refugee sponsorship scheme similar to that used in Canada. This involves a sponsor fully supporting (material, financially and in other ways) a refugee for twelve months. The NRWB is gathering names of supportive organisations in order to demonstrate that it is a workable scheme. She invited representatives at Sufferings to feed into QPSWCC’s discernment process.

A consultative paper – Quaker Peace & Social Witness: Private Sponsorship of Refugees – had been circulated to representatives. It contained background information, highlighting the work done to help Jews escape from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the advocacy and actions taken by Friends in recent years. The consultative paper outlined the proposal and considered what private sponsorship might mean for individual sponsors, some possible implications for Britain Yearly Meeting, and some of the arguments for and against such a proposal.

Friends voiced a deep concern about the plight of refugees and brought a variety of different perspectives, as well as personal experience, to the discernment. The subject prompted many questions and few clear answers.

A Friend said that more information was required on the detail of the proposal, such as which group of refugees was being talked about. Was it mainly Syrian refugees? The inspiring work done by Quakers in the 1930s was referred to, though a Friend stressed that there had been many changes since then. Today there were many agencies involved in supporting refugees. What, exactly, could Quakers offer that was distinctive?

A Friend expressed concern about resources. Would new commitments, she said, require Friends to draw ‘deeper into our pockets’? Would any private sponsorship scheme be in addition to current work and what effect might this have on the present work at Friends House? A Friend thought the scheme worthwhile, and was ‘more than happy for someone to stay’ in his house, but admitted that he could not financially afford to sponsor anyone.

‘Are the disadvantages too great?’ a Friend asked. ‘Are the positives big enough to find a way through the problems? How can we best respond to this human need?’ A Friend was glad that QPSW had given Sufferings the opportunity to talk about the proposal. She spoke of how her mother had come to Ireland as a refugee and had been given help and support by an Irish Quaker. ‘That woman’, she said, ‘saved my mother’s life’. Friends were encouraged, locally, to engage in partnerships with other groups.

A Friend talked of how his Local Meeting had responded to the request from QPSWCC and taken ‘soundings’ locally. These had expressed a ‘guarded yes’. He then gave a vivid account of how his family had taken in a refugee and of his personal experience. He stressed the diversity of challenges involved in taking in refugees – in accommodation, education, health issues, interpreters and general orientation – and that someone or somebody would, in the end, have to ‘do the heavy lifting.’ He also spoke of how, when some Friends had walked into a local refugee centre, someone had said: ‘Quakers, this is in your DNA, isn’t it?’

Another Friend, who had taken soundings in their Local Meeting, said that the overwhelming response had been one of ‘deep suspicion’ and spoke of a concern over a lack of information about Citizens UK in particular and the idea in general.

She referred to the many organisations presently doing good work and the need to consider any possible ‘reputational risk’ there might be in partnerships. ‘I feel,’ she said, ‘that we should work with existing organisations in the field.’

A Friend spoke of the need, when speaking of the refugee crisis, to offer a ‘strong counter narrative’. The ‘mixed reaction’ and ‘guarded yes’ to the proposal by Sufferings was reflected in the minute. QPSWCC were encouraged to give the issue ‘careful thinking’ and a recognition given to the fact that ‘further work’ was needed.

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