In Spring last year I was part of a team that visited Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean where many migrants have arrived over the years. We met with Francesco Piobbichi, an artist who is working with Mediterranean Hope, a project initiated by the Italian churches to respond to the needs of migrants who have been driven by desperation to risk their lives to try to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Since then I have been involved, through my work with the Irish Council of Churches, in working with churches and other organisations to advocate for the development of alternative legal pathways so that people will not be forced to risk their lives to attain sanctuary and safety.
A couple of months ago, I and a group of church representatives working on these issues, spoke via Skype with some people from Canada who have sponsored a family of refugees from Syria. A group of people in the town have come together and worked out what the needs of the family will be and how they can be met. They befriended them, accompanied them as they applied for social security and driving licences, showed them where to buy food, go to the doctor or worship.
The light that shone from their eyes showed their passion and enthusiasm so clearly. They and the community have been greatly enriched in the process. It inspired all of us listening to them. They repeatedly expressed the whole experience had strengthened the ties in their community, bringing people together and fostering new friendships and connections.
Of course it wasn’t without its challenges but they were constantly surprised by the group’s creativity in surmounting them. A year later and the family’s children are enjoying school, the father is running his own catering business and the family is very well integrated into the daily life of the town.
Now for Ireland
But why am I telling you this? The Irish government announced last year that it intends to bring a similar community sponsorship scheme to Ireland. It has been in discussions with the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative and the Canadian government and has since been in dialogue with civil society organisations including the UNHCR and the Irish Refugee Council to discuss the design and operation of the proposed scheme.
The Irish Council of Churches has met with those organisations and the Department of Justice to provide input from the churches and has acted as a communications channel for the churches to discuss matters around migration and asylum.
It was at an ICC–facilitated meeting that we had that conversation with the community sponsors from Canada.
What is it?
In a community sponsorship scheme a group of people from a particular place take on some responsibility for welcoming and facilitating the integration of a family or group of refugees. The refugees are identified as in need of resettlement by the UNHCR and take directly from refugee camps to Ireland, rather than having to undertake a dangerous journey. As well as addressing the danger of travelling across the Mediterranean, community sponsorship also provides effective integration as there is a personal, relational aspect to it once the refugees arrive. Canada has had such a scheme for more than 40 years and about half of the refugees resettled in Canada go through that scheme.
How will it work?
In the proposed Irish scheme it’s likely that the sponsorship group will have to identify accommodation for the refugees and raise some money to fund initial expenses, although the refugees will have access to all the normal sources of social welfare including HAP towards rent payments. Their main role however will be to befriend and accompany and be a point of contact for the refugee family for an initial 18 month period.
What does it mean for churches?
It is hoped that, in the light of the biblical imperatives to care for the alien and the stranger, and a recognition of the injustice and suffering that are caused when people are forced from their homes by war or persecution, Christians in Ireland will be moved to respond in kindness.
People often feel helpless in the face of such huge issues but the community sponsorship scheme will offer a way for ordinary people to respond in a tangible way that also brings great benefits to the community. It also provides a context for outreach and building connections between churches and other local groups as they work together to welcome. Of course, each family sponsored is only a tiny drop in a ocean of need, but it’s of unmeasurable importance to the family concerned.
How can I find out more?
The government is due to launch the scheme later this Summer at which point more specific information will be available on what is required of a sponsorship group. In the meantime you can contact the Irish Council of Churches if you’d like to find out more (email@example.com).