Students Staff
University of Essex

November 29, 2019

Becoming a University of Sanctuary

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony, tells us about our bid to be recognised as a University of Sanctuary. 

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony.

It is with immense pride that I can announce that the University of Essex will be seeking recognition as a University of Sanctuary.

Essex has a proud and radical tradition of providing sanctuary for academics and young people. In July 2017 we committed to supporting Colchester’s Borough of Sanctuary initiative, as part of the national ‘City of Sanctuary’ project. This aims to build welcoming communities for people in positions of vulnerability, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from persecution. Our decision to seek accreditation as a ‘University of Sanctuary’ builds on our commitment to promoting a culture and practice of welcome, safety and inclusion within our campus community and in our wider communities. Our University Strategy 2019-25 articulates the importance of social action as the defining characteristic of our mission of excellence in education and research, producing real benefit for people and communities, particularly those facing social, economic, political and cultural challenges. By applying to join the University of Sanctuary network we hope to further advance our mission of social impact, working in partnership across our University, with our wider communities, and across the Higher Education sector in the UK.

Standing together to take action

The process of applying for University of Sanctuary accreditation will see the University and its students standing together to take action. We are building on strong foundations: our academic staff are active through their research and education work in advancing the rights and protection of people who experience situations of vulnerability and marginality. In particular, the work our staff have led through the Centre for Trauma, Asylum, and Refugees, Human Rights Centre and Centre for Migration has advanced the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and placed refugee care at the heart of the University of Essex.

We recognise Human Rights Week every year by chalking articles of the universal declaration of human rights on the steps. Each article is written both in English and another language.

We are also inspired by our amazing students who have, for many years, been active with various community partners, in providing support, advice, advocacy and activism for refugees and asylum seekers. For example, our V-Team Refugee English Teaching Programme (RTP) works alongside local organizations such as Refugee Action Colchester to create a welcoming environment for refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers, including providing English classes and integration assistance. Students in our Human Rights Society, Amnesty International Essex and Essex STAR (Student Action for Refugees) are passionate in advocating and campaign for the rights of people who are the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community.

Essex STAR – a newly established, student-run society – has gathered resounding support from the student body, reflecting the commitment of Essex students to building a more welcoming and supportive environment for refugees and to achieving positive change.

President Beth Webb-Strong and Campaigns Officers Chloé Gagnaire and Eva Garbarz said: “STAR’s ethos is to welcome refugees to the UK and we are currently campaigning for Equal Access for refugees to higher education. Worldwide, only 3% of young refugees have access to higher education compared with 37% of young people globally and STAR, along with other universities and organisations, has pledged to change this.”

As a show of their strength of feeling, student leaders from STAR, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Society and the Refugee Teaching Programme, supported by staff in the Centre for Migration Studies, recently gathered a petition – supported by more than 500 fellow students – inviting the University Steering Group to seek to become a University of Sanctuary. We were delighted to agree.

Stella Eckl from the V-Team Refugee Teaching Programme said: “We, the executive team of the refugee teaching program (RTP), understand our studies connect to the real issues of the world and thus want to have a positive impact on our society. Our passion and commitment to these projects inspired us to push the university to seek recognition as a University of Sanctuary. We are delighted and proud that our University shares our commitment by becoming a University of Sanctuary.”

Our V-Team take part in volunteering projects across the county – and beyond, including making Christmas more enjoyable for vulnerable people.

Speaking on behalf of Amnesty International Essex, Auriane Paulik said: “Amnesty International Essex is very proud to take part in this project. Becoming a sanctuary university will enable a much greater protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights, by giving them security and helping them study and integrate the society better. Amnesty Essex has been fighting a lot for refugee rights in the last years, through fundraising and awareness campaigns, discussions, refugee-related artistic events etc. This project is therefore a great way for us to support refugee rights further.”

Robertas Skipitis said: “As the Human Rights Society, we believe that the rights of vulnerable refugees, particularly asylum seekers, should be no different to anyone else. The right to education is crucial, as in enables the development of personhood. It cannot be understated how important the University of Sanctuary project is for us, as it will guarantee that steps are taken by the University in fighting for this right.”

Learn, embed, share

The initiative will involve us working together to: learn about what it means to be seeking sanctuary; take positive action to embed concepts of welcome, safety and inclusion within the University; and share our vision, achievements, learning, and good practice with other universities, the local community and beyond. Through this initiative, we have the opportunity to shine a light on the vital work that our students and staff are already doing, and to celebrate their achievements to date.

Our University is place were everyone is welcome and you can find the world in one place.

Dr Renee Luthra, Director of the Centre for Migration said: “Becoming a university of sanctuary reflects Essex’s core values and provides a recognizable signal of the many activities of welcome already undertaken by our students, academics and professional staff. We would join a growing group of universities committed to providing access to excellent students fleeing persecution, embedding a culture of welcome throughout their academic curriculum, and reaching out to their local communities and beyond to raise awareness about people seeking sanctuary.”

A small project team will be established before the end of Autumn Term 2019 to take this work forward and I look forward to being able to report on progress and achievements throughout the academic year.

Living our values

This initiative is a wonderful example of Essex students living the values that define our community, as set out in our We are Essex manifesto. In the words of our Students’ Union President, Asha Ali, “it is wonderful to see everyone working towards making the University of Essex a place of sanctuary.”

Through their actions to challenge inequality, shape the world, and be change makers our students and staff epitomise our Essex Spirit. They are a constant inspiration to me, and I am delighted that we are taking forward this initiative together.

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