Lewisham residents have been praised for helping refugees settle in the borough, while hitting back at the government’s ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration.

Speaking at the Borough of Sanctuary conference, Cllr Kevin Bonavia said the image of little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach in 2015 triggered Lewisham residents to ask the council for action to help refugees and migrants.

As the council expands its refugee settlement programme to support 100 families, the cabinet member for refugees said the project cannot be a “top-down” project and urged residents to keep up a “community-led approach.”

While the council moves to the next stage of the programme, a review is underway into the handling of refugees after allegations surfaced of council staff telling migrants to “go back to their country.”

Speaking to News Shopper, Cllr Bonavia said the review would interview council staff as well as refugees who have been housed in Lewisham.

He could not comment on whether the review would rule on individual cases and allegations, but said, “we want to see if lessons can be learnt” from the first stage of the refugee resettlement programme.

After housing 17 refugee families in the first stage of the programme, Cllr Bonavia praised the people of Lewisham for shaping the council’s commitment to those fleeing persecution.

“We’re really lucky that we’ve got a population that really wants to help people who have come here from elsewhere,” he said, describing people's kindness as "the Lewisham way."

“There has been a pushback in Lewisham to the ‘hostile environment’ approach which has infiltrated so many different levels of our society.”

Speaking at the conference, Ben Margolis, from City of Sanctuary, slammed the government’s guidelines on immigration.

News Shopper:

The conference discussed how best to expand the refugee resettlement programme

“Lecturers have to monitor their students. Hospitals have to monitor their patients. Across all professions now, we’re seeing that the borders have gone from being on the coastlines and the ports to our schools and universities and hospitals.”

Cllr Bonavia told News Shopper: “The idea of the Borough of Sanctuary is to turn the ‘hostile environment’ on its head.

“When people are fleeing persecution, the first response is interrogating them as to why they are entitled to be here.

“But the first response should be welcoming them and later dealing with people’s own individual issues.”

As part of the council’s action against the ‘hostile environment’, it has removed a Home Office official from its premises while refugee families with children apply for emergency funding.

“Even though the official wasn’t sitting in on interviews, we were worried about the presence making families feel uneasy.”

Cllr Bonavia said: “We want to see if lessons can be learnt from the first stage of the programme.

“We need to make sure we’re being clear at the outset what families should expect so they have got a plan and know who to speak to about questions and concerns.”