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21 June 2023

Meet: King's Sanctuary Programme team

We spoke with the members of King’s Sanctuary team to learn more about the valuable work they do in supporting refugees in Higher Education.

Academic Sanctuaries Symposium April 2023
L-R: Janahan Sivanathan, Dr Nicole Mennell, Dr Leonie Ansems de Vries and Sabrina Fernadez

Leonie Ansems de Vries – Director of the Sanctuary Programme, Reader in International Politics and Chair of the Migration Research Group

What for you has been the biggest achievement of King’s Sanctuary programme to date and what do you hope for the future – both for King’s and the wider HE sector?

In the past eight years, the King’s Sanctuary Programme has developed a range of initiatives in response to the global challenge of forced displacement. We seek to support displaced students and academics to access and thrive in Higher Education, and to tackle the barriers and borders that many forced migrants face. Staff from across King's have created scholarship programmes, educated thousands of displaced people through blended bridging programmes and online university courses, and developed a university sponsorship model that offers displaced students and academics a safe and legal pathway to the UK as well as access to Higher Education and holistic support.

Our biggest achievement to date has been the way in which we develop this work: our collaborative, reflexive and co-creative approach that brings together research, education and impact to create tangible, positive social change. This approach is based on listening to and working with affected communities, as well as collaborating with partners from across the university, civil society, government and business sectors. This has helped us develop ground-breaking initiatives, such as University Sponsorship. We became aware of the importance of establishing accessible safe and legal pathways through conducting collaborative research with forced migrants across Europe, and we harnessed our expertise in transnational education and government and civil society partnerships to develop put this idea in practice.

Our approach also helps us to remain aware that the need to tackle barriers in Higher Education is an ongoing issue that require us to keep listening, reflecting and co-creating responses. We are currently co-creating a research project led by King’s student researchers with a forced migration background to better understand their experience and to tackle the barriers they face in Higher Education, especially in the context of the UK hostile environment.

My hope for the future is that the UK Higher Education sector will harness its expertise and partnerships to change the toxic discourse on migration and to create more open and welcoming communities for all. It has been encouraging to see how much interest and energy recent geopolitical events (including in Ukraine and Afghanistan) have generated to develop long-term, sustainable frameworks to support forced migrant students and academics in the UK and elsewhere, and to come together as a sector to shape migration and higher education policy.

Leonie Ansems de Vries, Director of the Sanctuary Programme, Reader in International Politics and Chair of the Migration Research Group
Nicole Mennell

Dr Nicole Mennell – Sanctuary Programme Manager

Based on your experience, what are the biggest challenges for the HE sector when it comes to supporting people who have experienced forced displacement, and how does the work Sanctuary does overcome such challenges?

The scale of this global issue is probably the biggest challenge for the HE sector. According to the UNHCR, there are over 110 million people forcibly displaced across the world (to put this in context, the United Kingdom has a population of 67.33 million people). Forced displacement particularly impacts young people. Approximately 40% of the people forcibly displaced worldwide are children under the age of 18 and this has inevitable impact on their educational journeys. Just six percent of refugees have access to higher education, compared to 40% among non-refugees. In 2019, the UNHCR set the goal to increase this number to 15% by 2030 – referred to as the 15by30 target. The number of academics in need of sanctuary is also growing year on year, with the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) reporting that applications to their Fellowship Programme increased from 120 in 2020/21 to over 1,100 in 2021/22. The situations in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan has led to these numbers increasing further in 2023 and made the need to support at-risk academics even more urgent.

It has never been more important for UK universities to respond to this global issue and support people impacted by forced displacement. But we will only make a real difference and support the greatest number of individuals possible if we work together.

Dr Nicole Mennell, Sanctuary Programme Manager

To ensure we make a positive impact at scale, the Sanctuary Team has led the development of various sector-wide collaborations and networks, for example the University Sponsorship partnership, organising events such as the Academic Sanctuaries Symposium: Ukraine and Beyond and co-founding the UK Higher Education Humanitarian Group (HEHG). The HEHG group seeks to build coordinated, proactive and sustainable frameworks across the UK sector to support displaced students and academics, support the UNHCR’s 15by30 target, share knowledge and expertise, and shape policy. There are currently ten leading UK universities in this group, as well as the UNHCR, Universities UK International and four civil society partners. Through these cross-sector initiatives, we will continue to work with our partners and, most importantly, with affected communities to tackle this global issue. 

Janahan Sivanathan

Janahan Sivanathan – Sanctuary Project Officer

How does your own life experience impact the work you do through Sanctuary? What difference do programmes like Sanctuary make to people who have experienced forced displacement?

When I came to the UK seeking asylum aged 17, I did not have anyone to support me in the UK, and I did not speak a single word of English. I had to fight my trauma and the system, including finding ways to navigate daily life independently. This daunting experience has resulted in me gaining very useful skills in navigating the unknown. The understanding and experience of starting life from below the bottom help me to be more empathetic to the people I help through my role at King’s. I was in their place once before, and I know how disturbing and hard it is to navigate without help. So, I simply call on my experience to be the navigator for the people who need it.

Equally, there are always barriers due to the impact of hostile environment policies in the UK. Unfortunately, universities are one place where barriers are institutionalised and impact people with forced displacement or migration backgrounds, in some cases on a daily basis. Drawing on personal as well as learned experience, I advocate for breaking those barriers. As a first step, I produce examples of detrimental effects due to unconscious practices at the university to identify and acknowledge those barriers initially. The Sanctuary Team then work with colleagues across the university to challenge those barriers to create small ripples which will hopefully turn into a massive wave of change.

It is essential projects like the Sanctuary Programme that reinforce that education is a fundamental right for all. Almost all people with forced migration or displacement background faces challenges in exercising their basic fundamental rights. Having programmes like these give them hope and an opportunity to rebuild their life with whatever is remaining at present. So, it is crucial that projects like these are available at universities and that many people are given opportunities to access education and provided with an environment in which they can thrive and rebuild their lives and careers without the borders and hostile environment policies being a barrier.

Janahan Sivanathan, Sanctuary Project Officer
Sabrina Fernandez

Sabrina Fernandez – Associate Director of Operations (Global Education and Sanctuary)

How does King’s work with other universities, charities, donors and third sector organisations to ensure refugees are able to feel safe and continue their studies and work? What difference do these collaborations make?

In all our projects we seek to work in partnership with key organisations to ensure we have the greatest impact possible. This is especially true of the University Sponsorship Model, a cross-sector collaborative initiative that provides a safe route to the UK, and access to higher education and support to thrive for forcibly displaced students and academics. Our approach to this community-based sponsorship initiative involves working in collaboration with other universities, charities (such as Cara), Refugee Education UK (REUK), and community organisations such as Citizens UK. We share skills and knowledge to help forced migrants to overcome the barriers that they face both within and outside our university communities. The 'hostile environment' has led many to feel unsafe in the UK and so we also work with partners to collectively influence policy change.

These collaborations make a huge difference and enable the small teams supporting this highly complex work to make the best use of resources and help a much greater number of forcibly displaced students and staff to rebuild their lives.

Sabrina Fernandez, Associate Director of Operations (Global Education and Sanctuary)

In this story

Leonie  Ansems de Vries

Reader in International Politics

Nicole Mennell

Sanctuary Programme Manager (Maternity Leave)

Janahan Sivanathan

Sanctuary Project Officer

Sabrina Fernandez

Associate Director of Operations (Global Education and Sanctuary)