London the world's asylum, the refuge of the persecuted in all lands whether for race or polities or religion, a city of Celts, Danes, and Saxons – of Jews, Germans, French and Flemings as well as of English – an aggregate of men of all European countries and probably one of the most composite populations to be found in the world."

Samuel Smiles, 1867 
The Huguenots: Their Settlements, Churches and Industries in England and Ireland


Moving People Changing Places

City of Sanctuary

City of Sanctuary is a movement to build a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.  The movement’s goal is to create a network of safe towns and cities where people seeking asylum can be fully involved in the lives of their communities.

A City of Sanctuary is a place of safety and welcome for people whose lives are in danger in their own countries.  It is a place where those seeking sanctuary build positive relationships, their cultures and skills are valued, and local people come to understand the injustices refugees face, and become motivated to support and defend them.

In 2007, with the support of the City Council and over 70 local community organisations, Sheffield became the UK’s first official ‘City of Sanctuary’.

Schools can also be involved.  A ‘School of Sanctuary’ is a school that is proud to be a place of safety and inclusion for all.

City of Sanctuary

Seeking asylum


In Norman Britain, all churches could offer sanctuary to those who might be put to death because of their crimes, with churches in some cities being granted royal charters which allowed them to offer temporary protection to debtors and other criminals.  Important throughout the Middle Ages, the practice declined, with the last place of sanctuary being abolished by an Act of Parliament at the end of the 17th century.

The idea of sanctuary re-emerged in the 20th century, with churches in North and South America and Europe offering a refuge to those escaping political persecution. The best known case in the UK was that of Viraj Mendis, a Sri Lankan Tamil who sought sanctuary in a Manchester church in December 1986 and remained there until his removal by the police and deportation in 1989.

Sanctuary was generally offered to individuals.  But persecution, ethnic cleansing and civil war have forced large numbers of people into exile. The first major entry of refugees into England occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Protestant Huguenots escaped persecution in Catholic France where they were denied the right to practice their religion.  About 20,000 Huguenots settled, particularly outside the city of London in Spitalfields, where they worked as silk weavers, jewellers and clockmakers, contributing significantly to the city’s economy.

Asylum seekers and refugees

Everyone has the right to asylum, and annually hundreds of thousands of people seek safety by fleeing from conflict areas, political persecution or human rights abuses. Only a small minority seek asylum in the UK and an even smaller number are accepted as refugees.  Less than 2% of the world’s refugees are in the UK, with the majority living in developing countries, many in refugee camps.

A refugee, according to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is someone who “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. In the UK, however, a person only has official refugee status once their claim for asylum has been granted by the government.  Until that time they are seeking asylum, and – if their claim is turned down – they become a refused asylum seeker who must return to their place of origin.  Some return voluntarily, some are forcibly sent back, and others remain illegally. With no rights or access to services, they must depend on help from friends and support networks.

Top Ten Refugee Hosting Countries 2010

About 84,000 people claimed asylum in the UK in 2002, but the annual figure has dropped substantially, with 24,250 applications made in 2009. The majority of asylum seekers in recent years have originated from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, all major conflict zones.