An exploration into the University of Sanctuary movement

How to foster a sustainable culture of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers on our campus

A place of sanctuary is where someone can turn to seek refuge and safety. Within the Irish asylum system, otherwise known as Direct Provision, asylum seekers wait in the hope of being offered long-term protection and legitimacy by the State. Fleeing from violence, discrimination, persecution, or abuse, these people come to Ireland searching for a better life. While seeking asylum is a human right, whether asylum seekers can actually find refuge, sanctuary and the chance for a better life is by no means guaranteed. Is this something Irish society is actually prepared to provide? This is the real issue and what the movement Places of Sanctuary Ireland is striving to ensure.

Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI) is a network of groups in towns, cities and local communities which share the objective of promoting the integration, inclusion and welfare of refugees. Upon arriving in Ireland, asylum seekers can face years of uncertainty as their application for asylum is processed. Placed in what was initially established as temporary accommodation for up to six months, people can live suspended lives in Direct Provision Centres for sometimes up to 10 years. With restricted access to the labour market, and living off a meagre €21.60 a week, the PoSI movement aims to provide an entry point for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers into Irish life, and help transform Ireland into a place that can feel like home.

PoSI strives to reach all the important spheres of Irish society across the country, working through churches, local councils, businesses and community groups, schools and higher education institutions. All initiatives are aimed at creating a groundwork in which refugees and asylum seekers can participate fully in their community. PoSI works to empower these new members of our society and in doing so, endeavors to foster a culture of awareness and welcome across the country and agitate much needed change from the ground up.

“To be a university of sanctuary, means that as an institution and a body of students and staff you are constantly looking at how you can, in very real and practical ways offer support and show solidarity.”

University of Sanctuary is a branch of the wider PoSI movement. Dublin City University was the first University to be granted University of Sanctuary status in December 2016. University of Limerick, University College Cork, University College Dublin and NUI Galway have all since received the University of Sanctuary Award and Athlone IT is the first College to receive the College of Sanctuary Award. The University of Sanctuary initiative recognises that providing equal access to higher education for asylum seekers is an important step to their integration into Irish society. A university that has been granted Sanctuary status promotes a culture of welcoming and understanding amongst students and staff for those who are seeking sanctuary in Ireland. A University of Sanctuary has proven its commitment to welcoming asylum seekers and refugees onto their campus by implementing extensive scholarship schemes and consequently, has made a concerted effort to integrate them into their community.

Without government supports and scholarships offered by higher education institutions, an asylum seeker is liable to pay international fees. Due to this, financial barriers are the major restriction that asylum seekers face when going into higher education. The government’s education policies toward refugee and asylum seekers come under the Student Pilot Support Scheme. Speaking to Trinity News, Minister for Higher Education of State, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, explained the scheme: “The Pilot Support Scheme was introduced by my Department in 2015 for students who are in the Protection System or at the Leave to Remain (but not deportation order) stage.” The scheme offers supports similar to the SUSI grant scheme and is available to persons in the process of seeking asylum and legal status from the State.

“Places of Sanctuary Ireland works to empower these new members of our society and in doing so, fosters a culture of awareness and welcome across the country and agitates much needed change from the ground up.”

“Under the terms of the student grant scheme,” explains Minister Mitchell O’Connor,  “grant assistance is awarded to students who meet the prescribed conditions of funding including those which relate to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means.” In June of this year, the conditions were revised. Previously, in order to be eligible to receive funding from this scheme, a student would have needed to be a resident in Ireland for five years and have also spent a minimum of five years in the Irish school system. Due to these restrictive demands, the scheme only succeeded in offering one scholarship to an asylum seeker in 2017. Now a student can claim funding after spending at least three years studying in the Irish school system out of their five year residency period in Ireland.

Many universities have incorporated their own scholarship schemes, which act as the first vital step in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers onto their campus. However, according to the places of Sanctuary Ireland’s guidelines on how to become a University of Sanctuary, it takes much more than financial aid schemes to be considered for this award. Key to creating a place of sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers in a university is establishing a sustainable culture of welcome. What is the reality of a vibrant and sustainable culture of welcome on a university campus and how can it be achieved in Trinity?

The participation of University College Cork as a whole institution was intrinsic to the efforts of ensuring that core principles of welcome and inclusion would be a sustainable feature of the university when it was granted University of Sanctuary status in 2018. It was made certain that the progress of the University of Sanctuary initiative in University College Cork “was knitted into and connected to our institutional plans,” particularly the University’s Strategic Plan and its Civic Engagement Plan, imparts Dr Maire Leane. Dr Leane is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Chair of the University of Sanctuary Working Group at University College Cork.  She notes that it was also vital that the “key university figures understand and support the initiative.” Ensuring that the sanctuary work is not just “the labour of an individual working group or a student organisation,” allowed for the successful organisation of the Refugee Week, the development of Sanctuary Scholarships, and the establishment of close working relations with the Cork City Council. Cork City Council have now launched a Cork City of Sanctuary Strategic Action Plan in which they are setting out goals to make Cork City a city of welcome and sanctuary. Cork Institute of Technology are also working on becoming an institute of sanctuary.

“If a welcoming environment needs to be created for asylum seekers, it first needs to be created for existing ethnic minorities.”

Among many projects and programmes pioneered by the University of Sanctuary initiative, a scholarship scheme was implemented, along with the provision of free places on some adult education courses in University College Cork. Training programmes to help develop employment readiness and art programmes in the Glucksman Gallery were held, asylum seekers and refugees were provided access to the library, and work placements in labs or departments that are relevant to the areas of work that refugees engaged in in their home countries were facilitated. Leane conveys that all of University College Cork’s University of Sanctuary’s initiatives have worked together “to create a culture of welcome and inclusion” in the university.

This academic year, Trinity have offered scholarships to two asylum seekers. This includes free tuition, €1500 a year, a laptop, free meals and provision for transport costs. Along with NUI Galway and Belfast Metropolitan College, Trinity College has been noted by the Places of Sanctuary officials as “on the journey” to becoming a University of Sanctuary. Dr Fintan Sheerin, Head of Discipline of Intellectual Disabilities Nursing, is a teacher at Trinity, and along with Dr Gillian Wylie, Course Coordinate of International Peace Studies, has been an important figure in pioneering the efforts of creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for refugees at Trinity College. Described as a “grass-roots endeavour growing out of the collaborative engagement of members of the College community and people seeking refuge and asylum,” Dr Sheerin explains that this work has been ongoing for about three years.

The Participatory Advisory Group (PAG) was Co-Chaired by Dr Gillian Wylie and Dr Sheerin. They endeavored to create a dialogue between refugees, asylum seekers and the College community. As outlined in its Final Report, titled Learning to build new Lives, PAG’s aim is to “shape Trinity’s response to the current crisis for those seeking refuge.” The project brought together asylum seekers living in, and outside of Direct Provision, refugees, university staff and students to discuss how Trinity can become a place of sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees and “meaningfully respond during such times of refuge.” The PAG will now move its attention to addressing issues of welcome and inclusion, University of Sanctuary, and a mentorship scheme. “I think that scholarships are a good start but are not, by any means, the end of the process,” says Dr Sheerin.

“Due to these restrictive demands, the scheme only succeeded in offering one scholarship to an asylum seeker in 2017.”

“If a welcoming environment needs to be created for asylum seekers, it first needs to be created for existing ethnic minorities,” says Navika Mehta. Mehta is a Trinity graduate and part of the activist group End Direct Provision at Trinity. Reflecting on her time as Ethnic Minorities Officer last year, she imparts that “racism is an issue that affects a large population of Trinity students and needs to be addressed.” In order to establish a sustainable culture of welcome in the university, many fundamental disciplines and structures should be put in place. “There really is no process of reporting any kind of racist incident,” says Mehta. “I have received a huge amount of complaints of racism, in public and private spheres, mostly students who just want to tell someone about it,” says Mehta. “It was particularly difficult since it seems like I was the only one people could reach out to.” Mehta calls for a proper hate-crime reporting system to be put in place as well as anti-racism training and workshops for staff, class reps, society leaders and sports clubs.

“There is also a clear gap in what happens in student life and what college authorities are aware of,” according to Mehta. There were very publicised racists incidents in Trinity the past academic year and no action has been taken to address these at a college level. “The College authorities, TCDSU, CSC, all need to condemn these and say that ‘racism will not be tolerated in Trinity’,” Mehta believes.

According to Dr Leane: “To be a university of sanctuary, means that as an institution and a body of students and staff you are constantly looking at how you can, in very real and practical ways, offer support and show solidarity.” Trinity must be prepared to drive this initiative forward as an institution on the whole, continue to test our boundaries as a community and consciously and ask ourselves how we can implement a tangible culture of welcome and inclusion into the fundamental structures of university life.

Milena Barnes

Milena Barnes is a former Features Editor of Trinity News.