A Station of Sanctuary?

What is the first thing that a refugee arriving in a large town or city sees? Typically, it will be the railway station. First impressions are crucial, and how you feel, how you are treated, will colour lasting feelings about a place. So a station that is welcoming in all sorts of ways, with helpful staff, useful signage and possibly other facilities is vital.

Can we create a ‘station of sanctuary’ here in Bolton? The station’s community development partnership is working with Bolton City of Sanctuary and we share reciprocal membership. An ‘easy win’ is the organising of guided walks using local train services. It’s a great opportunity for refugees and asylum seekers to meet a range of people from the town and build up friendships.

City of Sanctuary is a movement committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. The UK network of local groups includes boroughs, towns and cities across the UK and Ireland, all committed to building this culture of welcome across every sphere of society. Increasingly, the concept is being applied to specific facilities such as health. This paper suggests that in towns and cities where there is an existing ‘city/town of sanctuary’ there could be a ‘station of sanctuary’ which provides a welcome to refugees arriving in the town or city.

The Government’s  ‘Vision for Rail ‘ (2017) points towards a greater emphasis on meeting the needs of all passengers. It stresses that “staff must show empathy and compassion and provide assistance to those who need it” (Connecting people- a Strategic Vision for Rail – s. 3.24 Department for Transport November 2017).  The Northern rail franchise has a strong commitment to maximising wider social and economic benefits and bringing redundant buildings back into use, including by community organisations. Arriva UK Trains Community Strategy specifically refers to refugees as part of a wider ‘vulnerable’ constituency of which Arriva companies can and should support  (“In our community engagement, it makes sense to prioritise particular sections of the community which are particularly disadvantaged. These will includevulnerable people: this can be a highly diverse group ranging from teenagers to the very elderly and also includes the growing number of refugees from wars in the Middle East. It is a growing area of public policy which – like many of these issues – crosses government departments.”)

The railway (or bus) station is very often the first experience a refugee will have of arriving into a town or city. The welcome that he or she receives then may well determine their feelings about the host community. So how can we make stations both welcoming to refugees and also offer some facilities to them?

A ‘station of sanctuary could have some or all of the following features;

  • Positive images of refugees and the host community – a clear and positive welcome
  • Some signage in a range of languages (with obvious wider benefits to other passengers)
  • Customer-facing staff given training to help refugees and others for whom English is not their first language

The station, depending on facilities available, could offer space for refugees in a number of ways, including:

  • Advice and information facilities for refugees and asylum seekers
  • Space for food preparation, possibly a cafe facility that could be used by rail passengers generally
  • Possible temporary living accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers requiring minimal support
  • Other facilities in unused space around the station
  • Events (e.g. guided walks, meals, social events with song and poetry)

Stations where this approach could work would generally be larger facilities in towns or cities with a sizeable refugee community, e.g. Manchester, Bolton, Liverpool, Blackburn and elsewhere. The facilities that could be made available will clearly depend on what is at the station, but Bolton, Manchester Victoria and possibly other locations have considerable vacant space which is unlikely to be let entirely commercially.

This is very much an initial floating of the concept and the input of refugee organisations, third sector groups and local authorities would be much appreciated alongside the railway industry. Could a start be made with a pilot project at Bolton station?

Paul Salveson, Bolton Station Community Development Partnership

December 2017, updated April 2019