Posted by: Mike Grenville | 7 January 2009

Refugees in Transition

At the Transition Cities conference in Nottingham recently, some participants were doubtful about the relevance of refugees to the Transition movement. Craig Barnett, Transition Sheffield, believes that the participation of refugees is crucial to shaping the kind of communities that we and our children will live in over coming years.

This is because however successful we are in ‘transitioning’ the UK, climate change and resource conflicts in the rest of the world will almost certainly lead to a huge increase in the number of people claiming sanctuary in Britain. How we respond to a major refugee crisis will profoundly affect the nature of our society.

Whatever we do now about reducing carbon emissions, we are already ‘locked in’ to at least two decades of climate change resulting from emissions since the 1980s. The UK is relatively well placed to adapt to these changes, but many poor countries will be severely affected, especially by drought and loss of agricultural land. This process has already contributed to the violence in Darfur, which has created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Large rises in basic food and fuel prices during 2008 led to rioting in countries from Haiti to Indonesia. In South Africa, they contributed to widespread violence against immigrants. Many states will be vulnerable to collapse or civil war as a result of sustained food and fuel scarcity, leading to large-scale refugee crises.

Certainly, as at present, most refugees won’t get much further than a neighbouring country in their own region. As air travel becomes more expensive, it will also be harder for refugees from Africa or Asia to reach Europe. But refugees already risk their lives in tiny boats crossing from North Africa to Spain, Italy and the Canary Islands. Many are drowned and wash up on the holiday beaches of Mediterranean resorts. There may even be large-scale forced migration within the EU, as parts of Spain and Greece become uninhabitable. A world with millions of refugees will not stop at the English Channel.

We have already had a preview of some of the social consequences of a large increase in refugee numbers. The number of people applying for sanctuary in the UK increased fourfold between the mid 90s and its peak in 2002. The political reaction included a sustained campaign of press scapegoating which labeled ‘asylum-seekers’ as criminals, terrorists and scroungers. This drove a series of new legal measures to deter people from claiming sanctuary in Britain, including increased use of indefinite detention (including of children), and enforced destitution. In many inner-city areas of northern towns and cities there was widespread harassment and violence against refugees. Over the same period the British National Party has increased its share of the vote and gained seats on several City Councils, partly on an anti-refugee platform.

What would the current political and social response to a tenfold increase in the number of refugees coming to the UK look like? I don’t want to paint bleak pictures of the future, so will leave that to the reader’s imagination. Instead I would like to envision a Transition City with an explicit commitment to offering sanctuary to refugees. In 2007, Sheffield became the UK’s first ‘City of Sanctuary’, with a city-wide grassroots and Council commitment to welcome and include people in need of sanctuary, so I will take Sheffield as an example:

In 2030 Sheffield has a network of successful community-scale Transition Initiatives. There is a local power grid run by Sheffield Community Renewables, which generates electricity from the city’s weirs, supplemented by large wind farms on the surrounding hills. The city produces 50% of its own food in urban gardens and allotments, with the remainder imported from surrounding towns and villages in the Sheffield and Derbyshire Economic Area.

An emergency building programme of low-impact housing has provided accommodation for the city’s 10,000 climate refugees in several small developments, integrated into existing Transition communities. Local mosques and churches have taken a lead in initial welcoming and induction programmes, including English classes run by local volunteers.

New arrivals are quickly assigned work in priority areas of agriculture and food production, where there is a shortage of experienced labour. Refugees take a skills audit on arrival, and their expertise in essential practical skills such as building, mechanical repairs, carpentry and textiles has given a boost to the city’s Great Re-skilling Initiative. Refugee doctors and other specialists have their own fast-track orientation procedure to get them into relevant work as quickly as possible.

Refugee artists have helped to refashion Sheffield’s thriving nightlife, offering story-telling, music and dance events throughout the city. As interest in acoustic music has grown, a new generation of Sheffield youth are studying with refugee musicians and building their own traditional African, Asian and European instruments. Refugee communities also contribute to the city’s strategy and visioning forums, where they have played a large role in stimulating new approaches to childcare, community-based restorative justice, and the role of elders in society.

This is just a first attempt at generating some ideas of how the presence of refugees can contribute to our vision for the Transition movement. I would like to encourage a conversation about these issues, so that we can avoid a backlash against refugees that fosters xenophobia, and start to prepare for Transition communities that are also places of sanctuary and hospitality.

There is a discussion thread on this topic on the Transition Towns forum here:

For information about the City of Sanctuary movement, which has groups in 11 cities throughout the UK, and is working with Transition Initiatives in Sheffield and elsewhere, see:

By Craig Barnett, Transition Sheffield


  1. […] By: Mike Grenville […]

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