Libraries of Sanctuary: Changing perceptions of refugees in Southampton

This case study explains how Southampton City Libraries became a Library of Sanctuary in October 2020. This case study forms part of the Culture Hub.


It explains the benefits of this scheme for sanctuary seekers and library staff and emphasizes the role of the library in providing a safe space for vulnerable ESOL learners. It also describes current and future projects linked to Libraries of Sanctuary status, aimed at improving the lives of those seeking refuge in the UK.

The challenge

Southampton City Libraries were awarded Library of Sanctuary status in October 2020. They first heard about the scheme when a library manager attended a City of Sanctuary event in Southampton around three years ago (Southampton became a City of Sanctuary in 2017). Libraries of Sanctuary is one part of the City of Sanctuary UK movement, which aims to build a culture of welcome and place of safety for people seeking sanctuary from conflict, persecution and environmental issues. Becoming a Library of Sanctuary means that a Library Service is officially recognized as a safe, neutral space that welcomes sanctuary-seekers via staff trained in understanding the issues and prejudices they face.

At this time Southampton were already working in partnership with refugee support organisations including CLEAR (City Life Education and Action for Refugees), who provide advice, English classes and help to integrate sanctuary seekers into the community. 

The aim of the project was to provide a safe learning environment for sanctuary seekers in the city of Southampton and alter popular misconceptions about these communities.

The solution

The library service decided to aim for Libraries of Sanctuary status, enabling the Library Service to launch and run initiatives that materially improve the lives of refugees.

To achieve Library of Sanctuary status, the service had to look at three key areas: Learn, Embed and Share. Part of the learning process involved awareness training for library staff and volunteers to dispel popular myths and misinformation around sanctuary seeking. The sessions were delivered by the project manager at CLEAR and around 50 staff and volunteers attended.

Groups of learners, some asylum seekers and some with settled status, were introduced to the library, received a library card and explored books in their own language and to help them develop English language skills. The service bought appropriate books to support learning.

With the help of the tutor at CLEAR groups were introduced to Reading Ahead, where participants are encouraged to read six books and record their thoughts in a personal reading diary.  Reading and visits to the library have become embedded in English lesson plans at CLEAR.

Refugee Week is a focus for these activities and the service created a special ‘Welcome’ category so that anyone who came with CLEAR to join the library did not need to show the traditional name and address ID and do not pay any fines or charges.

The impact

Southampton City Libraries staff now have a better understanding of how popular narratives around refugees are often founded on myth and misinformation. Refugees have a safe place to go where they can access free learning materials.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Southampton City is involved in the creation of a new Language Café which will provide refugees with opportunities for language development as well as free access to culture within the city, to be launched during Libraries Week in October 2021. In partnership with Southampton and Winchester Visitors group (a befriending organisation) and with the help of a National Lottery grant, the café will provide opportunities for language development for sanctuary seekers through access to cultural experiences such as visits to art galleries, museums and a trail around the library. 

The service has also made a commitment to embed service development into library plans and policies in consultation with the sanctuary seeking community. They are happy to share their experience with other library authorities.

Lessons learned

Libraries have a huge role to play in resettlement. Southampton is demonstrating how initiatives like Libraries of Sanctuary can both provide tangible benefits to those in need and change attitudes towards them.

Libraries of Sanctuary have major roles to play in community cohesion as UK cities welcome increasing numbers of people fleeing situations like those seen over the summer in Afghanistan.

Contact: Edward.cutler@librariesconnected.org.uk