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A city of sanctuary: the relational re-imagining of Sheffield’s asylum politics



In June 2007, the city of Sheffield officially declared itself to be the UK’s first ‘City of Sanctuary’, a gesture that sought to instil a spirit of ‘welcome and hospitality towards asylum seekers and refugees’. Drawing on a series of interviews and ethnographic work, this paper critically examines this gesture by considering how City of Sanctuary sought to enact a relational account of place through which the responsibilities of Sheffield towards both proximate and distant strangers were highlighted. The paper argues that while the City of Sanctuary movement integrates both relational and territorial political practices, it also actively pursues a relational imaginary through presenting the city as a space of political connections and responsibilities. This is achieved through a twin focus upon the role asylum seekers and refugees play in constituting the city and the role that Sheffield might come to play in national discussions of asylum. Following this discussion, the paper looks to the implications of City of Sanctuary’s work for a relational account of spatial politics, arguing that a dual orientation of spatial responsibilities ‘within’ and ‘beyond’ place may be more easily articulated in reference to some networks and flows than others. The experiences of City of Sanctuary therefore suggest that relational accounts must present a space of negotiation between territorial practices, political networks, spatial responsibilities and geographical imaginations. The development of City of Sanctuary into a national network of towns and cities promoting hospitality indicates the importance of such negotiations for developing a culture of refuge across British cities.