Making Oxford a welcoming community for refugees

Alexander Betts

Oxford has recently applied to be recognised as a University of Sanctuary. Alexander Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, and Associate Head (Graduate and Research Training) of the Social Sciences Division, discusses how the University is striving to create a community of welcome for refugees and invites staff to attend the Sanctuary Fair on 11 May. 




Around the world, more than 100 million people are displaced by violence and persecution, and more than a quarter of them have crossed an international border to become refugees. Fleeing war and authoritarianism in countries such as Afghanistan, South Sudan and Ukraine, they have an internationally recognised right to seek sanctuary. Welcoming refugees is a human rights obligation, but it also brings enormous benefits to receiving countries.   

At our Refugee Studies Centre, a lot of our research shows that refugees bring skills, talents and aspirations to the communities that host them.  

Building on Oxford's history

As a university, we have a long history of welcoming refugees, dating back to welcoming refugee academics during the Second World War and up to the most recent support provided to students and academics affected by the war in Ukraine. The Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-45 documents some of the extraordinary contributions refugees have made to our community. 

Welcoming students from displacement backgrounds enriches our community. On the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, on which I teach, 10 of our 29 students in this year’s cohort have lived experience of displacement. The perspectives they have brought – from all around the world – have greatly strengthened the teaching and learning experience for everyone, including faculty.    

Establishing a community of sanctuary

Oxford is striving to create a community of welcome for sanctuary seekers, whether they be students, staff or members of our local community.  

Mansfield and Somerville colleges were both awarded College of Sanctuary status in 2021, having established sanctuary scholarships offering fully funded places for postgraduate study. Since then, the University and colleges have increased the number of full scholarships available to graduate students from displacement backgrounds. This academic year, the entire collegiate University responded rapidly to the crisis in Ukraine, by creating the Ukraine Graduate Scholars Programme.   

Alongside this, we have piloted the Refugee Academic Futures scholarship programmes, which combined the University’s Refugee Scholarships with a cohort support programme and support network for all students across Oxford who identify as having a displacement background. In 2022–3, at least 36 students with displacement backgrounds were awarded full scholarships to graduate degrees in Oxford.  

Looking ahead to 2023–4

Welcoming these students isn’t only the right thing to do, it also ensures we are recruiting students with potential from the broadest and most diverse pool of talent. 

We anticipate a similar number in 2023–4, thanks to the support of new scholarship funding, notably through Mastercard Foundation AfOx Scholarships and XTX Markets’ support for the Ukraine programme and the Hope scholarships, created in collaboration with the Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust. Next year, our pan-University cohort programme will relaunch as ‘Oxford Sanctuary Community’, and we hope to encourage even greater internal and external funding for graduate and undergraduate scholarships for sanctuary scholars from every part of the world.    

University of Sanctuary status

Oxford has applied to be recognised as a University of Sanctuary, a status currently held by 24 universities across the country. This requires us to meet a series of minimum criteria and endorse the City of Sanctuary Charter. We hope the outcome decision on the University's sanctuary status will be confirmed soon. The process of applying has mobilised colleagues from across the University, colleges and city.   

Oxford's Sanctuary Fair

How can you get involved? On 11 May, we are organising a Sanctuary Fair at the Town Hall, in collaboration with the local NGO, Asylum Welcome. It will bring together refugees, students and the local community, and involves a diverse array of panel discussions, workshops and stalls. It aims to raise awareness and connect civil society organisations working within Oxford with students, staff and community. The event will run from 10.30am to 6.30pm and all are welcome – do come along! 


Find out more on Oxford’s Community of Sanctuary webpage