Mother and child

The refugee funding gap

By Russell Hargrave 29 June 2016

Years ago, when I worked at an asylum charity, we hatched an ambitious plan.

The plan went like this. We would create a single document identifying the problems an asylum seeker might encounter in the UK, and recommend how government policy should be improved to address each and every one.

It would be a practical guide for lawyers and government officials, and an inspiration to campaigners—nothing less than a chance to redraw the asylum system from top to bottom.

Predictably, it never happened. Not because it wasn’t a good idea, but because the scale of the project was just so massive.

As NPC explains in our new paper mapping the refugee and asylum charity sector for potential philanthropists—asylum seekers face hefty bumps in the road at almost every turn. Charities help fill the gap in the shortage of expert legal advice, for example, and in translating documents essential to their future. They try to reduce the risk of asylum seekers being banged-up in immigration centres, and work to house destitute families. They battle to rescue refugee children from the clutches of people traffickers.

Solutions for sanctuary goes into detail about some of the charities trying to fulfil these responsibilities and much more besides. It’s a forbidding-looking task, taken on by a tiny chunk of the UK’s voluntary sector (around 900 dedicated organisations, the overwhelming majority of which are small community groups) with limited resources (£97m all told, set against a voluntary sector income which tops £40bn).

It’s also taking place against a volatile backdrop.

For one thing, the political and media environment is tough for asylum seekers, refugees, and the people who work to support them (but not quite as tough as some claim, as I’ve written before).

Secondly, last week’s Brexit vote means a double-dose of uncertainty: on future funding and political access (which will affect the whole sector), and on how border control and the rhetoric around it might change in the aftermath of the referendum. A number of charities have already grouped together to call for calm voices.

And finally, the numbers involved are extremely unstable. Any attempt to plot asylum applications produces something resembling an intimidating mountain range. From a low base in the late 1990s, numbers spiked suddenly and sharply up to 2002, topping off at more than 100,000 asylum requests that year. Then numbers fell precipitously, to below 20,000 by 2005. This is where they stayed until 2010—when they started rising once again, with over 41,000 applications between March 2015 and March 2016 (up 30% in a year).

We hope our landscaping overview of the sector will help potential donors navigate this terrain with more confidence: confidence that they can get funding where it is really needed, and that this money can have a significant impact. Images on our TV screens of families and children fleeing across borders are here to stay. There is plenty of compassion for their plight. The next question is how to fund work which helps them, and how to do so most effectively.