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To welcome refugees, we must welcome change

By Stephen Hale 23 November 2015 3 minute read

The refugee sector is a clear example of an area where beneficiary need cannot be met by service delivery alone. Could thinking about the systems that affect the ‘refugee journey’ allow refugee charities to help more people?

For over thirty years, staff at Refugee Action have delivered support across the UK to asylum seekers and refugees. We are immensely proud of all we have achieved. We have supported over 70,000 people since 2001, and resettled over 3,000 refugees in the last ten years.

But the model that served us so well for so long cannot be sustained. Since our creation we have benefited from a series of large grants from central government. They enabled us to provide advice and services in many cities across the UK. That era lasted longer for us—and some others in the refugee sector—than in many other parts of the voluntary sector, but it’s over now.

This is obviously a powerful spur for some fresh thinking. To achieve our mission we need to cast anxieties about change aside and develop new strategies that can succeed in the current context. We’re in the midst of this, and it’s a work in progress. But currently three things stand out:

We need to be as involved as possible with the policies that dictate this system.  There’s perhaps no other sector where it is as clear that we cannot meet the needs of our clients through service delivery alone. The lives of refugees are hugely affected by government policies at every stage. The lack of safe and legal routes forces many to make dangerous journeys. On arrival, they face an often hostile and painfully slow decision-making process. Their ability to rebuild their lives in the longer-term is also highly influenced by (the lack of) government policies on refugee employment and integration.

Ministerial decisions on all of these issue are of course shaped by public opinion, as well as the portrayal of asylum seekers and refugees in the media. So it’s incredibly important for us to go upstream—do more to influence the public discourse and the policies that determine whether refugees are able reach the UK and rebuild their lives here. The Prime Minister’s recent commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in response to a public outcry was evidence of how quickly policies change when the public mood shifts. Meanwhile, the tragic events in Paris last week have shown how volatile this public mood really is. We have to speak out fast and engage people during these tipping points.

We need to find smarter ways to meet the needs of our clients. While the policy landscape remains in flux, our commitment to service delivery burns as brightly as ever. We must develop, test and share new ways to meet the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. We can then assess our impact not just by the number of people we serve, but by how widely our innovations are adopted. The staff and volunteers of hundreds of local refugee charities in Britain do incredible work every day. Where we can support them with our expertise and experience, we must do so.

We must work together. We will only achieve our advocacy and service delivery goals through partnership—not just within the ‘refugee sector’, but with campaign groups and service delivery organisations in many other parts of the voluntary sector. This is not a new revelation. At Refugee Action, we support homeless refugees in partnership with homeless charities. We link up in our advocacy with development groups. But we need to go much further, including collaboration with grassroots groups that are playing such a vital role—like Solidarity with Refugees, and those mobilising support to refugees in Calais. The voluntary sector often sees issues as owned by a particular set of organisations. Our clients and supporters expect us to move outside these silos. We will only succeed through new collaborations and partnerships.

While the situation is ever-changing, our mission is the same, our values remain unchanged. We believe in empowering asylum seekers and refugees to shape their own destiny. Our experience—of enabling people to navigate the asylum system, rebuild their lives, and integrate with their new communities—equips us well for the future. But to succeed in the face of growing pressures, we need a broader, more cohesive approach.