Refugee Integration in the UK: A Case Study


I am one of the lucky ones.”

It is a sentiment that we might expect to hear from those across the philanthropic sector lucky enough to be able to give; but this case was different. On October 16, this year’s Cohort of 15 new TPW members visited the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, a small charity in South-East London. On arrival, we spoke with Ali, a lawyer from Raqqa, North-East Syria, who was forced to flee his home after so-called Islamic State took over the city.

I am one of the lucky ones…” he told us,” …because I am alive. Just this fact alone means that I am one of the lucky ones.”

After learning English and completing his master’s degree in the UK, Ali was now volunteering at the very same community centre that had helped him settle in the country. He used his contacts to bring other refugees to the centre, where they could make friends and build important social networks, as well as receive essential services such as legal advice, language classes, psycho-social support and healthcare services. With around 70% of the visitors to the centre experiencing mental health issues, it was clear that the centre played a vital role in supporting the visitors’ social, physical and emotional wellbeing.

However, when asked what they would change if they had a magic wand, the Southwark team pointed to a number of issues. “Funding is a challenge,” Pauline, the centre manager told us. “We have a tiny budget to run three centres, most of which goes on rent and volunteer expenses. We had to close one of our centres recently because redevelopment priced us out of the area.”

Cuts to local councils as part of the UK government’s austerity policies have also reduced the resources available to the centre. Ali saw the issue from a different perspective. “I would make the British Government less hostile to refugees, like they were in 2011 before the Syria crisis,” he told us. Ali and Pauline’s comments touched upon some of the root causes that make it more difficult to integrate refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Throughout the day, we heard
from various speakers who discussed those root causes, navigating us through the complex ecosystem of government, community and business actors with a stake in refugee integration.

Stephen Hale, CEO of Refugee Action, had launched a campaign that same day uniting 65 NGOs, businesses, trade unions and community groups to pressure the UK Government into giving asylum seekers the right to work. He argued that advocacy was essential, stating that “while all interventions can have positive consequences, if you really want to get at the root cause of the problem, you have to deal with the government. That’s not easy – but building a coalition of different actors is useful, because it wins credibility.”

Alan Travis, Home Affairs editor at the Guardian newspaper, provided more context by summarising the extreme hostility of the British tabloid press to refugees, pointing to a study showing that between the 2010 General Election and the 2016 Brexit referendum, one-third of the front page stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Express (widely read British tabloid press) portrayed immigrants or asylum seekers in a negative light. “There was no differentiation between refugee, illegal immigrant, and foreign scrounger,” he explained. “All sent the same message – refugees are not welcome here.

Will Somerville, UK Director of Unbound Philanthropy, added that the UK government’s hostile environment policy aimed at asylum seekers and immigrants was driven by a “political calculation,” in part influenced by “public scepticism about refugees and immigrants, and the predominance of anti-immigrant commentary in the media.” He pointed out that while only around 25% of people in society are hostile to immigration, around half belong to the “anxious middle.” This group sympathise with the plight of refugees and recognise the contributions of immigrants, but are also concerned about pressures on services, worried about the impact on jobs and anxious about the pace of cultural change. New partnerships and strategic communications are needed to win over this anxious middle and tip the scale of public opinion in favour of welcoming refugees and immigrants.

Representatives of business and academia also spoke to the 2019 TPW Cohort about some of the other approaches to supporting refugee integration. Linda Morrice, Senior Education Lecturer at Sussex University, outlined the importance of language, explaining that studies had shown that language was a pre-requisite, not an outcome, of successful integration.

Chris Gale, Head of Social Mission at Ben & Jerry’s, spoke about the role that corporations can play by campaigning on difficult issues like refugee integration, and using their reach to positively influence public opinion and to recruit new activists to the cause.

Matthew Powell, CEO of social enterprise Breaking Barriers, argued for the need to make the business case for employing refugees. For example, Breaking Barriers had produced research showing that refugees have higher than average retention rates when they are recruited. By presenting this evidence to businesses, it could be shown that refugees provide a significant return on the investment in their recruitment and training, and more businesses would be encouraged to recruit refugees.

By the end of the day, we had learnt about the challenges faced by refugees upon arrival to the UK, the root causes of those challenges, and the various levers that could be used to have a positive impact. We had seen first-hand the essential role of small community-based organisations working on shoe-string budgets, but also heard about the systemic issues that require strategic, long-term investment in order to have an impact.

I lost everything in Syria,” Ali had told us. “My family, my friends, my business, my house, my car – everything. The one thing I had left when I arrived in the UK was my dignity.

By respecting that dignity, listening to refugees and thinking strategically about how to intervene, philanthropists could have a key role in supporting refugee integration across the country.

TPW would like to thank Refugee Action, Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, and all the speakers for their invaluable support bringing this event together. For more information about Refugee Action’s campaign to lift the ban on asylum seekers working in the UK, click here. For information about Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, click here.

Sam Underwood
TPW Programmes Manager

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