Refugees welcome. Genuine concerns not

By Leon Bailey-Green

At our breakfast event in December we’ll be looking at whether charities do enough to speak to potential advocates outside of their usual support bases.

The Refugee Council is a campaigning organisation which I feel not only speaks exclusively to its own core base, but alienates potential supporters.

The charity makes use of various statistics to demonstrate the public’s support of refugees, but lets itself down by refusing to satisfactorily alleviate concerns, and taking a left-wing view within it’s content.

Supporting refugees, and wanting Britain to do it’s part in the global crisis is not the preserve of left leaning individuals. To gain widespread support the charity needs to bring on board a diverse set of supporters.

The differences in attitude stem from how we assist refugees, not whether or not we should. The Refugee Council seems intent on that being welcoming refugees into the UK, our communities and our homes.

I, and many others who are on the same end of the political spectrum as myself, would prefer to encourage refugees to settle in a safe place near their countries of origin, and for us to help them with aid in those regions. We are not morally inferior for thinking this way.

Why does the charity push one method of assistance over the other? Are the people behind the campaign failing to separate their personal ideology from what’s best for the charity’s wider aim; helping refugees?

I mentioned the charity’s content taking a left-wing stance. On Twitter, the charity called out the BBC for using the term ‘illegal immigrant’, saying no one is illegal. This is preposterous to me. If you enter a country illegally, it makes you an illegal immigrant. It’s this type of talk which will hamper the charity’s ability to be seen as credible by many.

Whilst it may speak well to a certain audience, it won’t grow the campaign’s wider influence. And it’s that wider influence that will cause change.

The organisation must also take on board concerns about refugees without belittling those who harbour them. Security is a huge worry. The website seeks to counter arguments, however using comments and reports from 2001, 2006 and 2007 won’t cut it. The global refugee crisis has changed dramatically since then.

To gain wider support they must also be careful not to do what many other charities, campaigners and politicians are doing; blaming the referendum vote for intolerance. Although the Refugee Council claims the divisiveness is coming from a small but vocal minority, it still smacks of accusations of hate towards those of us who voted leave. I can read between the lines.

Let’s hope the Refugee Council take on board my comments, to get more like me supporting their work.

As long as the organisation focuses on driving unlimited numbers of refugees to our shores, I can’t support it. But if they put more focus on helping people in regions closer to their own countries, I’ll back their recommendations on what support the government should be providing.

That’s just one example of a campaign which appears to preach to the converted. Drew and I will be discussing others at our event in December; register here.

A response from Drew Lindon

I dispute that the Refugee Council is belittling anyone in their communications. Having gone through their website and a range of their public comments, I see no examples that they are belittling those who hold different views. Disagreeing? Yes. Belittling? No.

You claim the Refugee Council don’t use up-to-date material on their website. On the contrary, their website outlines a whole host of relevant facts with a range of sources going right up to the present day (see here). You may dispute the facts or the sources, but you can’t claim the Council haven’t done their homework or kept these up to date.

Finally, where have you got the impression that the Council wants to let unlimited refugees in? I see plenty of evidence and public statements that the Refugee Council would like the UK to take in more refugees, but unlimited? Not so.

All this is not just to trash your argument (I love our chats!), but I’m clearly not seeing the same information as you, or at least, in the same way.

Let’s look at a parallel example. You and I have often debated the various approaches taken on immigration by UK political parties. You’ve told me when you felt I misrepresented UKIP’s positions on immigration, which felt plain to you from having read all their material. Meanwhile, I had probably got most of my information from secondary sources. Here, it feels the reverse is true. Your comment about ‘reading between the lines’ suggests to me that you’re inferring a lot into the Refugee Council’s work and intentions, but I don’t see evidence of what you’re identifying. That includes ascribing left-wing views to the Refugee Council, which feels both oversimplistic and unfair to the other side too – I’m sure many people on the right (who may even work for the Council) are concerned ‘for’ refugees, rather than just ‘about’ them.

If this is your impression of the Refugee Council, its work and views, then I’m sure there’ll be others who share it. You offer some useful points of how they could address this, and I broadly agree. The organisation’s focus is on support for refugees in the UK, but I’d agree that doesn’t need to exclude discussion of other solutions closer to refugees’ country of origin. They have raised this in various briefings (e.g. see here) and made it clear that “resettlement can only ever be part of the solution”. Perhaps they could draw this out more in public statements to engage people with similar views to you.

Also, the method of assistance the Refugee Council ‘pushes’ in your words may be partly due to the charity’s explicit focus. But in that case, it might help if they were to explain more why resettlement in the UK may be the better approach for many refugees compared with other options. What do you think?

Just one last thing. The reason the Refugee Council is objecting to the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ is because the term is dehumanising. I get that doesn’t cut the ice with you, but challenging with dehumanising language is valid in a world where immigrants and refugees have been described as ‘cockroaches’. The more people who emigrate to other countries (or indeed any group in society) are perceived as ‘non-people’, the easier it is for society to ignore or degrade them. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s something we should fight against.

Leon’s final word

When the charity talks of ‘myths’ and ‘scare stories’ being ‘peddled’ it isn’t exactly language that is inviting. People have genuine concerns about how mass migration might affect their communities.

I’m glad you managed to find up to date resources on the website. Where I chose to click on ‘the facts about asylum’, with the outdated facts, you looked under the policy briefings section. Now, I’m no policy wonk or insider, so why would I want to trawl trough years of briefings? Good luck getting the general public to rummage through searching for information!

It’s a reality of modern day campaigning. Charities have to start thinking like brands if they want to get their messaging out. People are busy, we digest information differently than of previous times, and there is competition for attention.

What’s the difference between taking in more refugees, and taking in an unlimited amount? None. Drew, do you honestly believe the charity is going to shut up shop once we’ve taken in X number of refugees? You’re going to have a hard time convincing me there’s a limit.

You say I’m inferring into their work and intentions, yes I am. As you would say, I’m judging! In your own piece, you wrote ‘people on the right (who may even work for the Council)’ – suggesting even you think the same.

I’m saying all of this because the overall impression I have of the organisation creates a barrier between myself and them; which is unfortunate because there are going to be areas of agreement. On the other hand, perhaps, to them, support of any kind from someone like me doesn’t matter.

We’ll have to agree to disagree on the ‘illegal immigrant’ term – it is an accurate phrase to describe anybody who enters our country illegally. You say it’s dehumanising but I think this is one of those things where people are offended on behalf of others. Refugees are escaping war torn countries, they’ve seen more than we’ll – hopefully – ever see in our lifetimes; I doubt they’re going to be upset about being referred to as illegal immigrants.

The reason I pointed out that tweet is because it appears to be demonstrative of personal opinions getting in the way of the wider campaign. Why fight the battle on what words to use, when they could put more resources behind helping refugees?

Drew’s final word

Fair enough – happy to shelve the term illegal immigrant. My point was less about how those individuals feel about the term than what it implies about our society’s understanding of, and sympathy for, them. I’d only add that ‘refugee’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ are not interchangeable. You may be termed a refugee, illegal immigrant, or both, but these ideas (and the legal framework around them) are not the same. I agree that arguing over terms is less important that actually understanding and dealing with the challenges refugees both face themselves, and pose to countries and services.

I think you’re right that thinking of new ways to display and share relevant information for all audiences is something many charities (Refugee Council and others) need to be constantly innovating. Your point that others might not trawl through the website to get to the more wonkish material (I love that, but that’s geeky me) is valid. But as that material is there, we can settle the point that the Refugee Council keeps its information up to date, even if is not as accessible as you’d like.

It’s great that you feel you might share areas of agreement with the Council, and I’d genuinely love to hear what those areas would be! We’re not going to agree about the beliefs and intentions of the Refugee Council – though anyone from the Council would be most welcome to join us at our upcoming events to give their take!

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