We must support refugee charities in the face of a hostile environment

The Nationalities and Borders Bill has exacerbated already challenging conditions for small organisations.

Paul Streets

This article first appeared in Third Sector. 

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation we review all the reports from the charities we fund on a quarterly basis, to see what we can learn about the pressures they face and how we can help. It’s a valuable learning tool that provides ‘live’ insights into how they feel.

But it’s also very grounding. The most recent session I attended was preceded by a very sobering virtual roundtable with eight London-based refugee charities.

Almost all the charities we support have reported increasing demand for their services, with a greater need for complex interventions. Much of the increased complexity is due to the impact of Covid-19 and the pressures on public services.

Many are seeing an increasing need for psychological support, which not all small charities are easily able to respond to. And for some months now we’ve heard of the problems small charities face around recruiting and retaining staff in a tight labour market.

These challenges are intensified by precarious funding arrangements that mean staff face repeated redundancy threats as funding and contracts end with no certainty of continuity. This has been compounded by the sustained pressures felt by staff; many charities that we fund report high levels of stress.

While these findings are common, they are all amplified for those who work with refugees and asylum seekers, whose clients face an actively hostile environment exacerbated by the Nationalities and Borders Bill.

The bill itself creates a two-tier system. One tier exists for people who are forced to arrive through “irregular” routes, and the other for those who can wait in countries where they are at risk of persecution, for bureaucratic systems to grant one of a very limited number of places on an official resettlement scheme.

For many who are forced to flee, departure is chaotic and riddled with high degrees of risk that mean it is often not possible to secure the right paperwork in time. The eight refugee charities we met described the immense pressure they face. One North London-based charity saw a 50 per cent increase in demand in 2021 – part of which was driven locally by the arrival of 1,800 Afghan refugees living in hotels.

The arrival of refugees from Afghanistan has shown a government that differentiates between migrants based not just on where they came from or what they have faced, but on how they arrived.

One charity spoke about the impact of supporting a traumatised Afghan family who missed the evacuation flights, so travelled across Europe and arrived by boat – but en route were separated from two of their teenage children by people smugglers and had not yet found them. Unimaginable.

All of the charities described the impact of the hostile environment on morale: “It’s been a very hard year feeling attacked by the government for years on end.”

And yet there was some cause for optimism in the public response. The well-documented response to the criticisms of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is perhaps the best example. But charities also found optimism in the response of local people offering support for their work, and the shift of schools, or even entire cities, becoming places of sanctuary and openly welcoming refugees and asylum seekers.

There does seem to be a sense that the government may be out of step with the public mood on this issue.

The past two years haven’t been easy for any of the charities we support, but at least for some issues there has been more attention on and appreciation of the work of small charities – notably around homelessness, domestic abuse, mental health and young people.

But I left my meeting with those refugee charities humbled by their continued fight for some very difficult issues in a very challenging political environment. We should be supporting the many refugee charities campaigning against the Nationality and Borders Bill, such as Asylum Matters, along with many local councils.

As one councillor notes: “The government may have lost its moral compass on this issue; Newcastle emphatically has not.”

I don’t underestimate the challenge and know we will not see a complete volte-face from the government. But perhaps, with the right support, those in power may be reminded that the public have not lost their moral compass – and move to ameliorate some of the worst elements of the proposals in the bill.

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