Power in the refugee and asylum sector remains concentrated in the hands of people without lived experience. People such as me.
This blog first appeared on pactpioneers.org.
I have 20 years of learned experience of the challenges facing refugees, but I am a white man without the full understanding of their lived experience. This power structure keeps the voices and influence of refugees mostly absent and hidden, because the asylum system strips people of those within it of power and agency and because of the over emphasis on learned experience.
It is also because of something more fundamental: white saviourism, the term used to describe white people as rescuing non-white people, but only serves to reinforce the belief that white benevolence is the only course to liberation. As such, even centring myself in this blog feels uncomfortable.
I was appointed Chief Executive of Refugee Action in March last year. From my first day I have committed to stepping up to step aside, to work with our Anti-Racism working group and expert by experience networks to break down the structures that marginalise and to make sure my successor has lived experience.
Our journey to shift power is inextricably linked to the development of our experts by experience groups, starting with the creation in 2016 of RAS (Refugee and Asylum Seeker) Voice, which has been shaping and guiding our campaigns work ever since.
An Experts by Experience programme was established under a manager who had endured the UK asylum system, and new EBE groups were set up to influence other parts of Refugee Action’s work, from services to fundraising, and to support the wider sector with early action services.
And now, our understanding of power that brap helped foster – how it is concentrated in formal roles, such as mine, but also in governance – has influenced our decision to create two strategies to help us shift power further.
Firstly, to develop career pathways at all levels of Refugee Action for people from a refugee background and identifying and tackling the structural barriers people face; and, secondly, to increase the influence of the experts by experience network in our work.
Refugee Action has never had a permanent Chief Executive from a refugee background. Despite some brilliant exceptions, this is the case for most larger, national refugee charities.
To develop career pathways, it must become our top priority to empower refugees to create the space necessary to overcome the barriers they face to take their rightful place as leaders of the sector.
While this means investing in personal and professional development, it also requires us to accelerate the shift in culture at Refugee Action so this commitment to development and understanding barriers are permanently embedded.
Alongside our anti-racism working group we will re-write people policies and procedures to move beyond the “colour blind” concepts of fairness and equality that erase the barriers refugees face.
While the road remains long, we are making progress.
In January, we appointed our first Head of Experts by Experience and Partnerships, a senior leadership role ring-fenced for people with lived experience.
We have also created an Employment Transformation Project to critically review the experience of refugees and people from ethnic and cultural minority backgrounds at Refugee Action to help us identify inequalities, biases and challenges to fully inclusive recruitment, retention and development.
Tangibly, refugees are now awarded two additional points per panellist during the recruitment process and we have created four paid trainee-level roles for refugees at the charity.
Moreover, members of our experts by experience networks have been on recruitment panels for senior manager roles, and we created six supported volunteer placements for refugees to learn skills and receive help to apply for work, whether inside or outside Refugee Action.
But there’s more work to do and questions to answer on career pathways: how much can we ring-fence roles? How can we make sure people are supported and safe, and aren’t taking on the burden of this work? And how do we prioritise structural change over the daily crisis response that exists in the sector?
The way experts by experience influence Refugee Action has developed from a series of separate groups, to a network with a steering group meeting with the senior leadership team and board, to having a charity board in which refugees make up 60 per cent of trustees.
This expansion of influence is significant, but it is only the first step. We must make sure the board operates in a way that’s inclusive, and we regularly reflect on the power dynamics among trustees.
We do not plan to stop with Refugee Action. Through our Good Practice and Partnerships team we are supporting other charities to make similar changes.
And there are challenges. We must make sure that experts by experience are not exploited, their safeguarding prioritised, their contributions acknowledged and to develop a non-extractive approach to supporting people to share their stories publicly, through media, digital communication and fundraising.
This is on top of the daily struggle people face grappling with a dehumanising and emotionally destructive asylum system, which can leave little space or energy to play a role in an EBE programme.
Moving forward, there are four main challenges we must grapple with. Firstly, shifting power can only happen if we are truly accountable: to the board, our EbE Network, our staff anti-racism working group and through public commitment.
Secondly, surfacing “alternative narratives” needs patience, support and safety. Just because those with power say “we are listening” doesn’t mean people with alternative narratives suddenly feel they are in a place to share them.
Thirdly, how can we set targets that are meaningful and do not morph change into a set of boxes to be ticked? This includes creating a definition of shifting power that is shared by everyone.
Last, the almost 300 people at Refugee Action, whether staff, volunteers or experts by experience are in very different places in understanding our process of shifting power, creating more questions of where we should pitch our vision.
But it’s important to remember that Refugee Action does not exist in a bubble, and our goals to shift power is happening in the context of reshaping histories and wider movements for change. We must be more explicit about the colonial roots of the asylum system, its growing overregulation, and the hostility towards refugees driven by their racialisation.
This started as the Cold War ended, when refugees were no longer white Eastern Europeans but people from the Global South who were mostly fleeing countries colonised by Western Empires. Since then countless acts of Parliament have further regulated, restricted and removed people’s rights, couched in a language of “common sense managed migration”.
And shifting power means linking into broader movements for change closely linked to the reasons why people cross borders to seek protection, such climate justice, trade justice and human rights.
Refugee Action’s – and the wider sector’s – approach has often been based on a belief that systems of “managed migration” can be created without reference to racial justice, a belief that it is just the lack of will within the Home Office that prevents this from happening.
In short, the fight for racial justice hangs over every element of the asylum system. Refugee Action will only truly shift power when this is acknowledged, made explicit and embedded deep within our vision and values.
This larger shift in power is long overdue, not only at Refugee Action but in the asylum sector. We are still at the start of our journey, but often the early strides are the biggest.