ARTICLES Experts by experience: it’s high time we all started listening

Experts by experience: it’s high time we all started listening

After much campaigning and cajoling, refugee integration is finally back on the Government’s agenda. There is a renewed focus on refugee focus at the Home Office which has recently committed to developing a long overdue refugee integration strategy.

What the Syrian programme is proving on a daily basis, in communities up and down the UK, is that when Whitehall Departments, Devolved Governments, Local Authorities, NGOs, civil society institutions and businesses work well together, in pursuit of shared outcomes and with the necessary resources, then we are capable of implementing not just the letter, but the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Thus far, this is a good news story, but I’m afraid there’s a sting in the tail and it’s one that reflects very starkly the concerns that the Civil Society Futures inquiry is intent on addressing.  

Despite Refugee-led Community Organisations (RCOs) having a long and impressive track record of supporting the inclusion and participation of their members in the places they live, when it comes to shaping social integration policy and practice, these experts-by-experience, who are uniquely rooted and invested in their localities, are noticeably absent.  

RCOs understand their members – the obstacles they face, the assets they bring – in ways that other organisations cannot. Language, culture, their cross-generational reach and the trust born of their shared experience of exile, enable RCOs to operate holistically and intuitively, and, in doing so, to overcome impediments to independence and integration that confound most mainstream organisations, whether in the statutory or the voluntary sectors.   

However, when it comes to funding, commissioning, contracting or planning, they are usually at the back of the queue. A chronic lack of resourcing, exacerbated by austerity, the indiscriminate hostile environment and the consistently negative framing of refugees, has penned many RCOs in a cycle of instability and exclusion that, all too often, calls into question their dependability and trustworthiness in the eyes of authorities, funders, commissioners and even their voluntary sector and NGO peers.  

Unintentionally, but undeniably, the Refugee Council has played a part in this continuing marginalisation. Though we once boasted a substantial RCO capacity building team, this was decimated by successive austerity-driven funding cuts, including the closure of the Home Office’s flagship Refugee Integration and Employment Service in 2011. For the Refugee Council, this meant curtailing our RCO engagement work, with the consequence that the relationship with our key beneficiaries and stakeholders became overly transactional and occasionally tokenistic. It’s the realisation that in order to re-establish our credibility in their eyes, we first needed to change our priorities that chimes so powerfully with PACT’s call for innovation, boldness and challenge.

As part of that change process, we saw the need to raise the profile of RCOs, and so we worked with many across the country to document both what they do and what prevents them from doing more. The resulting report reframes RCOs as singular social integration agencies that alone have the reach, the insight and the ingenuity not only to develop practical solutions to the specific problems that refugees face, but also contribute to the building of stable local communities.  

We want the research to lead to a reassessment of the contribution RCOs can make to delivering better refugee integration outcomes, alongside broader community integration and cohesion goals. We will use it to call on Central Government to engage directly with RCOs when framing its asylum and refugee policies; on Funders to focus as much on RCO infrastructural investment as on transactional, competitive, grant funding; on Commissioners to see RCOs as a key to reaching marginalised and hard to reach populations; on Devolved and Local Government to value the evidence and intelligence about their communities that RCOs hold; and on NGOs and civil society institutions to see RCOs as equal partners.

At the Refugee Council, we’ll enable RCOs to better shape the things we do and inform the things we say. We’ll champion their active participation in the national and local debates and decisions that affect their members’ lives and we’ll work with funders and commissioners to ensure that RCOs secure the resources they need to achieve their potential.

Read more in our report A bridge to life in the UK: Refugee-led community organisations and their role in integration

Image credit: CARAS