20 years of commitment to refugees - Refugee Council
March 10, 2020

20 years of commitment to refugees

Judith Dennis came to the Refugee Council having spent several years working with refugee children in social services. An impressive 20 years later, Judith leads the charity’s policy work and describes the Refugee Council as ‘the perfect place to work’. We find out what makes the place so special, what challenges come with the job and what work still needs to be done 

  • What made you want to work with the Refugee Council?

Someone described refugees as being ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’ – it could literally happen to any of us, that we become displaced because of something we haven’t necessarily become involved in or because of our morals, opinions or beliefs.

I also wanted to come to the Refugee Council because I felt I could make a difference and help other people. At that time, 20 years ago now, people were quite nervous about refugees; it wasn’t as well known a social issue as it is now.

  • What do you remember from your first day at the Refugee Council?

I started as a specialist policy adviser on unaccompanied children. I was in the national development and policy team and, unbelievably, we were one of the only two teams in the organisation that had internet access!

I came from a local authority that gave quite a good service to unaccompanied children and I remember being really shocked, even on my first day, by the stories I was hearing of how children were treated; how they were not being believed, how people whose role is was to protect them were suspicious of them, and that was something that was quite a surprise to me really.

Being with likeminded people really struck me – it’s such a special place in that regard. I think there are lots of organisations where people help refugees but have to explain day after day what a refugee is, or why they have the particular needs they have, whereas at the Refugee Council, we all just know that.

  • How has your role/work changed over the years?

The organisation was expanding when I started 20 years ago as we started a big new service around then and had lots of services across the country. We had been supporting people from wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and there was quite a lot of awareness in the media and amongst the public. This has happened again in the last 10 years following Middle Eastern crises, particularly the war in Syria. I strongly believe if people understand why refugees need to leave their homes, there will be more sympathy for the difficulties they face and want to join us in calling for improvements.

In some ways the organisation has changed, but in lots of ways it’s not changed at all. We still support the employment of refugees, integration, immediate crisis support as well as intensive help for unaccompanied children. Lots of the things that refugees need don’t change over time and we try and reflect that.

  • What do you find the most rewarding aspect of your role?

You have to take pleasure in very small things changing; getting the wording you want on a form; a policy reflecting the detail of what you want. You don’t get huge campaign changes very often and when you do it’s very often in conjunction with others. These are very satisfying of course, such as the voucher campaign; when the asylum support system was first set up, people seeking asylum were given vouchers to spend in shops, which didn’t allow people to buy toys and books for their children. We campaigned against that and it was successful.

It’s really rewarding working in a service delivery organisation, where the change might be small but will matter hugely to the people it affects. I often get almost instant feedback from colleagues on such things, which is incredibly satisfying!

  • And what’s the most challenging?

When you know a subject, inaccurate information out there, the overblown stats, the idea that refugees are trying to cheat the system – it is just not the reality you see and it’s really frustrating because you just feel like you want to literally open people’s eyes for them and get them to put themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s hard enough coming to this country as a refugee with insecure status, a new language, a strange culture; you just want to feel safe and fit in and it must be horrible to hear people say lots of untruths. That’s definitely a challenge.

Working with Home Office officials can also be a challenge. There’s long been a culture problem where people are not encouraged to feel proud about protection, and so you are often working in a highly politicised environment. One of the most frustrating things is that you’ll have a persuasive argument and loads of evidence for something and you still can’t get change. In other sectors that wouldn’t necessarily be the case, and I think that’s what makes you realise that governments don’t always think it’s in their interests to make lives of refugees easier and make it more comfortable for them to fit in.

  • What has been your career highlight of the last 20 years?

Early on in my time here I was on a platform launching a guide for refugees, along with stand-up comedian, Omid Djalili, and a young refugee. I learned then that this is the part I am going to play forever on platforms – you get people who are either entertaining or speaking really movingly about their experiences. That happened as recently as January when we were launching our ‘Without my family’ report and we had the researcher talking very movingly about doing research with refugees and then a refugee talking about what it’s like to live without their family. It’s not about competing – there’s no way I could compete with that! – but it has been fantastic to work with people who can speak about their experiences to help others.

Another highlight has to be working with the makers of a BBC children’s programme featuring a refugee child living in a children’s home, and they were so appreciative of any help I could give them to ensure it reflected reality accurately. I’ve done that kind of thing a few times and I think it’s really important as people will take things as the truth, even though they know it’s fiction. A couple of authors have worked with us to help them make sure that they’ve got the factual accuracy in their fiction and I had a particularly close working relationship for a few months with Benjamin Zephaniah when he was writing Refugee Boy, and I helped him with the factual accuracy. He was generous enough to ask me to him launch it at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Famous people can be really helpful with getting your message across and we worked with Show Racism the Red Card, an organisation that challenges racism in football when they made a film with some of our young people as well as famous footballers and commentators. I went to the launch and saw lots of famous footballers raising awareness about issues I work on – that was a great day!

Another highlight started before my time at the Refugee Council. The Government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but said it didn’t apply to children subject to immigration control. We joined the fight to change this that had already been started by children’s rights campaigners. Having been in place since 1991, this restriction wasn’t lifted until 2008, so that was after nearly 18 years of campaigning. In my darkest moments I think, well that took 18 years and we didn’t give up and it succeeded. It shows you that patience, tenacity, commitment and dedication actually count. You have to keep the pressure up and sometimes these things take time.

What I particularly like about the way we work at the Refugee Council is that we base our decisions on what we feel is the morally right thing to do. We ask ourselves, ‘If we are not going stand up for refugees, how can we expect the general public and our supporters to?’. I am so proud to work for the Refugee Council; this really is my perfect job. 

  • Finally, if you were made Prime Minister for a day, what changes would you make for refugees and people seeking asylum in Britain?

The first thing I would do, (apart from what I do every morning when I get to work which is make some strong coffee and talk to the people who think the same way that I do!), is change the refugee family reunion rules –  would only take me 5 mins! It’s one of those polices that covers lots of the issues that I’ve talked about – all the evidence is there, it wouldn’t take much to do, it shouldn’t need a big campaign and the impact on refugees would be massive.

Another travesty is that when we’ve given people protection, we’re making them destitute and homeless. In the UK we provide basic support for people seeking asylum in an entirely separate welfare system, and we don’t take responsibility for the problems incurred when they move into the mainstream system. So that would definitely be something to sort out and might require getting different ministers from different departments into a room and not letting them out until we have a solution! So that might take a bit longer to sort.

More generally, we need an asylum system that treats people with dignity. In this country we should be able to treat everyone well, offer a reasonable standard of living, and sense of safety, so that then those that do get status can then move on and they’re not having to recover from the asylum system as well as having to recover from what brought them here in the first place.

So I think that might take about a day! They’re the most important things for the immediate future.