Jonathan Ellis: Refugee communities and representation - Refugee Council
August 18, 2010

Jonathan Ellis: Refugee communities and representation

Jonathan Ellis, Refugee Council Head of Policy and Development, speaking at a conference organised by the Basis Project, Manchester Refugee Support Network, Greater Manchester BME Network and the TRIO Policy and Information Network, July 2010.


Jonathan Ellis

This conference on representation is so important.

The Basis Project has been running for three years, now. Promoting infrastructure – governance, finance, fundraising, project management – all important stuff. We need strong and vibrant refugee community organisations (RCOs) in this country.

But it’s not an end in itself. I would argue that we are trying to build up RCOs to deliver services, to engage, to campaign and to make sure the voices of asylum seekers and refugees are heard through organisations led by asylum seekers and refugees.

The political landscape is in a state of flux at the moment. Will local ways of engaging such as Local Strategic Partnerships and Local Area Agreements continue. How will the new coalition government develop things? Will things be devolved downwards? Will there be much greater flexibility? How will local government take things forward?

I think we’re going to see more and more local flexibility. And what’s so important is that you’re studying things locally, in your own local authority area and asking who has got power locally. Those of you who’ve had contact with Citizens UK will know that they talk so much about power. I don’t think it’s just about power but power is important. Who has power? Who has power locally? How are they influenced? Do you know who influences them? What are the routes into the people who have power?

I think those of us who are campaigners should have an inherent curiosity about power and how the system works. Because if we want to change something  we need to be able to understand the system.

Last week I was at a training session for NCVO and I asked 18 young campaigners what books they were reading to develop their political understanding. And they could have said Peter Mandelson’s book or Andrew Rawnsley’s book or the great diaries by Ooona King or Chris Mullin – but none of them was reading anything. Maybe I’m just a sad political junkie but I think if you want to understand about power and politics there’s something about learning and understanding, both locally and nationally.

Within RCOs you should be so proud of the work you do and you offer local representatives such a marvellous thing – a route into your community. And you should be proud about that and you should engage on equal terms. Don’t be shy, don’t hold back. Be proud and be assertive. Because you have something quite special and a good local representative will want to engage with you.

I must just pause for a moment, because we’ve got Bini with us from Regional Refugee Forum North East. And what’s happening in the north east is the most wonderful example of what we should be doing nationally, where we have a refugee-led forum representing RCOs. It has such an energy and a vitality that you can’t ignore it – it’s fantastic. And it’s an inspiring model of a proud, vibrant, representative, democratic refugee-led organisation. And if you are ever feeling depressed, go up to Gateshead and you will be inspired as I am when I go there. That is the future, and organisations like mine have a key role to support the development of such refugee-led organisations.

I think partnership is so important. At a national level we need to be working much more collaboratively than we have done, and we are trying to change. The Basis Project has been a brilliant example where Refugee Council and Refugee Action, the two national sister agencies, have shown the value when we come together. We are stronger together. And I think it’s a powerful lesson to the leaders of Refugee Council and Refugee Action about what the two organisations can achieve together. But it’s not just national, it’s local – you are stronger working with others. So who are the organisations locally you can work with, not just in the refugee sector but broadening out? Because there is strength in unity.

I hope from today that there’s a real campaigning spirit and a sense of campaigning zeal.  That willingness to speak out. And now is the time to speak out – [with politics in a] state of flux, in this critical [political] vacuum. And to make sure you are focussed – what is the thing that outrages your community the most? Focus on the problem and the solution, and have evidence to back up your case.

I often talk about the ‘Tea tests’ when I speak about campaigning. That you touch someone and make a connection – that’s the ‘t’. You enthuse them – that’s the ‘e’. And the ‘a’ is that you get them to act. Can you touch and enthuse someone and then get them to act? Can you distil your campaign message to a 15-second soundbite so that when you’re stuck in the lift with a leading counsellor you can get it across to them?

Above all, keep chipping away. And use those brilliant free national resources. Look at what the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) campaigning effectiveness programme. Look at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation – brilliant free resources for campaigning. Look at what the Carnegie UK Trust is doing around power and understanding power.

We live in challenging times, but campaigning, representation, influence and voice have never been more important. With financial instability and political instability we all need to be passionate, we need to enjoy what we’re doing, have a willingness to work with others – be consistently seeking allies, but above all never give up. Our fight in the defence of asylum seekers and refugees is so important we must never give up, despite the challenging circumstances.