The Refugee Council’s Mark Davies reflects on the challenges to shifting attitudes about refugees in a time of domestic crisis and misinformation.
It sometimes feels like we are living in an alternative universe, doesn’t it?
I joined the Refugee Council in July 2022, so I’m still fairly new. And I still find it really difficult to get my head round how much misinformation there is about the UK’s deeply flawed asylum system.
At the weekend it was the Immigration Minister blithely saying most people who come here on boats are “economic migrants from safe countries”. Then the Prime Minister repeated it.
The truth is the opposite. Most are refugees from very unsafe countries.
As communicators we have to work harder on countering this, but also on providing ways of highlighting the reality, both the human reality and the factual reality.
It’s tempting to say that we’ve done that very well because attitudes to asylum are not as bad as you might think from the media and political narratives.
So we should carry on doing what we are doing: consolidating support among those who are very sympathetic to our cause.
I think that’s wrong, I’m afraid.
We need to go a bit further and reach beyond our progressive base. We need to reach more of the undecideds when it comes to asylum. And we also need to try to talk to sceptics as well.
“It’s pretty hard to expect someone struggling with a cost of living crisis or trying to get a doctor’s appointment to engage deeply on the awful horror faced by someone from a country which feels distant.”
I’m not suggesting we should be trying to persuade racists of the error of their ways. Although it’s always worth trying to change any mind. But I do think we need to be more open about reaching out to people who aren’t necessarily on board with what we think about asylum.
There are parts of society out there who see the boats and feel worried, no doubt partly because of what they read in some of the media. There are people who want a compassionate and fair system, but see control as a big part of that.
They don’t want open borders, but they do want fairness. Some might not feel inclined towards compassion—but is that because they are wrong or because we’ve failed to highlight why people flee places like Eritrea? It’s pretty hard to expect someone struggling with a cost of living crisis or trying to get a doctor’s appointment to engage deeply on the awful horror faced by someone from a country which feels distant.
This all means that as we try to shift attitudes, we need to engage across the spectrum of influence. That means talking to anyone who might disagree with the government’s approach—including Conservative MPs. It means talking to the Daily Mail and the Sun. And it means reaching beyond the traditional media to engage widely with people where they are, not where we want them to be.
As political allegiances have changed, with a splintering of the way people vote away from tribal alliances, so have media habits. Many people don’t bother with newspapers anymore, online or in print. Nor are they likely to be Twitter addicts. As communicators we need to work hard to find them and then engage in a way which goes beyond telling people why they are wrong.
This is hard and will take time. Not doing so, however, will mean we are stuck where we are. And that doesn’t feel like a tenable option in any way, shape or form. ■
Mark Davies is the Head of Communications and Campaigns at the Refugee Council.