Brexit will not magically stop people fleeing to the UK

"The better we understand the work done by refugee charities, the better our decisions can be on what to do next"
"The better we understand the work done by refugee charities, the better our decisions can be on what to do next"

By Jennifer Shea

One image from the EU referendum campaign has become grimly iconic. A week before polling day, UKIP leader Nigel Farage unveiled his new billboard for Vote Leave.

'Breaking Point' screamed the headline, alongside a photo of a long, snaking queue of humanity. Niceties about where the picture was taken (nowhere near the British border),who it showed (people trying to find shelter from bombs and guns), and whether they were migrants or refugees were lost to its intended message: vote to leave the EU and the UK won't be burdened with people like this.

Roll forward a few days, though, and it is pretty unclear what a leave vote will actually mean for refugees and migrants.

Michael Gove, one of the campaign's chief architects, swiftly affirmed his commitment to 'a fairer, more humane' immigration policy. Another, MEP Dan Hannan, denied that overall migration levels will suddenly drop. French authorities have, predictably, threatened to relax controls on refugees gathered to cross the channel—which will actually result in more queues at the border.

Meanwhile, civil war in Syria continues. So does the bloody upheaval in Eritrea and wartime rape of thousands of women in the DRC. People are still desperate, and a small proportion will still look for help here.



The truth is that whatever happens to the UK's relations with Europe, refugee applications will continue to rise. Rather than imagining that the refugee crisis will magically disappear after the referendum result, we should start thinking in some detail about what organisations in the UK can and can't do.

We looked at this question at the New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), as part of research for philanthropists who wanted to fund refugee charities. We found a small, specialist chunk of the charity sector working under substantial pressure amid shrinking resources.

There are around 900 charities dedicated to helping refugees in the UK, once you strip out the massive organisations for whom refugees is only part of their work. Their staff provide a vast array of services, from legal advice to visiting people trapped in immigration detention to specialist counselling for torture victims.

The need for patient, effective work here is crucial. Total income for these charities each year is £97m, which leaves them in a very small corner of a sector worth a whopping £40bn.

The burden falls mainly on small charities: Eight out of 10 are community groups with less than £100,000. At the same time the two largest, the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, have both lost big public contracts since 2014, stripping them of millions of pounds. The Home Office might argue that it has simply taken some of this work 'in house', but there is no doubt that it has forced those charities to downsize and rethink what they can achieve for the people turning to them for help.

NPC's research isn't just about listing problems, however. The better we understand the work done by refugee charities, the better our decisions can be on what to do next.

Philanthropists who want their money to make a serious, lasting impact might want to look closely at the cause. It is one of the most profound crises of our time, and there are good charities here which, with an injection of cash, can extend help to people in desperate need. This would be a more revolutionary step than it might seem. For all their generosity, there are currently very few philanthropists and foundations funding this work.

For the moment refugee charities face, as our report puts it, 'high and rising levels of need, and diminishing funding'. This is a precarious time for the most vulnerable, and for the people we expect to look after them.

Jennifer Shea is a senior consultant at New Philanthropy Capital. Jennifer was previously Research Director at the market research agency nfpSynergy, and has worked with the Home Office on government social research


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