Beth Wilson: We need systems designed by them, not just for them

The director of Bristol Refugee Rights says that charities must empower those they work with and allow them to influence decision-makers directly

Beth Wilson

Mahmoud (not his real name) fled to Britain from Egypt. After arriving in the UK he claimed asylum and applied for asylum support from the Home Office. However, the Home Office did not believe Mahmoud was destitute and he had to wait a whole four months before it finally agreed to grant him support.

By the time he came to Bristol Refugee Rights for help he had been sleeping rough for 15 days, spending his nights on the streets and his days searching parks for lost coins. He’d just had a hernia operation; the pain was agonising and he was faced with a medical bill for the cost of the operation that he was unable to pay. He had lost 9kg in weight, pushed to the brink of starvation. 

Mahmoud’s story is neither unique nor inevitable. People seek asylum because of human-made problems and the help they receive – or not, as the case may be – comes from human-designed systems. At Bristol Refugee Rights, we did what we could to tackle the range of difficulties Mahmoud presented with but, as is so often the case, it felt like trying to put a plaster over a gaping wound. 

We believe that the system people like Mahmoud are faced with on arrival in Britain could be designed so that it prevents crisis, rather than merely managing it. That’s why we are part of the Early Action Network, spearheaded by Refugee Action and supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, looking to transform the way we think about support for these groups to rebalance our efforts towards giving asylum seekers early attention, information and timely help, and to do so through a system designed by them, not just for them.

For Bristol Refugee Rights, this will mean addressing the whole person’s needs and not just tackling the presenting problem; it means empowering people with information about the asylum process and giving them the confidence to secure their own rights and entitlements; and it means providing activities that improve wellbeing at the same time as providing high-quality and appropriate advice. 

Most crucially, it will mean engaging experts with experience in participatory service design, an ethic that has been at the heart of our work from our very inception.

Bristol Refugee Rights has from its early days and through all our work sought to provide refugees and people seeking asylum a platform through which they have their voices heard, whether that be in campaigns, the media or in the internal discussions about our service design. We don’t think we can change the system that often fails our members unless they themselves have the space to change the narrative and influence the decision-makers directly and are given opportunities to do that in a way that makes them feel confident and empowered.

This ethos will inform our Early Action approach. We will talk to current and former asylum seekers to find out from them what help they would have needed earlier to make the process of claiming asylum easier and quicker. Those same people will help us design and implement the services they identify as being necessary to change and dramatically improve the provision of support for asylum seekers in Bristol and, we hope, provide a model for other organisations across the country.

So we would urge any charity reading this to think about how they too can adopt the Early Action approach and build into their work the ideas, thoughts and experiences of the people they work for. It’s easy to assume the solution that you have developed meets the need as presented, but unless you get to know and understand the impact that problem has on the people who experience it, you won’t ever create the systemic change that’s really needed.

Beth Wilson is director of Bristol Refugee Rights

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