NEWSMAKER: In the line of fire - Sandy Buchan, Chief executive, Refugee Action


As the season of goodwill approaches, few chief executives will look back on the year and recall more media hammerings than Sandy Buchan.

Refugee Action, the charity Buchan leads, has been trashed and trialled almost on a ritual basis in 2002. On the day we meet it's business as usual: the Daily Mail has two emotive articles on refugees plus an editorial entitled "truth, smears and the asylum crisis" in which, without a hint of irony, it calls for a "mature debate on a legitimate issue".

An interview with a voluntary-sector magazine gives Buchan, 57, the chance to turn the tables on his tormentors. You would imagine that sparks could fly in the charity's Waterloo office. "The negative publicity is very alarming," he begins. "When you get stereotyping like 'refugees are muggers', 'refugees are thieves', people become afraid. Asylum seekers think it's wrong to seek sanctuary. The media has got to have open ears. It's a complicated story."

As rebukes go, it's hardly the most stinging. Why is Buchan so unwilling to condemn the media on what he describes as "one of the most important issues of our time", particularly as he has spent 23 years working with refugees? Is he weary of newspaper talk, reluctant to lower himself, or wise enough to know you can not win a war with the media? According to Buchan, the real reason is much simpler. He doesn't think it matters that much.

"I can go on about the media all day but you have to look beyond that to public opinion," he says. "The likes of The Sun can scream all it likes but people don't always listen to newspaper opinion, which I think is out of touch."

It seems dangerous to downplay the threat of the fourth estate but Buchan puts forward a challenging case. He talks of how a national newspaper adopted Refugee Action as one of its Christmas charities. He expected it might generate £50,000 but instead it was £300,000. "We were quite moved by the level of support," he says.

There is another aspect. For a refugee charity, seeing refugees mentioned in the newspapers more often than Robbie Williams isn't all bad, even if the majority of coverage stinks. Certainly in some ways it has been an excellent year for Refugee Action. Income has almost doubled from £6.3 million to £11.6 million and it has become one of Britain's fastest-growing charities. Every "send 'em home" headline irritates more people into giving and provokes a sympathetic response to the problems of displaced people.

"Because most of the press want both sides of the argument, it allows us to get our point across," acknowledges Buchan.

Buchan urges vote-hungry politicians to adopt a similarly doubtful view of Fleet Street's judgement of the popular mood. "At the last election the Conservatives scheduled a day on asylum issues and it fell utterly flat," he says. "The British public weren't interested in it as a determining factor."

Government is both the biggest opportunity and threat to Refugee Action.

Eighty per cent of the charity's funding is from the Home Office, on whose behalf the charity carries out much of its work. Yet in the charity's latest annual review Buchan was moved to speak out against "dispiriting" policy changes, particularly plans for large-scale accommodation centres.

"It runs counter to everything we have learned: small community-based reception centres work, large camps do not," he says.

"The biggest threat to what we do is the Government believing it must be hard on asylum seekers in order to get re-elected."

Again he falls short of the kind of rhetoric you might expect from a man leading an organisation of 130 staff under siege.

He knows better than anyone that asylum is a boiling hot political potato and understands why emotions run high. "There's no doubt the number of refugees has risen," he says. There have been 90,000 applications for asylum this year - although the rate of increase has slowed since the early 90s.

"Of course there has to be a test to see if someone is a refugee. It is quite different from migration. If that test is applied fairly across Europe, it will settle the debate. If people do not pass the test, they should go home to where they came from," says Buchan.

"The challenge therefore is how to fund fair and fast procedures for deciding which applications are well founded. Instead of putting resources into the decision-making process, the Government has put resources into deterrents."

Buchan sees helping refugees as "working at the crossroads of the world". "It involves every issue that engages the voluntary sector: exclusion, race, benefits, housing, employment and now there's a huge debate on what constitutes citizenship," he says.

"Refugee voices" are the new buzzwords in asylum circles. Last week, Refugee Action launched another high-profile campaign in which female asylum seekers talk about their own needs. In Wales, Oxfam is working with refugee groups to offer media training for asylum seekers so they can speak up for themselves.

Buchan believes that once exposed to his charity's message, people are won over. "Everywhere I go I get lots of support," he says. It's a warm thought to keep him going on those slow news days over Christmas.


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