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The importance of the ‘power of welcome’ in countering negative refugee narratives

11 February 2022

Working in charity communications comes with lots of challenges but also opportunities. One challenge at the moment is how to counteract the negative narratives that have developed around some of the people we as charities exist to support. At the International Rescue Committee, we have been addressing negative narratives around refugees and asylum seekers by harnessing the power of welcome in our messaging.

The IRC works across the arch of the humanitarian crises, responding immediately in conflict and crisis settings, providing support along the routes people take to safety, or working along borders in temporary refugee camps. But we also work to support refugees in countries of permanent resettlement including the U.S., Germany and as of 2021 the UK.

The IRC’s Refugee Integration in Southeast England (RISE) supports newly-arrived resettled refugees to navigate life in the UK. Through a cohort of activities, we work with refugees, many of whom are from Syria and Afghanistan. From cultural orientation that teaches everything from how the health system works and legal rights to training classes that helps refugees ready themselves for employment. The RISE programme offers refugees the knowledge and confidence to thrive, whilst also equipping their local communities with the skills to better support them.

Telling the stories of the refugees we support and sharing the success of the new RISE programme in a way that helps shift public perception to be more positive is the role of the comms team.

The two main approaches we have adopted have been raising the profile of refugee contributions, to counter negative narrative. And championing and celebrating the power of welcome. Here’s how we’ve put these strategies in action:

Stories of welcome

Although the IRC has only recently begun working directly with refugees in the UK, we have worked with refugees and displaced communities since our formation and therefore sharing stories of the ‘power of welcome’ is central to our communication and content.

In the summer of 2019, we shared a series of stories that showed the contributions that refugees have on the lives of people living in the U.K. Like the story of Warren, a gay refugee who gave his friend the courage to be true to himself.

In 2020, we spotlighted refugees and asylum seekers working on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. From Anxhela, a refugee junior doctor working on the covid ward of a north London hospital, to Mohammed, who organised food parcels and delivered them to his vulnerable neighbours in Manchester. As the entire country was affected by the pandemic, these stories were particularly impactful for creating a human connection over a collective issue we were all forced to experience.

Before our programmes were up and running, we were even able to find creative ways to spread a positive message around refugees. For national Fish and Chips day we gave Gary Lineker a history lesson on Fish and Chips, and how the nations favourite dish was brought to the UK by refugees. The tone of the film was light-hearted but still shared the important message that ‘Britain wouldn’t be Britain without refugees’.

What all of these have in common is that in order to counter negative narratives that dehumanise refugees, they all focus on shared humanity. To highlight the commonalities that connect us and make us human. You have to be careful to avoid the narrative that all refugees need to be ‘heroes’ and do extraordinary things in order to integrate into society. Showcasing what refugees have in common with our supporters is often very powerful.

One instance where this strategy was particularly successful was when helping tell the story of IRC client Maasom, who came to the UK so that his baby daughter Nasrin was able to get an emergency heart operation. As he talks about life in the UK, Maasom is grateful for his daughter’s treatment, but he was also very candid about the reality of moving his family’s life to somewhere completely new. Showing all sides of a person is difficult in a short film but it can be very powerful.

Highlighting the difference between definitions and why they are important

One of our most-read articles on our website over the past couple of years is our explainer ‘Refugee, Migrants, asylum seekers and immigrants: What’s the difference?’. As news outlets use many of these terms interchangeably, it’s important that people understand each definition. And judging by the success of our article, there is a clear appetite to learn more about these issues.

We update the article regularly linking out to other relevant pages on our website such as our explainer on why people risk their lives to cross the English channel.  Explainer articles like these have been really popular as more people look to organisations like the IRC for information about the themes we are experts in.

Ensuring media cut through on stories of refugees in the UK

We have also found that journalists are also responding positively to our stories around refugee integration. Most recently, we have found success in sharing Maasom and Nasrin’s story which achieved significant coverage in the local press. Our main strategy with their story was for it to be a social-first film to achieve communication requirements agreed with by the programme’s funder. But in the end, after sharing the story with multiple journalists, it had six features across local media outlets, including four print, one radio and one TV interview. Maasom was happy to speak to the press, with the support of an interpreter, so that was a great bonus.

Impact and hopes for the future

Telling refugee stories has been a learning curve. There’s still much to learn about how we talk about refugees in the UK and a lot of work to do to counter and influence the prevailing narrative which is often quite hostile and fraught with misconceptions. We are always listening, learning and adapting messaging as we go.

Although it’s still relatively small, the UK RISE programme is continuing to grow as the IRC is supporting more resettled refugees. In 2022, we hope to tell the stories of more refugees we’re working with. We’ll continue to spread messages of the power of welcome and hope that with welcoming communities and opportunities to integrate, refugees can thrive in the UK.

CharityComms will be discussing navigating the changing media landscape at The changing world of charity PR conference.

Banner Image: Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash

Poppy Bullen

Senior digital communications officer , International Rescue Committee UK

Poppy has worked in digital content and communications for both the international development and humanitarian sector. Over the past two and half years, she’s helped build the International Rescue Committee's UK digital channels, growing both website and social media audiences through creative and innovative content.

Kim Nelson

communications officer , International Rescue Committee

Kim currently works in the communications team at the International Rescue Committee. Prior to this, he worked in external relations at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Kim has an Msc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.