Exiled from the Big Society: The impact of the cuts on third sector refugee organisations in North East England

Below is a slightly amended version of a magazine article I wrote in July 2012 with David Bates from Sunderland University. An edited version was published in the September issue of the Runnymede Bulletin, available here. The article was based on interviews and discussions with staff from five organizations, including the Regional Refugee Forum North East, which is a membership body for many small refugee community organizations. I am now in the early stages of a more extensive programme of research that aims to understand what the ‘age of austerity’ means for refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers in Britain.

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Often when journalists and researchers are dispatched around the country to report on the harsh reality of poverty and social exclusion, it is the North East of England that is their first port of call. So it has proved in the last two years, as the Coalition government’s austerity agenda has seen unemployment in the region soar above the national average. Less well reported, however, are the consequences of austerity for the region’s asylum seekers and refugees and the third sector organisations that work with them.

As part of the forced dispersal programme starting in 2000, thousands of refugees came to live in towns and cities across the North East. The experience of asylum in the North East during the 2000s largely mirrored the national experience, with social exclusion and marginalization fuelled by a combination of meager financial support, poor quality housing in areas of high social deprivation, denial of the right to employment from 2002, and racism.

In response, refugees and local people built a vibrant network of third sector organisations across the region. These provide vital support and integration services, but are now in crisis, following national cuts including a 62% reduction in state funding for the Refugee Council in 2011 and the termination of the Refuge Integration and Employment Service from September 2011.[1] In the last eighteen months even the most well established organisations in the region have had to severely scale back their provision, and many smaller organisations have had to close. Pete Widlinski, Information and Communications Manager at NERS (the North of England Refugee Service), the region’s largest third sector organisation working with refugees, explains some of the consequences:

The 60% cut to our One-Stop-Service funding from the Home Office has led to jobs being lost and cuts to our interpreting budget. That means asylum seekers who visit our offices now have to bring a friend if they don’t speak English, and if we don’t have any appropriate volunteer interpreters available.

Cuts to funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are threatening asylum seekers’ ability to communicate with British people. Sunderland’s ‘United Community Action’ has been restricted from providing ESOL lessons to asylum seekers by the introduction of charges for ESOL lessons. Most of the organisation’s users are now referrals from the job centre, reflecting a narrowing of language provision to employment purposes. This ignores the importance of language for social, as well as economic, integration. The impacts of changes to ESOL funding in other parts of the region include drastic restrictions on tailored job-related ESOL provisions at the JET (Jobs Education and Training) project in Newcastle, reduced from six advisors to just one, despite high demand, and 70 prospective ESOL students turned away from Middlesbrough College.

Cuts are also limiting organisations’ ability to sustain communities amongst refugees. The Manager of ACANE, a refugee-led organisation in the East End of Newcastle that has been widely recognized for its achievements, explains:

[A]ctivities which gather us, are no longer there … we [used to] have … food … music, and a chat with your friends … so people can feel that we are united, and we’ve got a space where … they can meet different people and discuss. So those opportunities are no longer there.

At the same time as resources for third sector organisations are being cut, many organisations are facing increased demand for their services. For example the Manager of Teesside-based charity Justice First Kath Sainsbury reports that asylum seekers are now coming to see them at a much earlier stage in the legal process, as cuts to legal aid limit their time with solicitors.

Developing an agenda for action

The situation we describe here calls for work on multiple fronts, providing services as fully as possible in the present conditions while at the same time demanding more adequate resources. Finding the time to do the latter has always been a strain for third sector refugee organisations, and this has been compounded by fears of losing funding because of being seen as too ‘political’. Yet failure to advocate for resources in the current context will mean a continued decline in the services people need. There are examples of such campaigns, for example Action for ESOL (http://actionforesol.org), which has brought together practitioners, educators, service users and their communities, and the University and College Lecturers’ Union.

There is also a need to reassert claims to entitlement based on needs, against the growing expectation that refugees are entitled to a share of resources only because of their labour market contributions. While it is of course important to recognise refugees’ contributions, to make services conditional on this is to abandon those who are legally prohibited from paid work because of their immigration status or who are unable to find a job, and those who are unable to take work that is available because of disability, poor health, lack of UK work experience, or old age. Arguments need to be made for the particularities of refugees’ needs, including recognising the long-term impacts of UK asylum policies on those subject to them, including enforced gaps in employment, dispersal to areas with few employment opportunities, and the stigma associated with seeking asylum; and this needs to be done in a way that does not fall into a competition to establish who is the most oppressed, but emphasizes each person’s needs and the impact of membership of particular groups. This focus on particular needs has to combine with alliance building with other sections of society also facing austerity measures. This is not a contradiction; it is on the basis of recognising differences between us that we can come together in honest solidarity.


[1] Collett, E. (2011). Immigrant Integration in Europe in a Time of Austerity. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

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