The refugee crisis, political language and charity brands

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Who gets to tell the story about the refugee crisis in the UK?

Earlier this week, the home secretary Suella Braverman described the refugees resorting to dangerous boat journeys to the UK as an ‘invasion on our south coast’. As I wrote in my last blog post, language matters. The words that people in power use shape the narratives we all absorb.

Regardless of whether you support or oppose the government’s ‘tough talk’ on immigration, it’s undeniable that the word ‘invasion’ implies violence and division. The UK charity Refugee Action was agile and creative in calling this out. Within 24 hours of Mrs Braverman’s statement, they put out a powerful film highlighting the difference between ‘invasion’ and ‘lack of safe routes’.

And as lots of organisations remind us, most people who risk their lives to seek refuge in the UK do so not with antagonistic motives but harmless ones:

👉 They have family here
👉 They speak English
👉 They hope to have their basic needs met

Besides, the number of refugees entering the UK is tiny compared with those seeking asylum in Spain, France, Germany and Italy.

Over the last few years, the compassionate and rights-focused story of asylum seekers has had to battle with the less sympathetic version voiced by the UK government. Why is this important? Along with climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, mental health and others, the refugee crisis is one of the most pressing issues of our times. But, unlike some of these issues, no single brand has been a lightning rod for public sentiment around refugees.

Recent NFP research shows how movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion are often more effective than charities in channelling public feeling. Unlike charities, movements are decentralised, less accountable, and better able to challenge governments (upon whom many charities rely for funding). They’re spawned organically in response to urgent social issues, like the 2013 murder of Trayvon Martin or the 2018 IPCC report warning that we have 12 years to prevent catastrophic climate change. And movement activism often captures public attention.

As Mind and Stonewall show, it’s also possible for individual charities to own and shape public discourse about topical causes. But when it comes to refugees, no single voice stands out in the same way. Many organisations occupy this space, like the International Rescue Committee, Refugee Action and the Refugee Council. And other bigger players work with refugees as part of a wider remit, such as Amnesty International, the British Red Cross and Unicef.

So will any particular brand rise to the surface and dictate the conversation? Yes, it’s politicised. Yes, there’s strength of feeling on all sides. Yes, it’s complicated. But no more so than climate change, racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights. And with growing climate migration and global unrest, it’s only getting harder to ignore.

Finding a single message or symbol to coalesce around might be challenging. But the tragedy of exploitation, lost lives and inhuman conditions is also an opportunity for charities to mobilise language that appeals to people’s empathy and common humanity. With unprompted brand awareness of charities in freefall, could this be an issue that bucks the trend?