Bordering on the incomprehensible: how refugees and asylum seekers have fallen out of public view

Single line of barbed wire against clear blue sky background

Bordering on the incomprehensible: how refugees and asylum seekers have fallen out of public view

We share a sobering account of the UK general public's attitudes towards refugees, asylum seekers, and overseas aid and development charities.
Eva Spencer

The World Bank has declared that 2020 will bring the first increase in extreme poverty in two decades, which according to predictions by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) will amount to around one person in 45 who will be in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Included in the worlds most vulnerable groups are the 26 million refugees worldwide, travelling to find safety.

The global economic recession, exacerbated by the pandemic, has led to major cuts to humanitarian funding for refugee camps. Food crises, economic crises, health crises and restricted mobility are just a few of the devastating consequences of the virus. Experts also warn of a crisis for democracy and human rights fuelled by the pandemic and argue that governments are using the health crisis as an excuse to violate refugees’ rights and more broadly – freedom.

As a branch of the overseas aid sector, we cannot look at Refugee and Asylum seeker organisations in a vacuum. The pandemic world and post-pandemic world has been and will continue to be an incredibly treacherous environment for all charities. In the UK, over the course of the pandemic the Department for International Development ceased to exist in its own right, and the government cut its foreign aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income. Unfortunately, on top of this, support from both the government and the public for the overseas aid and development sector and the charities that work within it has seen an overall decline over the last 5 years, and this trend is clearly reflected in our data. Overseas aid and development charities remain at the bottom of the public’s list of favourite charities, above only Refugee and Asylum Seeker organisations and Sensory Impairment charities, and recently falling below Religious charities.

So, what does research at nfpSynergy show us about attitudes towards international development and, more specifically, the Refugee and Asylum Seeker cause and its charities?

The refugee crisis has fallen off the public's radar, and the British public is just as unreceptive to accepting refugees

At the height of its visibility in 2015/16, we released a blog that dug deeper into public opinion of the refugee crisis in Syria and the Middle East, and the role of charities in reacting to the crisis. Five years later, in the last quarter of 2020, we put the same questions to the general public to explore how sentiment has changed in the intervening years – unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture.

Overall concern has declined significantly; just 52% say they are concerned with what the crisis means for the UK and EU (down from 72% in 2015), and only 36% describe it as an important issue to them (down from 46% in 2015). Public sympathy for these vulnerable groups has also slightly decreased over the past five years. The public still indicate that charities and the government have almost equal responsibility to help with the crisis, so charities must continue to stress to the critical importance of their role in tackling the fallout of the pandemic.

Although the refugee crisis may not be top of mind, post-Brexit global disconnect, border closures and a heightened sense of ‘helping our own’ is reflected in recent data with 55% of the British public believing that fewer refugees should be accepted, the highest figure recorded in 5 years. Reversing the question, only 27% of the public believe that the UK government should be taking in more refugees. These figures follow a year during which half the amount of migrants were granted asylum in Britain compared to pre-pandemic years – and even then, the figure was embarrassingly low.

The impact of Covid-19 on refugees and asylum seekers and the charities that support them has not gotten through to the public

When asked to what extent the public thinks certain charity beneficiaries have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, refugees and asylum seekers and the broader beneficiaries of overseas aid charities were ranked close second and third to last, with half the public recognising the pandemics impact. The impact on animals was recognised by 5% more of the public. Similarly, public concern for the impact of Covid-19 on people in immigration detention centres is low. Thankfully, in this case, concern for this group is higher than for pets, though marginally (51% and 47% respectively). Clearly we have a problem on our hands when the public believes that the coronavirus pandemic has had a worse effect on animals than the worlds most vulnerable groups.

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for UK domestic and international refugee and asylum charities is getting their communications to cut through the loud right-wing press. Restricted travel has redirected refugees means of entering the UK, leading to the numbers of those arriving across the channel to skyrocket to 8,000 in 2020 compared to 300 in 2018. The ring-wing press has used this to fuel their anti-immigration narrative. News reporters dangled off the sides of boats last summer, attempting to interview refugees in overcrowded vessels crossing the perilous ocean in the name of capturing the image of a British coast under invasion.

The public's support for charities is focused domestically rather than internationally

Comments from a recent focus group held by nfpSynergy highlight the incredibly difficult climate that charities find themselves in. Here are just a few that show how the public is directing support homeward and focusing on the impact of the virus close to home. However, this was not a unanimous viewpoint, and others expressed disagreement with recent government aid funding cuts.

“Those down the bottom – the environment, animals, and overseas aid [are less of a priority]. I guess the ones that are right in front of us and local to us have been standing out more.”

Focus Group Participant

“I think there is more demand for charities in this country rather than the overseas ones. Everybody needs to think about what’s happening around us.”

Focus Group Participant

“I seem to be giving more money to local charities […] I feel that that my money will go straight to, more quickly to those people on the ground like the food banks, like the ones that were set up through the NHS.” 

Focus Group Participant

Though this shift in focus has and will continue to have a huge impact on overseas aid charities, levels of prospective support from the public for the overseas aid sector and refugee and asylum seeker organisations (compared to charities in other sectors) has always sat near the bottom of the list, and in 2020 remained consistently low. Our research indicates that just under 10% of the public would consider supporting charities working in the international development sector/ refugee and asylum seeker organisations over the next three months.

Fighting the devastating impacts of Covid-19 on refugees globally will require support from the government and the public during a time when overall support for the sector is declining. With almost half of UK development organisations expecting to shrink, the next 5 years will undoubtedly need to be a time of considerable adaptation for charities operating in the overseas aid sector. There have been recent calls for Covid-19 to be used as the catalyst to insight reform, to re-imagine outdated narratives and practices in Global Aid and to face underfunding during a time of astronomical need with global resilience and solidarity – this potential in itself ignites tremendous hope.

Our Charity Awareness Monitor (CAM) sector insight runs quarterly, with the next wave of research coming up in May 2021, with in-depth analysis available to subscribers of CAM. Please get in touch at if you are interested in further information about the extensive charity sector insight that nfpSynergy provides, or download the briefing pack below.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.