While there’s been a huge outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees in the UK – even the notoriously anti-migrant Daily Mail ran a Ukraine appeal – it’s clear that, for certain sections of the media and some politicians, that empathy does not extend to Black or Brown refugees. The overarching narrative has been anti-refugee for years, from former Prime Minister David Cameron describing displaced people in Calais as a “swarm”, to far-right journalist Katie Hopkins saying she wanted to gun down migrant boats in the UK’s most popular tabloid, to this current government even flirting with ‘wave machines’ in order to turn back refugee boats in the Channel. “For decades, people seeking asylum and other migrants have been demonised and scapegoated by successive governments and sections of the media,” says Kolbassia Haoussou, co-founder of One Strong Voice. “Refugees are portrayed as a burden, as a problem to be solved, rather than human beings in need of safety, with their own hopes and dreams. We set out to change that.” 

In 2019, Kolbassia Haoussou, MBE, the Director of Survivor Empowerment at Freedom from Torture and the co-founder of Survivors Speak OUT, saw that there was a lack of leaders with lived experience of the asylym and migration system at the highest levels of organizations. He made a few phone calls, set up a meeting with refugee and migrant campaigners from across the UK, and by January 2020, One Strong Voice was born. One Strong Voice describes themselves as ‘the UK’s first ever coalition of campaigners with lived experience of the immigration and asylum system’, and features members from organisations such as RAS Voice, Women for Refugee Women, Survivors Speak OUT, Helen Bamber Foundation, WAST, and more. Despite being a new coalition, they set out to work on one of the greatest challenges to the UK’s asylum system in decades – the Nationality & Borders Bill. Through a MobLab network facilitated Campaigner Accelerator training, One Strong Voice developed creative campaigns to flip the narrative about refugees and migrants in the UK and despite increasing political hostility, are seeing that hope-based messaging and narratives can have an enormous impact on public opinion. 

This week, Boris Johnson’s government reaches the final stages of “the biggest attack of refugee law ever seen in the UK” with the Nationality & Borders Bill. The government says they stand with Ukraine, but they are progressing plans that will punish Ukrainians and other refugees, simply for the route they take to safety. Most refugees have to travel as a stowaway on a boat, lorry, or train if they want to find safety in the UK. But if this Bill is passed into law, the UK will deny refugee protection to anyone who has taken such journeys. Instead, they’ll be given ‘temporary protection’ and find themselves in limbo, left without welfare support, unable to reunite with family and unable to settle – regardless of the horrors they’ve fled. In effect, it is an attempt to tear up rules that were introduced after the Holocaust which protect all refugees and enshrine the right to seek safety into law. Given the government’s 80-seat majority, One Strong Voice knew it would be extremely difficult to stop the bill passing into law. So they decided they needed to make space for the group to start thinking creatively. 

What followed was the first ever Campaign Accelerator where all participants were refugees and migrants. (Full disclosure: I facilitated the process in my role as Head of Digital & Campaigns at Freedom from Torture). Across five Zoom sessions in the summer of 2021, more than 20 members of One Strong Voice got together to try to think about new and innovative ways to tackle this government’s anti-refugee agenda.

“That brainstorming was really important to open the floor to everybody’s ideas. We had a platform for everybody to be creative…” says Mishka, using a pseudonym, as one of One Strong Voice’s founding members. “It also was a way for us to understand each other and get to know each other. All the ideas that everybody brings is what made us all realise we have something in common. We all have an experience we can all relate to.”

“We quickly had to scramble to get used to using the internet to meet, support members to learn,” explains AJ, using a pseudonym, as a lived experience campaigner at One Strong Voice and an Ambassador for Change at the Helen Bamber Foundation. “But it then became useful because we could now speak to people all over the country without worrying about commute times. People were fresh.” 

When the group did the system-mapping exercise and defined their biggest problem in the virtual Campaign Accelerator, one thing kept coming up: the hostile narrative scapegoating refugees and migrants that’s perpetuated by the government and certain sections of the media. “We felt if we could do something to show the positives of migration and refugee protection, or to show that another way is possible, we might be able to shift this narrative,” said Mishka.

After hours of creative brainstorming, prototyping, and testing, they aligned on two ideas. Firstly, they launched ‘A Vision of a Welcoming Britain: a 7-point plan for a better, more compassionate, more welcoming asylum system.‘ This was a manifesto for a truly inclusive UK, where people seeking asylum would be welcome. Their 7-point plan represented an alternative to the government’s hostile Nationality & Borders Bill.

“Our first aim was to come up with our own alternative version of the Nationality & Borders Bill,” explains Mishka. “And also, we wanted to have something from our end that would actually work for refugees and migrants, rather than coming from the government, because we know that whatever comes from the government will be damaging for us. We wanted an alternative to the hostile environment. 

AJ agrees, and explains why the group chose seven points: “These were the most impactful, the things that affected people the most. Like the right to claim asylum. Accommodation. Detention. Offshore processing. We wanted to show everybody what it would look like if we built a more compassionate system.”

They went one step further. One Strong Voice members were so tired of reading negative headlines about refugees and migrants, they decided to make their own good news. They created a parody newspaper of one of the UK’s most famous tabloids, filling it with good news from an imagined future where the UK welcomes refugees – and gave out thousands of copies outside the Conversative Party conference.

The ‘Metbo’ featured stories such as ‘Tory u-turn to welcome refugees’, ‘An end to detention as UK centres close’, ‘New “Minister of Welcome” a Priti good plan’, and more – each story bringing to life One Strong Voice’s Vision of a Welcoming Britain. There were even sports stories on the back page. Towards the back of the paper, the stories pivoted away from an imagined future into the hostile present, with real testimonies from One Strong Voice members as a reminder that, if we have hope for a better tomorrow, we still have a long way to go to get there.

“Honestly, the first time I held the Metbo paper in my hands, I was gobsmacked. It was amazing – to think all the work we’d put into it and we could actually see something tangible,” says AJ, her excitement still palpable today. “Reading the front page, relating to everything in this paper. It had a feelgood factor. I thought: maybe this is the first time refugees have created something like this.”

One Strong Voice members handed out around 4,000 copies of the Metbo outside the Conservative Party Conference in October 2021. Members of the public were visibly stunned by an apparent pro-refugee u-turn by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They soon realised it was a hoax – but it didn’t stop them turning the pages and reading about this alternative UK.

After launching a video of the stunt on One Strong Voice’s social media accounts – where they had less than 500 followers – they managed to reach over 250,000 people and secure coverage in publications like the Huffington Post. 

“It was much bigger than we thought it would be,” says Mishka. “People have told me they think it’s really unique. Some people thought it was a real newspaper because it looked that good. People even framed it! We still have people getting in touch with us to say how much they loved it.”

As campaigners, we’re trying to fix problems – and it can be easy to focus on the negatives when we’re talking to others. But research shows that when we offer solutions, people are not only more willing to listen – they’re more likely to be persuaded too. 

“There are a lot of problems in our audience’s daily lives and they don’t want another to add to the list. When you start your message by talking about problems, people switch off. Instead, start with a shared value, remind people of what we have in common and trust them to be the best version of themselves,” says Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Director at CLASS think tank and producer of ‘Changing the Conversation on Asylum: A Messaging Guide’ with Freedom from Torture. “Only then should you explain the problem, clearly stating who is responsible for it and why, and then lead with a grassroots call to action. Your messaging will be more persuasive this way, and ending with a call to action will reduce people’s cynicism about their ability to make a difference.” 

In January, One Strong Voice held an event in the House of Lords to highlight the devastating consequences that Clause 11 – the part of the Nationality & Borders Bill that will deny protection to anyone taking ‘unauthorised’ routes to safety in the UK – could have for people seeking asylum. “People can write laws but not know how it affects a person – but the Lords were really touched to hear what the impacts would be,” says AJ. By centering people with lived experience of the asylum and migration system, One Strong Voice has been able to move beyond abstract discourse and speak about concrete realities, from a place of authority – and that moves people. The House of Lords overwhelmingly voted to remove Clause 11 and other pernicious elements of the bill at the end of February

Given the huge government majority, it’s likely that the bill will still pass with its worst elements intact. However, it’s now clear that this government is wildly out of step with public opinion. 77% of people in the UK support allowing Ukrainian refugees to come to Britain without a visa, for example – something that the bill explicitly seeks to put a stop to. 

On March 22nd, 2022, the bill returned to the House of Commons, where MPs voted to keep those pernicious elements in the bill. The bill now enters ‘ping-pong’ (the process by which amendments bounce back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords). Campaigners from #TogetherWithRefugees, a coalition of over 400 organisations including One Strong Voice, are still seeking to influence MPs in order to attempt to win the removal of clause 11 and for the government to commit to resettlement targets. But even if the coalition loses this battle, the tide of public discourse around refugees has changed. That’s what happens when civil society organisations come together, speak to the moment using values-based messaging that works, and point to solutions.

“There is always hope,” says AJ. “Ultimately, whatever happens in Parliament, I can already see change. People didn’t realise that refugees can’t just flee wars, persecution or torture to seek safety easily, and when refugees arrive all they have is hopes and dreams to rebuild their lives.” One Strong Voice’s work on the Nationality & Borders Bill shows how important it is for campaigners to articulate a positive vision of the change they want to see. When we build hope, we help people to believe that change is possible. And when we’re faced with bad news every day, good news is always welcome. Even if you have to imagine it.

Jack Steadman

Jack Steadman is a campaigner, strategist, and facilitator with ten years of experience in digital communications. Joining Purpose as Campaign Director in January, Jack was previously Head of Digital & Campaigns at Freedom from To