Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law

Campaigning in the middle ground – how to win support for immigration


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For many campaigners there is a lot of uncertainty about how to get traction for their cause as Brexit and Covid continue to dominate the policy space. Migration advocates have a different challenge: the government has been clear that it wants to create an immigration system which is “firm but fair” and knows that talking tough on migration plays well with sections of its base. Ministers have adopted the sector language of broken systems and a fair and humane system, leaving some of us scratching our heads as to what to do.

With an 80-seat Conservative majority, we’re having to think about whether securing any change is better than nothing, or even whether our role is to fight to retain the status quo — something that would have been unimaginable a year ago. For some activists there is no room for compromise. From a movement point of view this is important and welcome, as there can’t be a one size fits all approach to campaigning. But others see the need to work with the current administration to make change happen.

This blog post is for people in the latter group. 

Vision, values and public support

While we all want to continue to speak truth to power, one of the biggest challenges we face is working out how to engage with people who might not share our agenda. Learning from other charities, like Mind, we know that partnership, collaboration, creating safe spaces for discussion and not being confrontational are good places to start. But such an approach is irrelevant without a clear vision for the future and a compelling case for support. Why would decision-makers give us space in the room if we don’t have those?

In an ideal world, those advocating for better protections for newcomers to our country would coalesce behind a bold, positive vision which enables social capital for migration to be built. Our case for support should be underpinned by two core elements: values and public support. And hard as it is for some to believe it, we have both.

Since 2016 the public has become less concerned about immigration, there is strong support for refugee protection, and even on tricky issues such as the Channel crossings and removals there is a more balanced view than the UK government suggests. Effective campaigners know how to use this data and engage core audiences to demonstrate and build support within persuadable audiences.

The values side – which the government is strong on – can be messy and complex, but when we talk about the change we want to see, keeping families together, creating safer routes to sanctuary and enabling people to thrive in the UK, support is there. How we achieve some of these things is where our challenge really lies. There is plenty of space for pragmatic campaigning, as the Detention Forum has shown. By building consensus and working with MPs from all parties, they got tantalisingly close to securing a time limit, and I think it’s still winnable.  

Different campaigning angles

What if we thought pragmatically about achieving our goals? For example, deportation is used by the government to show how tough the UK is on foreign national offenders, but what if, as Colin has mooted, we flip the campaigning and talk more about the importance of citizenship rather than stopping deportations? 

Organisations like We Belong and the3million are ramping up work on citizenship, and getting traction by playing into the government’s language around pride and the importance of belonging. Can other migration advocates see a space for the communities they work with in this kind of campaigning? 

We know that gaining status is important for all migrants, so why — when we have a Prime Minister who has regularly talked about an amnesty — aren’t more organisations supporting the grassroots push for this? An amnesty might not be perfect, but it does offer hope to the undocumented. Calling for an amnesty doesn’t stop us from campaigning for system reform. Far from it — it gives us the opportunity to talk about what happens once they’ve cleared the backlog. 

Whatever the Home Secretary’s “Fair Borders Bill” contains, we know the government will want to focus on border control and limiting access to justice. While the latter will have to be fought hard, engaging with the former needs to be less about securitisation (we’ll never win) and more about increasing refugee resettlement and practical, safer ways for people to make asylum claims. If we focus on the communities waiting to welcome refugees, we’ll not only be able to campaign effectively at a local level, we’ll be able to play into the government’s Global Britain agenda — making it difficult for it to argue against us.

The importance of human stories

The most effective campaigns are not only clear about their goals but are also driven by experience. Engaging experts by experience from the get-go is vital. It doesn’t always mean you end up with perfect legislation – as disability campaigners will tell you about their role in creating the Disability Discrimination Act – but it means the outcomes are more likely to make a tangible difference to those affected. Enabling experts by experience to drive campaigns, as well as be storytellers, is critical for our success. This means sharing the spotlight, making space at the table and giving up some power.

Telling stories is vital to successful campaigning. Stories help build understanding and support. We have to remember that many people won’t ever meet a refugee, and they won’t consider their workmate Pavel as a migrant. We have to help built connections so that people care enough to campaign with us.

Lots of people worry about falling into a trap of “good migrants” and “bad migrant”, so find it easier to keep quiet. When we do this, we really let the good vs bad migrant narrative take hold because those who are anti-migrant are keen to keep banging their drum about who is “acceptable”. Our job is to elevate the debate, talk about people, their families, their place in communities, their hopes and fears and what more we can do to make people feel at home in the UK.

The next few years will be challenging, but there are also opportunities. We can set the agenda for long term reform of asylum support and refugee protection. There is a moveable middle waiting for us to engage them, and a media keen to tell different stories. Are we bold enough to move into that space?

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Emma Harrison

Emma Harrison

Emma Harrison is Chief Executive of IMIX, a charity working with organisations across the refugee and migration sector to train, support and build communications capacity.