By Mark Richard South, IFRC

Stepping aside and letting others lead might sound a surprising move for a National Society seeking to increase its influence on issues affecting refugees but sharing power and enabling participation is key to a groundbreaking new approach from the British Red Cross.

The VOICES Network, supported by the British Red Cross, is a nationwide association of people with refugee backgrounds providing a platform on which to share the challenges they face and raise those issues to decision-makers.

“There are many people out there who don’t know how to channel their grievances when they think that there should be a change in asylum policy. I am trained to know how and where to meet people who can make this change happen,” explains Godwin, a refugee from Nigeria and a member of the VOICES Network.

For VOICES Ambassadors like Godwin, sharing their experiences with the public has the potential to change minds, engaging with the media can help shape public opinion, and advocating with policymakers can secure changes to government policy.

And by coordinating and focusing on a few select priority areas – the right to work, access to education, effective asylum process, detention, housing and family reunion – the ambassadors increase their chance of having an impact.

The Voices Network also plays a crucial role for the British Red Cross when it devises programmes to support refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, with the insights and experiences of Network members proving an invaluable resource to draw from.

“Policies and services are too often designed and implemented without consulting the people they are supposed to help. Solutions designed to enhance integration rarely recognise or build on the diverse skills, experiences and qualifications refugees already have,” says Fiona Harvey, Project Manager at the British Red Cross.

“The VOICES Ambassadors have been, and are, on the receiving end of asylum policy – you couldn’t find better qualified experts on the asylum process. Sometimes even the smallest change to legislation or its implementation can have a huge impact on people’s lives, and that is why recognizing the value of people’s lived experience is so important,” she adds.

As part of its supporting role, the British Red Cross has been providing training for VOICES Ambassadors – covering how to engage with media on various levels, and how to plan and deliver advocacy – and is finding that the training is having knock-on effects in other aspects of participants’ lives.

Anna, a refugee living in Glasgow has found taking part in the VOICES Network key to overcoming her shyness.

“I have gained so much from the VOICES Network. Before I was so shy and today, I can stand in front of any audience and tell them about the issues that we face,” she says.

Zain from Leicester found the Network a great place to connect with people who have had similar experiences.

“Being involved in the VOICES Network has made me feel that I am not alone, that there are others who are in the same situation as me. This a great platform for marginalised groups such as migrants like me to have a voice as it empowers us to break through the obstacles and barriers we face,” he says.

The VOICES Network is also supported through the AVAIL (Amplifying the Voices of Asylum seekers and refugees for Integration and Life skills) project and is part of a broader initiative involving Red Cross societies in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and Latvia, funded by the European Union.

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