Working with Refugee Action


Refugee Action is a £5.2M national charity that provides direct advice to 3,300 asylum seekers a year, and resettled 1,400 refugees in 2016/17. The charity stands frontline in coordinating and directly responding to the refugee crisis in the UK, but the extremely challenging funding environment required it to lose 75% of its staff in 2015.


The funder Esmée Fairbairn invited Refugee Action to join a CAST Design Hop it had funded to focus on refugee and migration issues in November 2016. In the run-up to the event, CAST mapped participating organisations’ own existing use of digital, sector-wide digital tools they were aware of and charities’ key challenges.

The challenge that Refugee Action identified, and brought to the Hop workshop, was how digital could improve and scale up the training it delivers to help small, third-party frontline organisations. Refugee Action’s training ensures these frontline staff remain up-to-date and responsive to a fast-moving legislative environment.

One of Refugee Action’s four core services is helping refugees to access justice, via these organisations, so it was crucial they establish a means to update them about new legislation affecting them, their services and beneficiaries. Chief Executive Stephen Hale saw digital as the only way the charity could provide a universal service of up-to-date support across the country. Before the Design Hop, this work was being delivered and coordinated manually by one member of staff, who personally recruited individuals and organisations and then led a five-day learning course. Unsurprisingly, the organisation was struggling to meet demand.

Esmée Fairbairn deemed the topic so urgent and the potential for digital to deliver a solution so powerful that it awarded Refugee Action interim funding to work alongside CAST to explore the issue further: firstly, charting the digital behaviour of these micro charities; secondly, creating user-led digital tools to deliver accessible learning courses to them, thus speeding up the flow of information; and thirdly, adding new courses and information as it emerged to support the sector.

CAST led the charity in user research that helped pinpoint the needs and behaviours of the frontline organisations. Following that, we encouraged the charity to base its service on a robust, off-the-shelf tool, in this case WordPress plug-ins, rather than creating their own costly, bespoke tool.


Within a month of development, the charity was using the WordPress plug-ins to upload more courses. They are now being used (and refined) by its second cohort of students. The plug-ins allowed student learning to become more self-taught, making students more resilient and dramatically cutting Refugee Action’s workload, while enabling the charity to actually deliver more in terms of content.

One of Refugee Action’s top four achievements 2016/17 was to have ‘increased the capacity of other organisations to support asylum seekers and refugees, by training 158 staff from 60 other charities to provide immigration advice.’ The plug-in has to date trained 400 students from 115 organisations.

Hale says, “What started as a modest, half-day Design Hop exercise with CAST has led to the creation of a vital new product and service for hundreds of frontline works in the UK to keep up-to-date with the best support possible. Crucially too it has also given the charity a much clearer strategic understanding of digital—as a result of which digital is now embedded in our new five-year strategy.”

Dan Sutch, co-founder of CAST says, “For us what was so crucial was that by repurposing an existing off-the-shelf platform—in this case WordPress plug-ins—rather than commissioning a new, whizzy bit of technology, Refugee Action has a sustainable product that can develop and grow, is easy to update and is professionally maintained. It is so important for a fragile sector such as ours to reuse tools that already exist, since it so massively lowers the cost of innovation.”

The charity is now also partnering with CAST to deliver online resources to support its Asylum Guides’ programme, another initiative to build capacity and skills of those supporting asylum seekers and refugees. Many of those entering the asylum system are given insufficient information about what is happening to them, why it is happening and how they can make the right decisions. The Asylum Guides scheme matches new asylum seekers with people who have already been through the system to guide and support them through the process. The scheme has been tested locally, and will be rolled out nationally with partner organisations embedding it within their services. Refugee Action’s Good Practice and Partnerships team will support them to adopt the model so it can scale quickly—something only made possible by sharing the programme’s resources digitally.