Sara Nathan – Refugees in the UK– Getting Behind the Myths

November 2022

About The Speaker

Sara Nathan (HF1977-79) OBE went straight to Stanford University the term after graduating in History from New Hall, Cambridge, the only woman awarded a fellowship in 1977.  Her first year studying for an MA in History showed her that she was going to be the world’s worst academic historian. In the second year, she studied Broadcast Communication – unavailable in the UK then. This persuaded the BBC to employ her as a News Trainee in 1980. She progressed to roles as a producer in the TV newsroom, output editor for Breakfast and Newsnight, and film-maker for the Money Programme. She helped launch Radio 5Live, becoming the Editor of the morning programme.   In 1995, she was appointed Editor, Channel 4 News: the first woman to edit a UK network news programme.  In 1998, Sara left daily news and went plural, filling up to six part-time roles at a time including some journalism. She has been on a number of boards including Ofcom, the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.  She now chairs tribunals for Social Work England, is on the King’s Counsel Appointments Panel is and, most often, a trustee, host and volunteer with Refugees At Home: a charity she co-founded in 2015 to match asylum-seekers and refugees in need with generous hosts who have spare rooms.


In the midst of media scare stories and political weaponisation of refugees, how do we get to the truth about the impact of refugees on the UK.  Why is there such political antipathy, when on an individual level families have been very welcoming to refugees from Ukraine in recent months. Is it just that Ukrainians: white, female and Christian are seen as acceptable? The anticipated High Court Judgement on the Rwanda policy, due in October, will have serious implications for refugees and the UK’s reputation as a humanitarian international player going forward.

Sara began by talking about the refugee situation in the UK.  She emphasised the negative language used by politicians and the press to describe asylum seekers and the atmosphere of fear that is created by this language; when you demonize and dehumanise people this has consequences. In context in 2002, the peak of asylum seekers, there were 85,000 applications. This year fewer than 40,000 crossed the channel. With all other methods of entry sealed off, asylum-seekers resort to small boats as the only option. She noted that the published numbers of asylum seekers in the UK was not absolute, for example Ukrainian and Hong Kong Citizens have visa routes they can use, and for a period so did the Afghans.  Around 124,000 Ukrainians had been granted visas and around 150,000 British Nationals Overseas (from Hong Kong) have been granted entry into the UK.  Processing systems for these asylum seekers work well. For anyone else who wishes to claim asylum they have to arrive in the country, so they have no other option than to attempt to arrive ‘illegally’. Sara noted that asylum seekers are not engaged in illegal activity.  The 1951  international Convention was clear that it is not illegal to claim asylum.  It is also untrue that refugees are required to claim asylum in the first country they land in, although that was a convention in the EU.

Sara noted that there are options that the Home Secretary could focus on to create an effective system for granting asylum; for example investing the money spent on the Rwandan or deals on French coastal patrols to make the decision process simpler, quicker and more efficient. Essentially 70% of those who apply for asylum get refugee status granted but the Refugee Council has reported more than 120,000 people were waiting for an initial decision, of these around 41,000 had been waiting 1-3 years for a decision, and 800 have been waiting for more than 5 years.  The system is so slow, with poorly trained decision-makers making one decision a week, that it causes housing problems with more and more hotels needed to house them, and camps overflowing.  This all results in spiralling costs and a system that is fundamentally broken.

Asylum seekers have no control over their lives, they can be moved even if their children are settled into school and have local health support. They are not allowed to work and only receive £40 a week for food, clothing and everything else, or if they are in a hotel just £8 a week. The companies that manage the hostels and hotels make millions but cut corners, for example recently 172 people were moved from Acton to Kent, because the company claimed that they needed the hostel for NHS workers, it turned out they actually wanted to use it for exchange students, a move that was clearly for profit.  The myths that asylum seekers are untrustworthy or that they are coming to use the UK benefits system are simply untrue, but the politicians play on these fears in order to make political gains, and feed their fear narrative.

So what would Sara do?  As demonstrated by the visa routes available for citizens of Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghan citizens, an apply from home system would be far more effective and would help prevent people risking their lives by attempting to enter the country on small boats.  It would also be an effective way of stopping the people traffickers and smugglers.   There is currently a labour shortage in the UK, and by allowing asylum seekers to work, not only could this help this shortage, but they also become tax payers, who are able to contribute to the society they have chosen to live in.  Their children can be integrated into schools whilst learning English all of which leads to them becoming good citizens.   Refugees would be safe and costs reduced. The current system is costly and the decision-making process disastrous and if no changes are made it can only get worse!

Finally Sara talked about the charity, Refugees at Home, she set up in 2015/16.  Inspired by her grandparents who had taken in a child from the Kindertransport, and her brother’s mother-in-law, herself a refugees, Sara and her brother set up a charity that matches hosts who have a spare room with asylum seekers/refugees who need emergency or temporary housing.  Generously supported by city lawyers Travers Smith, by 2021 the charity had arranged over 170,000 placement nights and had almost 2000 hosts signed up.  The charity’s work has hugely expanded since the introduction of the Government’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme, has hosted over 4,000 people for nearly 300,000 individual nights and it is likely to continue to expand.  More information about the charity can be found here: