Refugee Council’s Enver Solomon: ‘Leadership is something you are constantly trying to improve’
Since Enver Solomon became chief executive of the Refugee Council in December 2020, Kabul has fallen to the Taliban and Russia has invaded Ukraine, both causing a flood of refugees. Twenty-seven people, including three children, drowned when their boat capsized while crossing from France to England last November. The UK Parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Act, which penalizes asylum seekers who do not come to Britain directly from their home country. And the British government has launched its plan to deport migrants to Rwanda – although this is currently being challenged in the High Court.
“It’s been an amazing time,” Solomon said. He had been warned that the work of the British refugees would be intense. “But it hasn’t been like other periods lately.”
We talk in his North London home kitchen. The primary school class photo and the multiplication charts taped to the walls speak of a domestic normality far removed from the terror of those who risk their lives to reach British shores.
Channel crossings – more than 28,000 people have made the crossing in small boats so far this year – have given much of the impetus to recent actions by the UK government. But while Solomon describes the Nationality and Borders Act as “one of the most important pieces of asylum, refugee and immigration legislation for many, many years” and the Rwandan plan as “a watershed moment “, the effective outsourcing of an important government role to another country, he says it would be wrong to ignore people’s concerns about increased Channel crossings.
“It’s not right to go on the radio and say the number of people trying to come to the UK is not a problem. Because then people won’t immediately engage with you if they think it’s a problem. So you have to think very carefully about how you communicate.
The Refugee Council – an independent charity established in 1951 – provided support, employment assistance and English and vocational training to 15,000 refugees last year. He also campaigns for a more humane approach to those who have fled their country. Solomon thinks that 25-30% of the British population is pro-refugee. A similar number oppose it implacably. His goal is to reach out to the middle 40-50%, the people he calls “persuasive,” who worry about numbers but often support refugees in their own communities.
What does it say to those who are truly perplexed by the thought of people making life-threatening journeys to the UK from France, a safe and democratic country? Many of those risking the crossing have family or friends in the UK, he says. France has nearly twice as many asylum seekers as the UK; Germany three times. We must also remember that most refugees do not make it to France or the UK. The greatest number are found in neighboring countries: Ukrainians in Poland, Afghans in Pakistan, Syrians in Lebanon.
How would he manage the Channel crossings? This requires painstaking and patient work, he says: easing restrictions on family reunifications, providing humanitarian visas and working with French authorities against smuggling gangs. “But there is no single magic silver bullet. And that’s the problem: the government gets restless and it’s over-promising and ultimately under-delivering.
Solomon’s journey to leadership began when, after a decade as a BBC journalist, he decided to become more involved in the causes he had created programs about. He did a series of jobs in prison reform and children’s charities, some in team leadership positions. In 2018, he became Managing Director of Just for Kids Law, which provides legal support and advocacy to young people.
He had been preparing for this first role as general manager for some time, working with an executive coach. “I am a big fan [of coaching] because I think leadership is something you’re constantly trying to improve,” he says. “It’s something you never master. You are always trying to learn, to absorb, to think about it differently. It gives you incredible insight into yourself as a person.
Three questions to Enver Solomon
Who is your leadership hero?
Pep Guardiola. I used to go watch Manchester City when I was a kid and we always lost. I thought about what can be learned from Guardiola’s leadership style. When Man City lose or do poorly, the first thing they say is how brilliant their players are. He will never, never openly criticize them. And he’s always trying to think about how they can be better. He’s one of the best of his generation, but he’s quite modest about it.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
When I worked with Martin Nary when he was General Manager of Barnardo’s, I learned that leadership is about being brilliant with people. Martin has always been interested in building relationships, giving people time, and being nice. And he was always interested in thinking about how he communicated as a leader, internally and externally. In the voluntary sector, I don’t think we think enough about the importance of being both an external communicator and an internal communicator. If we want to advance our cause, we really need to think about how we talk about it publicly.
If you weren’t CEO, what would you be?
I would probably still be a journalist. Many people in the voluntary sector see journalists as the opposition. When I worked in prison reform and criminal justice, there were people in the industry who hated the media, who thought they all believed in locking everyone up. We know we should engage with politicians, policy makers and funders. We should consider journalists and publishers of national newspapers as equally important.
To be a great leader, he believes the biggest challenge is “you have to think about who you are as a person. And it can take you to places you might not have explored before.”
He says, for example, that leadership is “relational.” “It’s about how you react to other people. So how you might react to conflict, or how you might react to difficult situations, is a reflection of who you are as a person. It comes from childhood experiences, how you parented, your own relationships,” he says. If you respond to someone who challenges your leadership defensively, it may be because of how things have gone in your own family.
He says that when he started leading teams, he was less open to understanding who he was as a person and less open to understanding how to react to people. “It really got me thinking about how I deal with challenges and how you can’t just push your point of view,” he adds. “You have to try to listen to people, you have to understand where they come from.”
Where Solomon is from is one of the reasons he applied to lead the Refugee Council. His father’s family consisted of Jewish refugees who arrived in Merseyside from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. His maternal grandmother, an Indian Muslim from Gujarat, was sent to South Africa for an arranged marriage. The family there were anti-apartheid activists. Solomon’s mother, born in Johannesburg, worked as a social worker with Winnie Mandela in Soweto before emigrating to the UK, where she met her father, also a social worker and later lecturer.
Growing up mixed race in Manchester, Solomon says he was teased at school. Today, his surname attracts anti-Semitic comments on Twitter. As a journalist, he downplayed his Métis heritage. “When I was at the BBC, I was determined not to be the community affairs reporter reporting on race and race relations.” But when he arrived at the Refugee Council, he felt it was important to identify himself as its first ethnic minority chief executive.
“I haven’t been through the asylum system, but I have refugee blood, if you will, or the history of it in my family. It is important that you are not white in this sector, because race is an issue. The racialized nature of our approach to asylum, refugees and immigration in this country is very important. So suddenly I found myself in a role where it matters and I should be proud of it and talk about it.
As for how he speaks to this middle group of “persuaders,” he adds that they care about fairness and efficiency. “People think it’s absolutely right that people be treated fairly and given a fair hearing. People are also very attached to the idea that there should be order,” he says.
That there are more than 100,000 people waiting for a decision, that tens of thousands are waiting more than six months and thousands are waiting two, three years or even up to five years, it is, he says , chaotic. “And people want a system that’s efficient and orderly and works well – just like they do with any utility.”