Refugee Council’s Enver Solomon: ‘Leadership is something you’re constantly trying to improve’

Written by: Michael Skapinker
Published on: 29 Nov 2022

Enver Solomon
© Anna Gordon/FT

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 provoking a flood of refugees. Twenty-seven people, including three children, drowned when their boat capsized crossing from France to England in November last year. The UK parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Act, which penalises asylum-seekers who do not come to Britain directly from their home countries. And the UK government launched its plan to deport migrants to Rwanda — although this is currently being challenged in the High Court.

“It’s been an extraordinary period,” Solomon says. He had been warned that UK refugee work would be intense. “But this has been like no other period in recent times.”

We are speaking in his North London family kitchen. The primary school class photo and times tables charts tacked to the walls speak of a domestic normality far removed from the terror of those risking their lives to reach UK shores.

The Channel crossings — more than 28,000 people have made the crossing in small boats so far this year — provided much of the impetus for the UK government’s recent actions. But while Solomon describes the Nationality and Borders Act as “one of the most significant pieces of legislation relating to asylum, refugees and immigration for many, many years” and the Rwanda plan as “a watershed moment”, effectively outsourcing an important government role to another country, he says it would be wrong to dismiss people’s worries about the increase in Channel crossings.

“It’s no good going on the radio and saying the numbers of people trying to come to the UK is not a problem. Because then people will immediately not engage with you if they think it is a problem. So you have to think very carefully about how you communicate.”

The Refugee Council — an independent charity set up in 1951 — provided support, help into employment and English language and vocational training to 15,000 refugees last year. It also campaigns for a more humane approach to those who have fled their countries. Solomon believes 25-30 per cent of the UK’s population are sympathetic to refugees. A similar number are implacably opposed. His aim is to address the 40-50 per cent in the middle, the people he calls “persuadable”, who are anxious about numbers, but are often supportive of refugees in their own communities.

What does he say to those who are genuinely puzzled that people make life-threatening journeys to the UK from France, a safe and democratic country? Many 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 also need to remember that most refugees do not get as far as France or the UK. The largest numbers end up in countries next to their own: Ukrainians in Poland, Afghans in Pakistan, Syrians in Lebanon.

How would he deal with the Channel crossings? It needs detailed, patient work, he says: easing restrictions on family reunions, providing humanitarian visas and working with the French authorities against people-smuggling gangs. “But there aren’t any magic single silver bullets. And that’s the problem: the government is flailing around and it’s overpromising and ultimately underdelivering.”

Solomon’s route to leadership began when, after a decade as a BBC journalist, he decided to become more involved in the causes he had been creating programmes about. He did a series of jobs in prison reform and children’s charities, some in team leadership positions. In 2018, he became the chief executive of Just for Kids Law, which provides legal support and advocacy to young people.

He had prepared for this first chief executive role for a while, working with an executive coach. “I’m a huge fan [of coaching] because I think leadership is something that you’re constantly trying to improve,” he says. “It’s something that you never master. You’re always trying to learn, absorb, think about it differently. It gives you incredible insights into yourself as a person.”

To be a really good leader, he believes the biggest challenge is that “you have to think about who you are as a person. And that can take you to places that you might not have explored before”.

He says, for example, that leadership is “relational”. “It’s about how you respond to other people. So how you might respond to conflict, or how you might respond to difficult situations, is a reflection of who you are as a person. That comes from experiences back in childhood, how you’ve been parented, your own relationships,” he says. If you respond to someone who challenges your leadership in a defensive way, that might be because of how things happened in your own family.

He says that when he first 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 made me think about how I deal with challenge, and that you can’t just push forward your view,” he adds. “You have to try and listen to people, you have to understand where they’re from.”

Where Solomon is from is a reason he applied to lead the Refugee Council. His father’s family were Jewish refugees who arrived on Merseyside from Eastern Europe at 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 Johannesburg-born mother worked as a social worker with Winnie Mandela in Soweto before emigrating to the UK, where she met his father, also a social worker and later a lecturer.

Growing up mixed-race in Manchester, Solomon says he was taunted at school. Today, his surname attracts antisemitic comments on Twitter. As a journalist, he played down his mixed-race heritage. “When I was at the BBC, I was determined not to be the community affairs reporter that reported 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 gone through the asylum system, but I’ve got refugee blood, if you like, or the history of it in my family. It matters that you’re not white in this sector, because race is an issue. The racialised nature of our approach to asylum and refugees and immigration in this country is very prominent. So suddenly I found myself in a role where it matters and I should be proud of it and talk about it.”

As to how he talks to that middle group of “persuadables”, he adds that they care about fairness and efficiency. “People think it’s absolutely right that people are treated fairly and given a fair hearing. People are also very committed to the notion that there needs to be order,” he says.

That there are more than 100,000 people awaiting a decision, that tens of thousands are waiting over six months and thousands waiting two, three years, even up to five years, is, he says, chaotic. “And people want a system that is efficient and orderly and works well — like they do with any public service.”

Three questions for Enver Solomon

Who is your leadership hero?

Pep Guardiola. I used to go and watch Manchester City as a kid and we always lost. I’ve thought about what one can learn from Guardiola’s leadership style. When Man City lose or do badly, the first thing he says is how brilliant his players are. He will never, ever openly criticise 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 entirely modest about it.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

When I worked with Martin Nary when he was chief executive of Barnardo’s, I learnt that leadership is about being brilliant with people. Martin was always interested in building relationships, giving people time, and being personable. 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 an external as well as an internal communicator. If we’re going 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’d probably still be a journalist. A lot of people in the voluntary sector see the journalists as the opposition. When I was working in prison reform and criminal justice, there were people in the sector who hated the media, who thought they all believed in locking everyone up. We know we should be engaging with politicians and decision makers and funders. We should see journalists and national newspaper editors as just as important.

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