Freedom from Torture has won the Overall Award for Excellence at this year’s Charity Awards for its #StopTheFlights campaign, which convinced four commercial airlines to rule themselves out of the running for government contracts to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Freedom from Torture was chosen as the Overall Winner by this year’s judges from a total of 10 category winners; it also took the top prize in the Campaigning & Advocacy category. The charity was presented with the two awards at a glittering ceremony at the Royal Lancaster London last night.
While other NGOs focused on challenging the legality of the policy, Freedom from Torture decided to target the six airlines that were in the running for contracts to fly refugees to Rwanda. Its chief executive Sonya Sceats said: “We decided we needed to take a new approach to campaigning because conventional policy-focused parliamentary campaigning in this political context was no longer sufficient. We thought that the corporate actors would be more susceptible to public pressure than this government, which has such populist authoritarian leanings, and has proven itself over many years to be largely impervious to civil society-generated pressure.”
#StopTheFlights aimed to compel the airlines to rule themselves out of the deportation scheme by damaging their reputations locally and internationally. The multi-channel strategy comprised digital and traditional media, petitions and email campaigns alongside headline-grabbing direct actions. A concerted effort to bring humour and playfulness to the issue resulted in spoof websites and social media posts, the presentation of a ‘worst airline of the year’ award, and the handing out of one-way tickets to Rwanda at the Conservative Party conference.
Torture survivors contributed directly to the design and implementation of the campaign and many signed up to a campaign leadership programme launched by the charity, learning the components of organising and campaign strategy.
Freedom from Torture says it would have opposed the policy whichever country had been chosen as the destination. “What’s at stake here is the legacy following the Holocaust – the Refugee Convention that says people can get somewhere safe by any means necessary and claim asylum on arrival,” said Sceats. “This is a StopTheFlights campaign, not a StopRwanda campaign – this is not about Rwanda. It’s about whatever country this government is trying to circumvent its obligations through.”
After six months of campaigning, four of the six airlines had ruled themselves out of the scheme, including Privilege Style, the Spanish airline that had been due to make the first flight to Rwanda. Freedom from Torture is now continuing pressure on the two remaining airlines, Iberojet and Hi Fly.
Charity Awards judge Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, said: “This is what happens when you embed a genuine commitment to lived experience throughout your organisation, as Freedom from Torture has done for over a decade. And even if they haven't yet permanently stopped this policy, they have shifted the public debate – you see it coming up again and again, the questioning of whether this is an OK way to behave as a nation, as a society.”
Awards judge Karin Woodley, chief executive of Cambridge House, was impressed by the charity’s “masterstroke” tactic of embarrassing the government by shaming their private-sector partners, as well as its efforts to highlight that many of those being targeted for deportation were survivors of torture and not illegal immigrants. She described the campaign as a “very contemporary, 21st century approach”.
The awards judges were as impressed by the campaign’s success in facing down recent government efforts to stifle charity campaigning, as by its achievement in stalling the execution of such an inhumane and authoritarian policy.
Awards judge Tessy Ojo, chief executive of the Diana Award, said the government has been trying to shut down the voice of charities by claiming that their campaigns are too political, “but when you are talking about the lives of human beings, it is not political.
“By awarding Freedom from Torture, we are saying that the charity sector recognises the wrongness of the government’s action, and we will not be shut down.”
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of RSPCA, said the government is weaponising certain groups, including refugees, as a way to promote its political agenda. “I know that other governments have done that too, but recently it’s gotten much nastier, and what we are talking about here is individuals’ lives. This campaign is facing into that front-on, because sometimes you just have to take a stand.”
Paul Streets, chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, said Freedom from Torture’s win would give a boost to the wider refugee sector.
“We fund 60 or 70 refugee organisations, and you can’t overstate how difficult it is to run a refugee charity at the moment with the political environment we have. So the message this will send to those groups that, actually, we do think they have a right to be here – that’s really powerful.”
Judge Cathy Phelan-Watkins, owner and chair of Civil Society Media, said: “I am proud that we continue to celebrate and champion the sector as a powerful force for change in a world where we can sometimes feel disenfranchised and powerless.”
Freedom from Torture: ‘We can move mountains’
Accepting the award last night, Freedom from Torture’s director of survivor engagement, Kolbassia Haoussou said: “This campaign is a testament to all of us that we can move mountains when we put our hearts, when we put our energy, when we put our humanity in front and above anything else.
“There are no challenges bigger that we cannot achieve. And every charity that is here is doing tremendously well in supporting whatever category that you are working on.”
Haoussou thanked colleagues at Freedom from Torture, partner organisations and refugees with whom the charity works.
“Now we’re able to defend other refugees and make sure that this country is a country which treats people with respect, dignity, and a country where above everything else, we are welcoming people. And that’s why we are here,” he said.
Charities have never been under so much pressure to shut up and stick to service delivery.— Sonya Sceats 🧡 (@SonyaSceats) June 8, 2023
Last night a huge panel of civil society leaders threw their weight behind our refusal to sit back while this government tries to trade humans for cash with Rwanda. https://t.co/gwlKozQimr
Alongside the nine other category winners and the recipient of the Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement, Freedom from Torture was presented with its two trophies at the ceremony hosted by writer, comedian and political commentator Ayesha Hazarika.
Dr Hany El-Banna, founder and president of Islamic Relief Worldwide, won the Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement. Click here to read why.
Click here to read the full list of Charity Awards 2023 winners.