International Study: Refugees Seeking to Engage in Political Life

An international study, “Political Participation of Refugees: Bridging the Gaps”, researches the political participation of refugees and its impacts on host and home countries. The study was recently presented and discussed for the first time in Berlin.

Philipp Wurm | April 2018
Anita Back

On the panel (left to right): political scientist Tanja Berg; Osama Salem, co-founder of the Network for Refugee Voices; Dr. Ruvi Ziegler, professor in international refugee law at the University of Reading; event host Christian Koch; Nora Ragab, migration researcher and author of the German case study; and Shoaib Sharifi, author of the British case study.

War and social crises turning an increasing number of people into refugees has become a global phenomenon. A joint study by Robert Bosch Stiftung GmbH and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) focuses on an aspect of migration research that has previously received very little attention: the participation of refugees in the political life of their host and home countries. An international team of researchers interviewed more than 600 refugees from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. They were interviewed directly in their host countries, including Germany, the UK, Kenya, Lebanon, Sweden, South Africa, Turkey, and Uganda.

Key finding: Refugees want to participate in political life, but formal opportunities are limited

The authors Armend Bekaj and Lina Antara, both from International IDEA, presented the findings of the study at the Berlin office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung on April 20, 2018. Their conclusion: Refugees want to participate in the public debate and engage in the political life of their host countries. While their interest varies in intensity and potential form of participation depending on the specific host country, it is always an expression of the integrative effect of political participation. People who have a voice also feel like an active part of society, according to the authors. However, conditions for refugees’ participation in political processes are far from ideal. For the most part, existing legislation prevents them from engaging in democratic expressions; for instance, refugees don’t usually have a right to vote if they don’t have the citizenship of their host country, even if they have been granted political asylum. The only exception is Sweden, where immigrants who have been residents for over three years are permitted to vote in local and regional elections. Besides the legal barriers, the authors list as major obstacles refugees’ “lack of knowledge about the political system of the host country, language barriers, a sense of marginalization, and negative experiences with politicians in the home country.”

Asked to suggest potential alternatives to formal political participation such as voting in elections, refugees primarily listed the offerings of NGOs, such as migrant diaspora or refugee organizations, and civil society, as well as in some countries the possibility of joining a political party. Participation options range from protests to grassroots movements and social media. These mechanisms of informal participation allow refugees to make their voices heard in the political landscape and impact the political development not only in their host countries but also back home. According to the study, this makes refugees act in a dual capacity – as transnational political stakeholders.

Authors calling for greater engagement of host countries

While some of the host countries in the survey actively support possibilities for refugees to engage in political life, others have a legal framework in place that prevents such activities, especially if these are considered political and not purely humanitarian in nature. The authors are therefore calling for greater engagement of the host countries in paving the way for refugees to participate in political and social life. This would require a change in legislation to grant refugees the right to vote in local and regional elections as well as freedom of expression and the right to self-organization. Another crucial aspect would be the support of state and local administrations in host countries for migrant diaspora and refugee-led organizations, a step that would have a long-term positive effect on the integration of refugees.

“Democracy requires learning by doing”

Following the presentation of the study’s findings, migration researchers, political scientists, and representatives of refugee organizations discussed the implications of these findings for the political arena and civil society. Ruvi Ziegler, professor in international refugee law at the University of Reading and the expert reviewer of the study, advocated better integration of refugees in the political life of their host countries by allowing them to vote. “Only then can people have an impact and a say in matters that directly affect them.”

Political scientist Tanja Berg of Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung (Project Association for Education and Research) also called for more opportunities for refugee participation in their host countries: “Democracy requires learning by doing. If the democratic process doesn’t play a role in everyday life, people lose interest.” Osama Salem, co-founder of the global Network for Refugee Voices, focused on the potential to be tapped through a migration-friendly climate in host countries: “Today’s refugees are tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs. This is an aspect many governments underestimate.”

The debate clearly showed that political participation in host countries is closely linked to former political engagement in refugees’ home countries. Shoaib Sharifi, author of the British case study, emphasized the positive washback effects of liberal immigration policies. According to Mr. Sharifi, politically trained and experienced migrants could return to their home countries and help establish democratic structures there. To underline the dire need for this type of commitment, Mr. Sharifi used his own story as a typical example: Having fled Afghanistan years ago, he had recently been granted British citizenship. As a dual citizen, he could now return to Afghanistan without putting his own or his family’s safety at risk. “The passport allows people to stay mobile and make the most of their potential,” he explained. At present, Mr. Sharifi is the Kabul Bureau Chief for the BBC.

The panel discussion in Berlin demonstrated the great potential involved in the issue of political participation of refugees. In real life, however, relevant options are still few. Nora Ragab, a migration researcher and author of the German case study, believes the greatest benefit of the study is that it goes beyond refugee stereotypes. “In the public debate, refugees are either victims in need of help or potential security risks. The IDEA study, on the other hand, regards them as political stakeholders,” said Ms. Ragab. A change of perspective that could add an important new aspect to the debate in Germany and other countries.

The study’s findings will also be presented in Brussels, Kampala, and Tunis and discussed with migration experts and lawmakers.

See here for the complete study.

Political Participation of Refugees: Bridging the Gaps

A report of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, supported by the Robert Bosch...

Presentation of the study and panel discussion