"We need to create effective measures to include refugee voices"

According to the latest statistics by the UN Refugee Agency, there have been more than 26 million refugees worldwide in 2020. How can the global community face their challenges sustainably? Rez Gardi and Mustafa Alio explain how giving refugees opportunities to meaningfully participate in decision-making processes leads to better solutions. 

Sabine Fischer | June 2021
Rez Gardi Weltlfüchtlingstag
Rez Gardi

Rez Gardi is seeking to help people who are experiencing forced displacement on the ground.

Ongoing national and international debates focus on the humanitarian, social and economic implications of forced displacement. The question of how refugees could be involved in decision-making processes is often being overlooked. Why is it important for refugees to be able to participate on a political level?

Rez Gardi: Refugee situations have increased in scope, scale and complexity. While the status quo continues to work for some issues the large scale of refugee movements and protracted refugee situations persist around the world. This indicates that things must change: We need new and innovative methods for assistance, protection and solutions. Finding the best responses and solutions for the issues requires strong evidence-based research and a commitment to translating findings into impact. I believe this requires input from those with lived experiences of displacement for a development of policies that are more in line with the situation and the reality on the ground. 

Mustafa Alio: Therefore, it’s important for refugees to participate on every single level of decision-making processes – from an idea all the way to its implementation. Being active on a political level is especially important because that’s where the ideas start, where solutions are proposed and collaborations are being made. 

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In 2020 there have been more than 26 million refugees in the world – twice as many as ten years before.

In their past Rez Gardi and Mustafa Alio from the initiative "R-SEAT" were also forced to leave their home countries and start their lives from scratch.

How did this experience shape what they work for and want to achieve today?  


What possibilities do refugees currently have to engage on a political level and where do these possibilities fall short of providing real opportunities of being involved in decision-making processes? 

Rez Gardi: With respect to refugee participation we’ve come a long way over the last few years. The international community has recognized the value of refugee participation and acknowledged that refugee engagement contributes to solutions that are sustainable, more impactful and more innovative. The importance of reflecting the perspective of those who have lived experiences of displacement has been highlighted through various global forums over the last few years. But there are still some obstacles that hinder the participation of refugees.

Mustafa Alio: One of the things still missing is a more collaborative approach: Refugee participation is not about doing the right thing. It’s part of a new method that would guarantee us better outcomes in a failing system. Refugee participation can contribute to changes in policy and the development of laws more impactful on the ground for those who get to experience it.

Rez Gardi: When we think about refugee issues the idea that everybody should be involved in the solution somehow still seems to be revolutionary. If you think about forums around the world, for example concerning gender equality or youth issues, you could not imagine any of these without the people who are most impacted. Yet when we think about refugee issues the same push for inclusion is not really on the forefront of organizers’ or decision makers’ minds. 

Rez Gardi
Rez Gardi

About the person

Rez Gardi is an international lawyer and human rights activist. She became New Zealand’s first female Kurdish lawyer and the first Kurd in history to graduate from Harvard Law. Prior to joining R-SEAT, she worked in Iraq as a Harvard Human Rights Fellow on cases for the prosecution of ISIS. Rez is the founder of ‘Empower’ – an organisation aiming to address the underrepresentation of refugees in higher education. She was awarded the Young New Zealander of the Year in 2017 for her services to human rights.

What could meaningful participation of refugees in decision-making processes look like? 

Mustafa Alio: Let’s try to break it down to get to the essence: If you are in a relationship your partner is a crucial member of any decision you make – from the idea to how you are going to do it. In a real partnership all parties agree on certain designs, policies or programs. And they share their own part of the work and the responsibility towards a mutual outcome that everybody wants. I strongly believe that this kind of meaningful participation leads to better solutions. 

Rez Gardi: We’ve seen it with the COVID 19 crisis: The pandemic made it really difficult for NGOs or other organizations to go into refugee communities to provide services or legal assistance. So it fell on refugee communities and their leaders to come up with ways to fill the gaps. What we’ve seen is that in this global crisis a new approach to solutions with displaced communities is possible. But we all need to play our part in including refugee voices and tackling their issues together. 

As refugees we need to be more vocal and have the trust that things can change

What changes need to be made in order to achieve meaningful participation?

Mustafa Alio: There are things that need to change on every level. On the state level for example there’s a political commitment that needs to be made. When it comes to the level of NGOs or the UN bodies their mindset needs to change: Refugees are generally being perceived as the kind of population that we need to help and get funding for. But they’re not all painted in one kind of a brush. They come in with different perspectives and skills and in order to think of them as a partner this needs to be acknowledged. The last point that I feel has to change is us refugees: We need to be more vocal and have the trust that things can change. 

Rez Gardi: I think we also need to create more effective measures to include refugee voices. We need to do better to create opportunities for the currently displaced people to be meaningfully engaged in order to address current and future challenges associated with forced displacement. 

Mustafa Alio: Canada has created a first-ever mechanism to institutionalize refugee participation in decisions made by the government. On this level refugees work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Immigration Ministry or NGOs. When Canada made this an official commitment it was the first time I had seen NGOs reaching out to us – not the other way around.

Mustafa Alio
Mustafa Alio

About the person

Mustafa Alio is currently Managing Director of R-SEAT. During the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, he became the first-ever refugee advisor to a Canadian delegation to a meeting of the international refugee system. He has worked closely with multiple government partners, international refugee networks, the UNHCR, international civil society actors and other stakeholders to address gaps and improve programing that meet refugee needs internationally. 

„R-SEAT“, an initiative supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung focuses on enhancing meaningful participation of refugees in decision-making processes on an international level. What are your goals and how do you want to achieve them?  

Mustafa Alio: “R-SEAT” is not an organization or an initiative trying to advocate for meaningful participation. We are going to those who have already shown the commitment for meaningful participation. “R-SEAT” is more of a tool that would work with governments and other stakeholders on how to create a mechanism or a process for meaningful participation. 

Rez Gardi: We are trying to work directly with civil society, states and refugee led organizations to implement meaningful engagement. For example we help them prioritize their goals towards capacity building and co-designing to ensure that they can provide platforms for refugees to be directly involved. 

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On the occasion of the World Refugee Day:

What’s Rez Gardi's and Mustafa Alio's vision for the future regarding political participation of refugees?