How Can Refugees Participate in Politics?

In the last six years, the number of refugees worldwide has more than doubled. The integration of these people is a much discussed topic in many countries. How can refugees themselves participate in political life? Lina Antara explains how a global research project looks at the possibilities and limits of political participation.

Lea Wagner | September 2017
International IDEA/Tomas Spragg Nilsson

Lina Antara from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) is the project manager of the study Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Democracy that is supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

What is the focus of the research project Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Democracy?
Lina Antara:
We live in a time in which the population of refugees is growing more and more. From 2011 to 2017, it has doubled from 10.4 to 22.5 million refugees worldwide. Of course it is important to cater for elementary needs like food, security, clothes, housing and medicine. However, while ongoing debates are mainly focusing on the humanitarian, social and economic implications of large-scale refugee flows, the long-term implications for democracy in host and origin countries have been overlooked.

We should keep in mind that refugees have the potential to be dual political actors in their host and origin countries. With our project, we want to evaluate how this participation already works and what the challenges and opportunities for refugees’ political participation are. As a result, we aim to develop a report with recommendations to policymakers, NGOs and other stakeholders.

Why is it important that refugees and asylum seekers participate on a political level?
With this research project, we are looking at both countries of origin (source countries) and countries of destination (host countries). Participation in civic and political life creates a sense of belonging in the host country and enhances the quality of democracy. Refugees also can influence politics back home by diffusing ideas of democracy, which they have gained while living abroad.

How did you identify them?
First, we looked at the numbers. We wanted to identify the countries that had the biggest share of refugees - both in absolute numbers (such as in Lebanon and Turkey) as well as in relative numbers (as is the case with Sweden). Then, we did the same for countries of origin. Political and legal analyses and security reports also influenced our selection. We also deliberately looked at countries outside of Europe as we wanted to avoid a Eurocentric perspective, given International IDEA’s mandate to support democracy worldwide.

So which countries did you choose in the end?
For the project, we chose Germany for refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, Kenya for refugees from Somalia and South Sudan, Lebanon for refugees from Syria, South Africa for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sweden for refugees from Somalia and Syria, Turkey for refugees from Syria, Uganda for refugees from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the United Kingdom for refugees from Afghanistan. We then developed a questionnaire and distributed it among refugees to conduct focus group discussions and one-on-one interviews.

Does the study consist only of these questionnaires?
No, the survey is only a part of it. We want to develop case studies for each host country, consisting of the survey findings, some background information on the legal framework, the available statistical data and, of course, recommendations on how to handle the challenges refugees face with regards to political participation. In September, all researchers involved in the study gathered in Stockholm to present and discuss the current case studies and to formulate recommendations that will inform the final report. In 2018, the final results will be published.

[DE Copy] Refugees_Asylum_Seekers_Democracy_Roundtable_610
International IDEA/Tomas Spragg Nilsson

In September, the researchers met in Stockholm to discuss and compare their first findings.

What are the initial findings?
The preliminary insights from the research carried out in the eight host countries show a wide range of, and sometimes, contradictory responses. What is becoming evident is that effective participation of refugees in formal political processes is still a high benchmark in many countries and that informal avenues, such as civil society and local-level initiatives, present an alternative for refugees’ voices to be heard. We are now in the process of analyzing the results of the field research and compiling the final report.

You included very different countries in your survey – aren’t things too different to be compared?
We are seeking to identify common challenges and opportunities. In many cases there are big similarities. Such as marginalization and discrimination of refugees, often caused by stereotypes prominent in the host population. The possibilities of participating in formal political processes are still limited, as in most cases refugees need to be naturalized in order to vote. This can take a long time for a refugee, ranging from five to 15 years, depending on the country context. In the meantime, opportunities can be created through non-formal means of political participation, such as engagement in civil society and grassroots movements.

How did refugees react when you approached them about the project?
Most were really enthusiastic and highly interested in the topic of the project. In many cases they agreed to participate with the hope that this would make a difference and that their voices would reach decision makers.

How about participation back home?
There were big differences. Some people did not care about the politics in the countries they had left, partly because they struggled with establishing themselves in the host counties. Others cared a lot about the political situation back home.

Is there any country in which refugees can vote without being naturalized?
Yes, in Sweden non-citizens who have resided in the country for three consecutive years are allowed to vote in municipal and county elections. In other cases, like in the United Kingdom, non-citizens including refugees cannot vote but they can join political parties.

What is the situation in Germany like?
In Germany, as in most other countries included in the project, you need to be naturalized to vote. This is possible for refugees but the process can take a long time. However, in Germany there are many options to still participate in the society on a political level, for instance through non-governmental organizations that advocate for refugees’ rights.

How about the countries of origin: How far can refugees participate politically back home?
Some countries give their citizens the possibility to vote from abroad. There also are other mechanisms of non-formal political participation used by refugee diaspora to have their voices heard and raise awareness among the international community about the situation in their home countries.

Were there any differences between men and women?
Yes. There are persistent cultural, religious and structural barriers that still limit the opportunities for political participation of refugee women.

What are the next steps of your project?
We will finalize the case studies and compile the final report which will include a comparative analysis of the case studies and policy recommendation for the political inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in their host and origin countries. The final report will be made available online and will be launched beginning March 2018 in various locations, including Berlin, Brussels and Nairobi.

What are you hoping to achieve in the end?
We are hoping to raise awareness among policymakers on the opportunities and challenges for the political participation of refugees and asylum seekers in host and origin countries. We also want to provide actionable policy recommendations based on an analysis of the situation on the ground.