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.
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.
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.
A look behind the scenes: Find out what the researchers had to say about their experience while working on the study:
Author of the Turkey case study (Syrian refugee and asylum seeker communities)
I was surprised by how well people understood what democracy is. At the same time, when it came to the implementation and the questions of rights and responsibilities, answers were missing. Then it became clear to me: Not only that they don’t participate in their host country, but some of them have also never cast a vote in the country they came from. They have not lived with democracy. It is a great concept, but the question is how to implement it. Civic and political education, especially for younger generations, is the key.
The more we participate in our countries of origin, or as migrants in the places we are, the more we feel included and this is beneficial not only for us as individuals, but also for the long-term safety and wellbeing of those countries on a social, economic, on every level.
Author of the South Africa case study (Congolese refugee and asylum seeker communities)
The biggest surprise for me came not while researching, but during the two days of workshop where I exchanged with the other researchers from the project and some experts. I was surprised to hear some hesitations on whether we need to find ways to facilitate the right to political expression for refugees in their own countries of origin, which is a right of theirs and cannot be denied. When it comes to the modalities, however, I learned that one should look deep into the context, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
My future work will change in a way that I will have a more open mind when working with refugee-related issues. We tend to see refugees and asylum seekers from a humanitarian perspective and to neglect the other rights and needs they have. We should not put people in the vulnerability box only, as suffering and poor, but be aware that they have a voice and can make a positive contribution to our societies.
Nora Jasmin Ragab
Author of the Germany case study (Syrian and Afghani refugee and asylum seeker communities)
I was looking in particular into the political behavior of the more active individuals and groups within communities. Most surprising to me were the similarities in experience I noticed among Afghani and Syrian communities when it came to questions of political participation. Most of them faced obstacles to participating in their home communities due to the failing systems, and felt somewhat excluded from the political spaces in Germany due to the perception of being labeled as refugees or "the Muslim other".
Political agency is very strong; even refugees with no papers started organizing from the first day to influence their own conditions. The same is with the Afghani communities. I could notice a strong engagement at the grass-root levels, but also rich knowledge and experiences of involvement with political parties and processes.
Caleb Otieno Opon
Author of the Kenya case study (Somalian and South Sudanese refugee and asylum seeking communities)
My impression from the research was that humanitarian needs come first, before you can think of political rights and opportunities for participation. Especially among and regarding the Somali communities. Somalis long to participate in the politics of Somalia, but also to be treated as people with equal rights in Kenya. Both are challenging. Refugee communities are considered by some actors a security threat due to the sensitive context in both countries, despite the acknowledgment that many need the protection.
The international community should put pressure on countries of origin to include the refugee communities. If leaders are democratic and believe in the “one person, one vote” premise, then they need to let people express their opinion and make decisions on who is going to lead them, whether outside the country or inside the country. People should also be able to know and realize their rights in the context in which they live in the host countries.
Author of the Uganda case study (South Sudanese and Congolese refugee and asylum seeker communities)
I was very surprised by how welcomed this research was among the communities I interviewed. I was slightly nervous, especially concerning the research with the South Sudanese communities, as Uganda was just emerging from a humanitarian emergency response situation when I was in the field. I think this research in particular was welcomed because people inherently have the answers to their problems and they want a platform to be able to voice their perspectives. Many times my respondents said: "Once I become a refugee and inherit this title all my decision-making power has been taken away from me".
It was very enriching for me as a researcher to be able to exchange with people on their ideas regarding what can lead them back to their original countries, or if they didn’t want to repatriate, how they saw themselves as individuals expanding their capacity to move forward after exile.
Author of the United Kingdom case study (Afghani refugee and asylum seeker communities)
Political engagement of the Afghani refugee community in the UK is strong. Most who are naturalized vote, many join political parties, and even some people who do not have voting rights yet try to engage in various ways. I became aware that when refugees leave their homes, they maintain the thirst and craving for politics like all other human beings – every dinner table discussion is about politics, but they do not have the means.
There was great interest in the research, not only that people wanted to talk to me, but they also wanted to exchange among themselves. Therefore, I organized a radio talkshow on a diaspora Afghan Voice Radio where people could call in and discuss.“Political participation, at least in some way, is very important. If we don’t engage now, our children are also disengaged and will remain disengaged as adults; this society will remain distant to them.
Author of the Sweden case study (Somali and Syrian refugee and asylum seeker communities)
I was puzzled that many young refugees are active in civil society but reluctant to engage with political issues or vote. Integration is happening within many fields, but social and political participation is neglected, especially when it comes to voting. Election turnouts among migrants entitled to vote are very low. The reasons behind this is that people’s priority is to find housing, learn the language, get a job, often they are also thinking about issues related to their home country etc. The newly introduced temporary status also discourages people from participation, as it increases their burden of uncertainty.
People need to be educated as to what is democracy and why it is important for them to be active participants in society. There need to be political and civic awareness trainings at an early stage, so they know what rights they have and how far they can participate.
Zeina El Helou
Author of the Lebanon case study (Syrian refugee communities)
This is a very under-researched topic, but the research itself was quite challenging in Lebanon. Both Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities do not want to talk about it, for different reasons. Refugees because they have other priorities and never really believed their opinions would make a difference, host communities because they are used to a closed system, and because they themselves feel pretty much excluded from political processes anyway.
It is important to note as well that Syrian refugees themselves are not particularly longing to be naturalized in Lebanon. The history of the relations between the two countries, as well as the very dire socio-economic conditions of Lebanon, also do not play a contributing role. The fragile sectarian balance would also definitely suffer. It is not that I would miss sectarianism, being a fervent and very active opponent to that system anyway, but the outcome at this stage would probably be another cycle of violence because we do not yet have proper mechanisms for such transition.