What is meaningful refugee participation?
At Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), meaningful refugee participation occurs when refugees from diverse backgrounds have sustained influence in all fora where decisions, policies, and responses that impact their lives are being designed and implemented. Meaningful participation requires actors to listen to refugees, and for refugees to have the power to have tangible influence over the priorities and outcome of the policy process. Refugees must be able to speak freely and must be informed about the purposes and outcomes of their participation. In the long term, refugee participation should be sustainable and separate from the support of NGOs or States.
However, a precondition for meaningful participation is for refugees to be included as full participants and actors in their community, including but not limited to access to the economy, health, and social services. In many cases, meaningful participation also requires a shift in how governments view refugees —not as beneficiaries of aid, but as rights-holders who already actively participate in shaping opportunities and outcomes in their lives and communities.
Here are some examples of where refugee participation is already being advanced around the world:
In Canada, the government has taken a leadership position in promoting refugee participation in the policy process. The government provides funding and support for the capacity building of refugee-led organizations and initiatives both in Canada and abroad. In 2019, the Government of Canada included a refugee advisor to its delegation to the Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced that this commitment would continue and that all future delegations of Canada to meetings of the international refugee system would include a refugee advisor. To further enhance the participation of refugees in Canada’s engagement with global refugee issues, the Refugee Advisory Network of Canada (RAN Canada) was established in 2021.
In the United States there are several civil-society refugee-led initiatives. For example, Refugee Congress brings together refugee policy advocates to discuss championing pro-refugee legislation. The government provides support to refugee community-based organizations through the ethnic community self-help program to foster community building and facilitate integration.
In Germany, the government consults with and supports domestic refugee-led initiatives working on issues related to policy creation, political participation and institution building. To encourage integration, the Federal Government regularly meets with migrant organizations and representatives from migrant communities.
In 2021, Colombia provided ten-year temporary protection status to some 1.7 million Venezuelans within its territory. This decision gives Venezuelans access to basic services and is key to long-term solutions, and access to the labor market. This decision also provides a more certain operational environment for refugee-led organizations in Colombia, such as Coalicion por Venezuela, a group of 31 Venezuelan civil society organizations leading efforts to respond to the needs of the development and continuous oversight of an overhauled reception system for asylum seekers.
In Kenya refugee participation is a constitutional right, following a ruling of the High Court of Kenya in November 2020. Refugees are also included in decisions related to livelihoods, planning, and the development of services related to education.
Formalizing the inclusion of refugee perspectives within international policy is a bold and substantial way for states to champion refugee participation, and effectively enhance the global response system to the needs of refugees. Without the meaningful inclusion of the perspectives from people policies are designed to assist, such policies fail to be effective. Embracing more innovative solutions to forced displacement such as meaningful refugee participation is a practical approach to fostering a more efficient global refugee regime.