• April 20, 2024
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Meaningful participation ; A holistic pathway to refugee inclusion

Meaningful participation ; A holistic pathway to refugee inclusion


Thursday, 14 March, 2024

McCreadie Andias

The global refugee crisis has become one of the most advanced humanitarian challenges of our time.With the escalating Russia-Ukraine war, Israeli – Palestine war, Darfur Conflicts and wars in Afghan and Syria, Millions are forced to flee their homes in search of safety while the number of hostilities is growing even further.

In 2023, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has estimated that there will be 117.2 million displaced or stateless people worldwide. The demand for urgent needs, assistance and protection is unprecedented.

Despite this growing numbers of forced Displacement crises, the traditional approach to providing aid to refugees has remained largely the same: often top-down, with little or no meaningful participation of refugees in the decision-making process that affects their futures.

This approach has limited the effectiveness of aid and support for refugees, leading to a call for more meaningful participation of refugees in the humanitarian sector. It also dangerously serves to perpetuate colonial power dynamics and sustain cycles of dependency.

Meaningful participation in the refugee response is crucial for fostering refugee inclusion and ensuring that their needs, rights, and perspectives are addressed effectively. By engaging refugees as active participants in decision-making processes, programs, and initiatives that affect their lives, it promotes empowerment, dignity, and self-reliance.

What is refugee participation?

When refugees — regardless of location, legal recognition, gender, identity and demographics — are prepared for and participating in fora and processes where strategies are being developed and/or decisions are being made (including at local, national, regional, and global levels, and especially when they facilitate interactions with host states, donors, or other influential bodies), in a manner that is ethical, sustained, safe, and supported financially.

There tends to be a spectrum of how ‘refugee participation’ is defined, ranging from tokenistic to real refugee leadership. It is for humanitarian agencies to implement this approach on a local level, but it takes much bigger shifts and compromise to meaningfully realise this on national and global levels.

This spectrum of meaning has often distorted progress within the sector and even perpetuates some of the barriers to participation. Humanitarian actors can believe they are enabling refugee participation, when in fact it is selective and restrictive. For example, there tends to be handpicking of refugee spokespeople to contribute in predefined ways in specific fora. This explains why so much emphasis has been placed on what makes the participation ‘meaningful’.

The focus must shift refugee leadership and refugee-led initiatives rather than solely participation, because it gives more agency and ownership to refugees.

The emphasis is on refugees holding power and not just measuring participation.If an organisation is not equally sharing power with refugees and RLOs when it develops or implements a programme, then it is not meaningful. Leading International organisations , which hold power and resources in the field of forced displacement response, must make conscious shifts in their position to make space for refugees to step in, and refugees must be enabled to do so.

It has to be about shifting the power dynamics rather than just sharing. That is where real and meaningful change will happen.

There is urgent need for Key players in the refugee sector to adopt a ‘refugee first ‘approach to achieve effective humanitarian interventions that affect refugees themselves.

Key stakeholders including Governmental immigration agencies, Donor Organization and Global Refugee Agencies can first accelerate meaningful participation through close collaboration and learning together with Refugee-led patners. Here they become more acutely aware of the numerous barriers that existed that limited their participation and their ability to serve their community in the way that they felt was best.

As They connect with other refugee-led organisations (RLOs) across regions affected by forced Displacement, they can realize more and more potential and recognise that often refugee-led groups face similar barriers in terms of the gaps in funding, capacity, coordination and advocacy.

One main solution it to develop a Capacity Strengthening and Sharing course that supports local refugee-led organisations with a range of courses including Governance, Resource Mapping and Financial Management.It is intriguing to realize that these RLOs can achieve more with this money than what larger organizations could have done with it; the RLOs’ response are more relevant for their contexts and, because it is led by them, it is usually more sustainable. For example, Tomorrow Vijana, the refugee-led group in Rwamwanja, was able to build a three-classroom hub for 30% less than it would have cost Cohere, a donor organization to built. It was able to source cheaper local materials and its own community members made the bricks.

Decision makers in this sector should embark on shifting their efforts to focus on supporting the needs of their RLO partners and the projects they lead and to stop thus stopping their own direct implementation. As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the globe in 2020, we saw many humanitarian organisations forced to put a halt to many of their interventions. In East Africa,leading organizations like Cohere were able to continue with their work because their RLO partners were on the ground, delivering and responding specifically to the needs of their communities during lockdowns.

This monumental global shift strengthened their case, further demonstrating that the localisation of humanitarian response was not just better but critical, especially during emergencies.In order for refugees to lead their own responses, their power and influence cannot just sit at the local level, they have to participate in all levels of decision-making.

The humanitarian sector needs to consider to go beyond just including refugees, and instead ensure meaningful participation.

What is the essence of meaningful participation ?‘

Responses are most effective when they meaningfully involve those they are intended to protect and assist’ . So “nothing for us is without us”approach must be adopted , because there’s a believe that when people affected by Displacement crisis are involved in decision-making, the response will be more effective.

Refugees are experts of the challenges they are facing and they know better than anyone what they really need to be able to reach their full potential.

Meaningful participation has considerable benefits for refugees, as well as strengthening partnerships and the effectiveness of interventions.

It allows refugees to exercise their right to self-determination, which is enshrined in international law. By participating in decision-making processes, refugees are able to shape their own future and the future of their communities. This, in turn, helps to build their sense of agency, which is critical for their wellbeing and self-worth.

Meaningful participation enhances the quality, the effectiveness and the sustainability of humanitarian interventions. It is well known that in crises local community members are the first and last responders. They can understand the needs and priorities of their communities better than anyone.

Not centring programme design and implementation on refugees’ experience, knowledge and understanding is a missed opportunity, but it also risks being destructive.

Refugee participation can lead to more effective and sustainable solutions that address the root causes of displacement and support refugees in rebuilding their lives.

This process also helps to nurture trust between refugees and humanitarian actors. By involving refugees in decision-making processes, humanitarian providers can demonstrate their commitment to transparency, accountability, and respect for refugees’ rights and dignity.

The impediments to Sucessful ‘meaningful refugee participation’

Refugees are best placed to speak about the challenges that they face, and equally they should be able to control or give priority recommendations and engage in the full process of decision-making in the project and programmes developed for them.

One major barrier is the lack of a common conceptual framework and guidelines for meaningful participation. This has led to divergent interpretations of what meaningful participation is and mechanisms developed by responding organisations RLOs. There are variations in the degrees of refugee participation, phases of the project cycle where participation is sought, and internal versus external participation. To address this barrier, it is recommended that organisations adopt a common definition of meaningful participation and commit to diversity, equity and inclusion values.

There are significant barriers relating to impartiality, representativeness and confidentiality of refugee leaders. Concerns about conflicts of interest, selection processes, and privileging certain communities pose obstacles to refugee participation. The requirements for full impartiality and representativeness have been questioned as being impossible and potentially used as excuses to exclude refugees from high-level decision-making.

It is suggestable that organisations base selection criteria on skills, develop inclusive governance mechanisms, and have conversations on reducing the gap between refugees in leadership positions and the populations they serve.

Meanwhile, challenges related to skills and workplace cultures impact the implementation of participation pledges. There are difficulties relating to finding qualified refugee candidates, acclimatising them to organisational cultures, and providing ongoing support.

Also the recruitment criteria that favour privileged backgrounds, and the perception of hypocrisy in advocating for refugee-led solutions but failing to recruit refugees is a bigger complaint . Recommendations include adopting inclusive recruitment strategies, revisiting human-resource policies and workplace cultures, and developing mapping and database programmes for refugee talents.

National regulations that restrict refugee access to rights and services pose significant barriers to meaningful participation.Countries where refugees lack legal recognition, risks and operational challenges hinder their inclusion in high-level management and compensation mechanisms. Work permit requirements and limited access to rights in practice also discourage the recruitment of refugee staff.

Restrictions to legal identity for refugees in Kenya is often a bigger challanges where some refugees who have stayed in the country for more than two decades have not yet been granted citizenship rights or identification documents which affects them negatively in acquiring of services ie financial services like Mpesa. Proposed solutions here include: advocacy efforts to address these restrictive frameworks, documenting the outcomes of refugee staff inclusion, and engaging with universities for more flexibility in refugee enrolment.

The recommendations aim to address the barriers and promote the adoption of inclusive practices; diversity, equity and inclusion values within humanitarian organisations, and collaborative efforts with refugee-led organisations to ensure meaningful refugee participation.

The process has also exposed our own gaps in these areas and where we are failing in our mission, but it is also providing a framework for shifting our work.

The international community is realizing that there is a need for refugees to have a greater say in the responses and policies that affect them. There has been some progress toward greater inclusion, but it has been slow. In reality, refugees are still largely excluded from most meetings and conversations about the very programs designed to help us.

Refugees decry that there has been much discussion on the topic of meaningful participation, but it is only through action when real change can happen . By engaging refugees as active participants in decision-making processes, programs, and initiatives, it enhances their voice, agency, and contributions to society.

However, addressing the challenges and barriers to meaningful participation requires concerted efforts by governments, humanitarian organizations, civil society actors, and donors to prioritize refugee voices, rights, and aspirations in all aspects of the refugee response.

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