Have you ever been overwhelmed with offers of help from loved ones, which while well-intentioned wasn’t what you needed?
Upon seeing someone in need, it is tempting to first offer solutions without asking them what they require or involving them in the process. However, without listening to what someone needs, are we be able to help? Posing questions like this adds perspective to humanitarian efforts, and enables better solutions in every sense. Consequently, when implementing projects targeted towards displaced populations, it’s necessary to consult affected populations to discern the most effective solution. However, just because people become displaced from their country of origin, does not mean they are unable to speak up and act upon their needs.
The history of support and policy regarding refugees shows a tendency for international actors to overlook refugees themselves in the decision-making process.1 In this way, after being displaced refugees are made helpless and unable to control other important aspects of their livelihood; despite having voices, refugees are made voiceless. This perspective has been challenged by organizations such as the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN), which works towards ensuring “that refugees like ourselves can meaningfully participate in strategizing, funding and implementing programs, policies and other responses that influence our lives”.2 In addition to this, traditional governance stakeholders are encountering complex problems in the refugee response sector and searching for sources of expert knowledge, especially within the European Union3 as well as in times of political, economic, or health crises.4 As a result, the contributions, efforts, and insights of refugees are becoming more and more recognized in the local, national, and international context.
When cultivated, the relationship between refugee-led organizations (RLOs) and other stakeholders serves as a crucial asset for responding to the situation of refugees. In this way, refugees need not be perceived as a problem for host communities to deal with in terms of accommodation or education, but rather part of the solution for refugee relief. The organization Urban Refugees upholds that RLOs have a unique skill set that can increase the effectiveness of programs targeting displaced populations.5 Through RLOs, refugees can mobilize their positionality to better understand the situation on the ground, and in turn, offer innovative solutions at a faster pace than international organizations.6 For example, the skill set of RLOs can be utilized within the creation, implementation, promotion, provision, and evaluation of programs. Concretely, this can be seen in the provision of ‘informal’ yet necessary services – a 2019 report for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles found that RLOs offer emergency services, provide help with acquiring accommodation or labor market assistance, as well as organizing social and cultural events.7 While refugees and RLOs have proven themselves capable of arranging support and assisting their communities, to be engaged as equal partners in the management of refugee migration, their actions must also be incorporated into existing structures and processes of the refugee response sector.
The GRN and Asylum Access have created a distinction between mere tokenization and ‘meaningful participation. By doing so, the initiatives and work of refugees can be both treated seriously and lead to long-lasting impactful change. During a project organized in Malaysia, Urban Refugees found that RLOs offer both immediate and extended improvements for refugee communities and that when supported by other stakeholders, RLOs become capable to expand their operations and better support communities.8 One example of the necessary expansions for RLOs can be seen in the access to legal or civic services in the country of residence.9 In this way, meaningful participation occurs “[w]hen refugees… are prepared for and participating in fora and processes where strategies are being developed and/or decisions are being made… in a manner that is ethical, sustained, safe, and supported financially”.10 Understanding the efforts of refugees in this way places their work as equal to their (oftentimes larger and more financed) coworkers in the field of refugee response.
Notably, the contributions of several RLOs have been recognized for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the UNHCR, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees remarking that RLOs “has proven to be the most important and effective at finding innovative and local solutions”.11 From this, the work of RLOs has been invaluable in assisting vulnerable populations. In line with this, the Global Forum on Migration and Development ad hoc Working Group on Public Narratives on Migration has recently launched a global campaign, entitled It Takes a Community.12 This campaign seeks to draw further attention to the contributions that migrants and refugees bring to their local community – participants are asked to share their encounters with migrants, refugees, and the local community on social media or the website. In this way, It Takes a Community seeks to revert the current negative political framing of migration, and instead focus on the mutually enriching benefits of migration experienced by everyone in a community.13 In other words, the campaign wishes to revert the image of the refugee as a receiver of help. Instead, refugees and RLOs can be seen with their contributions, as active members whose participation strengthens the community. Along these lines, it becomes clear the importance of amplifying the voices of the ‘voiceless’.