Incorporating Lived Experience into Decision-Making Spaces

Rez Gardi, International lawyer, human rights activist, and co-founder of Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table Kurdistan/New Zealand

Public service is not just about providing humanitarian aid, such as food, water, and shelter. It’s about providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to participate in the decisions that affect their lives — by giving them a seat at the table.

While developing effective solutions for managing the global refugee system, including refugee voices in the discussion is not the norm, but it desperately needs to be.

According to the latest statistics by the UN Refugee Agency, there are over 26 million refugees worldwide. As these statistics continue rising, how will the world address refugee crises sustainably? By giving refugees the opportunity to meaningfully participate in decision-making processes, we can create better solutions for all.

I co-founded Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT) to bring refugees into conversations about policies that directly affect our lives. We urge international institutions and countries to include us in the central decision-making bodies of the global refugee response system, such as the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

Refugee crises have been increasing in scope, scale, and complexity, with protracted refugee movements persisting around the world. The current landscape indicates that things must change: we need new and innovative methods for providing assistance and protection for refugees. Determining the most effective  solutions requires strong, evidence-based research and a commitment to translating findings into action. Most of all, this requires input from those with lived experiences of displacement. Including refugees in the conversation will lead to policies that directly respond to the reality on the ground.

Global refugee systems can become more equitable, effective, and legitimate if we incorporate refugee voices into policy discussions. We need to reimagine a system where refugees have a seat at the table where we can use our expertise and lived experiences to help build the systems we depend on for protection.

Over the last few years, the international community has acknowledged the value that refugee engagement has in contributing to innovative, sustainable solutions. Numerous global forums have highlighted the necessity of reflecting perspectives of those who actually live in diaspora. Despite progress, certain obstacles still hinder impactful refugee participation.

In December, senior government officials and other stakeholders convened for the UN Refugee Agency’s High-Level Officials Meeting (HLOM) to assess progress and maintain momentum toward implementing the objectives of the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees The framework outlines a vision for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity with refugees and host countries. Yet, only three of the over 70+ country delegations — the United States, Canada, and Germany — included a refugee in its delegation. And it was the first time that the United States and Germany included refugee advisers in their delegations in any international refugee meeting. While setting this precedent is substantial, it was only able to come to fruition after months of urging the United States and Germany to agree.

Symbolic representation will not be enough. Refugees must join the process of imagining new solutions and programs in ways that are meaningful— not tokenistic. It’s not enough to invite a refugee representative to a meeting, ask them to tell their story, and then get to the business of making decisions after they leave – which happens all too often. Our participation in these conversations will only be meaningful if they are substantive, sustained, and have the potential to affect outcomes.

Refugees cannot achieve international representation on our own. By definition, refugees lack traditional political power, meaning we need allies to support — and demand — the creation of spaces for meaningful participation. 

Refugee participation in policy discussions is gaining momentum, but there’s still a long way to go until we achieve full recognition. At the UN Global Refugee Forum in 2019 – the first major event following up on the Global Compact on Refugees — there were around 3,000 participants, including heads of state, ministers, and representatives of NGOs and private companies. Meanwhile, only around 70 refugees attended. 

According to research by our team and partner organizations, in recent years, more than 30 governments discussed including refugees’ participation in global meetings. Although these conversations are important first steps, in reality, refugee participation remains largely absent, as is evident in UNHCR events.

Forcibly displaced persons — including refugees — now constitute about one percent of the world’s population. With the accelerating climate crisis added to the equation, that percentage is expected to grow to close to 15% by 2050, with the number of displaced individuals potentially topping one billion.

If the collective international response to aiding and protecting refugees is struggling now — reflected by depressingly low resettlement numbers and ineffective local integration strategies — the situation will only worsen in the years to come.

Because we have navigated or are currently navigating the global response systems in place, refugees are far more aware of the shortcomings of resettlement, local integration, voluntary repatriation, and other solutions attempting to address the issues we face. Our lives are directly impacted by the flaws in the system, from lack of access to services to slow pandemic responses, particularly in the Global South where the majority of refugees are located. Our lived experience and insights are, therefore, invaluable in identifying and addressing problems in the system.

We need to create effective measures to include refugee voices. We need to create more opportunities for currently displaced people to be meaningfully engaged in order to address current and future challenges associated with forced displacement.

It’s time for governments, policymakers, the media, and the general public around the world to abandon the stifling stereotype that refugees are all passive victims in need of help. Instead, acknowledge us as partners, especially in global policymaking processes that impact our lives.

Now is the time for states to start taking action to ensure that the next international gathering on improving refugee response includes even more official delegates with lived experience and first-hand expertise. 

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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