By Mohamed Duale

PhD Candidate, Education, York University

Although not a new concept, refugee participation, or the involvement of refugees in decision making and service-delivery for refugees, has been gaining currency as a result of a recent shift in global refugee policy from humanitarian towards neoliberal developmentalist approaches. Refugee inclusion, self-reliance, and resilience, among other terms, can be seen as proxies for refugee participation in recent global refugee policy discourse. These policy shifts speak to the imperative of integrating refugees in host societies and of including refugees in decision-making about their lives and in refugee programming.

On the one hand, these terms can imply an opening of sorts for refugees to be given more substantive social and economic concessions within the global refugee regime. On the other hand, these keywords gesture to a conception of refugee participation as a solution to the “problems” of refugee aid dependence and irregular migration. It can also present new challenges for refugees as the push for self-reliance runs the risk of abandoning them to the forces of the market without social political rights in the host country. As well, the emphasis on self-sufficiency, among other neoliberal policy imperatives, leaves out all the ways that refugees have already been participating in civic and economic activities in their host countries, and global refugee policy, in that regard, somewhat trails the realities on the ground.

As my research in Kenya in 2019 has revealed, there is a major disconnect between recent global refugee policy formulations and refugee experiences of participation. In the Kakuma Refugee Camp, refugee-led organizations have increasingly been providing education, health awareness, sports and recreation programs. Despite inclusion in the implementation of refugee programming, refugee leaders are excluded from meaningful input in decision-making and planning. In Nairobi, urban refugees, often “invisible,” are forced to be self-reliant due to the relatively low-level of humanitarian operations in the city and, as a result, tend to have few connections to UNHCR and the NGOs, and even less access to participatory mechanisms than their counterparts in the camp. Despite some potential for recent refugee participation policies to modify the way refugees are consulted, involved, and served by humanitarian actors in Kenya, there are significant limitations as a result of the national encampment policy as well as the securitization of refugees. Policymakers will have to embed safeguards and protections into refugee participation processes to legitimate and allow refugees and refugee-led organizations to be heard and have their views meaningfully considered.

Read the full Working Paper here.

More about the author

Mohamed Duale is a PhD Candidate in Education at the Faculty of Education, York University, and a Graduate Research Fellow with the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He is an interdisciplinary scholar with interests in refugee youth belonging, education and civic participation. Beyond his research with LERRN, his doctoral research examines the lived experiences of Somali refugee youth in the Dadaab refugee camps of north-eastern Kenya.

Watch this video to learn more about Mohamed’s work.