Mediterranean journeys in hope

Building a refugee political movement

Refugees in Europe assert their political agency in many ways, but must do so informally. A new movement seeks to give refugees a seat at the policy table.

Janina Pescinski
8 September 2016
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Migrants and refugees protesting in Calais in September 2014. Gareth Fuller/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The refugees currently arriving in Europe are often treated as passive beneficiaries of aid who should be grateful to receive the basics necessary for survival. In reality, they are guaranteed the same human rights as the established residents of the places in which they arrive but are denied the agency to claim these rights. Certain rights are reserved for citizens, particularly rights of institutional political participation and representation. Without the ability to participate or be represented in governments, refugees’ voices are ignored and they have limited fora in which to take political action. This is that gap that the nascent International Committee of Refugees (ICR) seeks to fill.

The ICR is a network of refugee and citizen activists working together to create “a directly elected, democratically accountable, representative body for internally displaced persons, refugees and people living in exile”. It is envisioned as a global movement, but in its current early stages it is focusing on Europe.

Nico Andreas Heller, founder of the Democracy School, is the driving organisational force behind the ICR. He has a clear vision of the process needed to create a representative body for refugees, but is determined that refugees themselves drive it forward. Heller has recruited a core team including several refugees, such as a man from Syria who calls himself "Dr. Nomad", not wanting to be named for fear of what might happen to his family still in Syria. These leaders are currently coordinating, primarily via social media, to build a movement for the creation of a representative political body for refugees.

Origins of the ICR

The process started in Berlin with “I am here”, a participatory art project and campaign under Heller’s leadership in which about 40 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan produced a collective poem that was performed in October 2015. While that was not intended as the start of a broader project, the idea for a movement to advance the political rights of refugees grew out of it. Dr. Nomad, who arrived in Germany last September and was involved with "I am here", says that experience emphasised the importance of listening to refugee voices and made him determined to be represented politically.

There will be refugees forever, because there will be wars forever. – Dr. Nomad

Many Syrian refugees involved in “I am here” were eager to take a political movement forward, but it became clear to Heller that certain individuals dominated the group and were not open to including women or non-Syrians. Some of these initial, self-appointed leaders were reproducing the patriarchal, non-egalitarian structures that a body seeking to be ‘representative’ needed to avoid. Heller decided to step back in to redirect the project, moving forward more cautiously.

Now, the political initiative that has become the ICR is envisioned as a two-stage process. First, during this preparatory stage, partners from civil society and activist circles are recruited to collaborate with the refugees depending on their specific interests and areas of expertise. A petition has also been launched to collect signatures gauging international support for the ICR. The next step, by October 2017, is to hold a conference to assess the work done so far and determine whether there is a real possibility to create a representative political body by and for refugees, and if so, how.

From ideas to actions

The ICR is less than a year old; concrete actions have so far been limited but are starting to take shape through working groups. The team has established various issue-specific groups, such as the women’s rights group, the democratic governance and political leadership group, and the European relocation campaign. Each group has a point of contact and several specific action points to guide it. The structure is decentralised in order to allow contributions from activists and civil society at different levels in different places.

Dr. Nomad, who is a medical professional, leads the refugee health network. The goal is to create a network of refugees with medical qualifications to cooperate with healthcare NGOs to improve health awareness and services for those in camps in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. This would also serve as an entry point to network with refugees in these locations who want to participate in the political actions of the ICR.

Challenges for a political movement

Responses to the refugee reception crisis in Europe do not often take the political agency of refugees into account. Heller instead identifies two tendencies, one of care and one of protest. The dominant tendency is one of care: civil society groups helping to fulfil humanitarian needs, with refugees as beneficiaries but not participants. Dr. Nomad echoes this point, explaining that while there are many organisations serving refugees, "their efforts are wasted because they are not working together, and refugees themselves can volunteer but they have no voice". Another tendency is one of protest, decrying the injustices and poor conditions that refugees face.

What’s missing, argues Heller, is a strategic political tendency. Often political action takes anarchic form, self-organised and often stemming from protest. Such actions can and do bring about changes in policies and rights, but combative politics driven by hostility towards government and formalised political representation can prevent dialogue with policy-makers from developing. The ICR seeks to create a representative body that facilitates working with states and international institutions, and which allows refugees to directly voice their political concerns to government officials.

The dominant tendency is one of care: civil society groups helping to fulfil humanitarian needs, with refugees as beneficiaries but not participants.

Political will, as well as realistic expectations about the possibilities of return, are critical to the success of the ICR. In Germany, for example, Heller identifies a rhetoric that focuses on the temporary status of refugees, whereas the average period of a refugee in Germany is, according to Heller, 10 years. Focusing only on the temporary integration of these refugees leaves them “hanging in the balance for 10 years without political rights”. Dr. Nomad currently has temporary protection status in Germany because his asylum claim was denied, but he doubts the temporary nature of his situation. He says he will not appeal the decision because the climate is changing too quickly to limit the rights of refugees, but for him this is even more motivation to fight to have political representation.

Heller argues more broadly that governments and political parties should be on board with such a political initiative, as it is an investment in the political education of populations. Dr. Nomad adds that the success of the ICR depends on increased institutional support: "if we have enough support from governments and major NGOs, this idea could have the success that we imagine".

The role of refugees themselves

One central challenge is how to best involve refugees in the process and encourage them to claim ownership of the initiative. Refugees must be at the helm of the ICR in order to make it an empowering body that amplifies their voices, otherwise it risks becoming another patronising case of outsiders telling refugees what is best for them. Including refugees like Dr. Nomad in the development of the ICR gives them ownership of the movement and ensures that they are the leaders identifying priorities and taking action.

Refugees who are well-established in their new homes are the target population for participation in the ICR. For most new arrivals – those who are struggling to apply for asylum, secure housing, and find employment – getting involved in formal politics is rarely a priority, and indeed, could be dangerous. But even among those refugees who are more established, it is unclear whether there is a sufficiently large number of people who are willing and able to engage.

Broadening the scope of political participation

The ICR seeks to amplify refugees’ voices in formal political structures, but confining what is recognised as political participation to that narrow spectrum of formal activity delegitimises the extensive activities that take place outside that sphere. Even when refugees are excluded from participation in political institutions their new countries, they have many other strategies for engaging in political activities.

Refugees form community associations and diaspora groups and cooperate with other civil society groups and social movements. Such actions are examples of refugees claiming their rights in daily life, and through these activities refugees are enacting themselves as citizens in their new homes. As such, these informal actions are political and have just as much value as other, more formal forms of participation.

Recognising the spectrum of political actions performed by refugees challenges that dichotomy of formal versus informal politics. Broadening the scope of what is valorised as political participation to include contestation, protest, associational participation and rights-claiming enhances refugees’ political voice. The ICR brings added value by extending those political activities in an institutional sense, and in order for it to be successful, it must work in conjunction with these other forms of refugee political participation.

Managing expectations

There are myriad challenges facing the ICR. Heller is realistic about these and is convinced it is worth pursuing whether or not the project will work in the end. He says some people enthusiastically join the ICR only to drop out because they don’t see results fast enough, or because they convince themselves that if this is something they needed it would exist already. But Dr. Nomad insists that it is crucial for refugees to be able to speak for themselves, because "there will be refugees forever, because there will be wars forever". No matter the outcome of the ICR, it is pushing a new agenda for refugee reception in Europe by recognising refugees as political actors who are empowered to claim their rights and direct their own futures.

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