Q&A: Dr Tristan Harley on meaningful refugee participation (and why it’s so important)

Dr Tristan Harley is a teaching fellow at the UNSW Sydney and a consultant with Act for Peace, working closely with our team to help us better understand and amplify the leadership of refugees in responses to forced displacement. Having just published a PhD on the topic, Dr Harley helps explain what the term ‘meaningful participation’ really means, and why it’s so important in the humanitarian space right now.

Hey Tristan! Before we get stuck into your new research, can you share what led you to want to work in the refugee space?

I am formally trained as both a lawyer and a historian. What first led me to work in this space was an internship that I completed during my law degree over a decade ago at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (now Justice Centre Hong Kong). While in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to provide legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers seeking refugee status before the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). In that role, I got to witness first-hand the human dimensions of international refugee law and learn about some of the challenges facing refugees in different parts of the world. It was this defining experience that first prompted me to think about a career in this space.

What work are you doing with the team at Act for Peace right now?

I’m currently a consultant with Act for Peace and am co-leading a team of researchers – several with lived experience of displacement – to help understand and amplify the leadership and meaningful participation of refugees and other affected persons in responses to forced displacement.

At its core, what does ‘meaningful participation’ really mean?

Meaningful participation can take a variety of forms in public life. It can involve voting in elections and potentially running for government. It can include contesting a decision that has been made, such by challenging that decision in a tribunal or court. It can also involve the opportunities available to directly influence a decision before or at the time it is being made. What is striking when thinking about refugee participation is how limited the options are for refugees to participate in any of these forms of public participation around the world.

In terms of contributing to decisions prior to them being made, the Global Refugee-led Network has developed a useful entry point for understanding what makes participation meaningful. In its Guidelines for Concrete Action, they define meaningful refugee participation as:

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.

This definition highlights some of the key elements of meaningful refugee participation. Beyond this, it also brings attention to some of the work needed. For example, how can the international legal and policy framework effectively engage with the diversity of refugees’ aspirations and concerns? How can we all ensure that such participation is safe, ethical and sustained?

Can you share what your recent PhD thesis on meaningful refugee participation is about?

My thesis, Beyond Storytelling: Refugee Participation in Decision-Making Processes, provides an in-depth study of the international law and policy framework governing the participation of refugees in decision-making processes. The thesis looks at the current legal duties of states to consult with or include refugees in decisions that directly affect them, and it considers how and to what extent refugees have been able to participate in different decision-making areas in practice. Lastly, the thesis looks at potential reform options.

One of the major findings of my thesis is that despite recent commitments towards meaningful refugee participation, the international legal and policy framework has insufficiently provided for this to occur in practice. Whether it is in in relation to decisions regarding the development of law and policy, the transfer of refugees from one jurisdiction to another, or the delivery of programmes and services for refugees, refugees are frequently excluded from having a say in matters that impact their human rights. This exclusion of refugees from meaningful participation in decision-making processes has real-world consequences.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered through your research?

The most unexpected thing that I discovered in my research was the significant role persons with lived experience of displacement played in the development of international refugee law and policy in its origins. Prior to commencing this research, I assumed, like many, that the involvement of refugees in the development of international refugee law and policy was a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet, through primary source analysis, I uncovered that it was a refugee, Jacques Rubinstein, who first proposed in 1927 the idea of creating a binding international law treaty to deal specifically with refugees. Further, refugees played an important role in the drafting the two major law instruments of the time, the 1933 and 1951 Convention relating to refugees. The latter 1951 Convention remains the central legal instrument governing international refugee law to this day.

Beyond this, refugees were also substantively involved in the responses coordinated by international organisations such as the League of Nations and UNHCR. In fact, the only time UNHCR has been led by a Commissioner with lived experience of displacement was when Gerrard van Heuven Goedhart was appointed as the first High Commissioner in 1951. It has never happened since.

Why is meaningful participation of refugees so important in the humanitarian space right now?

Including affected communities in relevant decision-making processes is a key element of democratic governance, so from that perspective, it has always been important to consider how refugees should be included in decisions that impact their human rights.

What makes it so important now, however, is the need to rectify the widespread exclusion of refugees from decision-making processes that has occurred in recent decades. For too long, refugees have been portrayed as vulnerable, dehumanised objects of protection, unable to have a say in their own lives. Yet, refugee-led networks and initiatives have demonstrated that this is false and have harnessed the mantra ‘Nothing about us without us’ to advocate for inclusion in all levels of governance. Alongside this, this issue also has converged with other current debates in the humanitarian space, such as how, in light of the impact of COVID-19, protection responses can be more localised and sensitive to the contextual needs of different communities.

How do you hope your thesis will contribute to the refugee space broadly, and specifically to our work at Act for Peace?

My aim is that my thesis, and the work that flows from it, contributes to the ongoing conversation taking place around the world as to how the international law and policy framework relating to refugees can be best designed to ensure meaningful refugee participation. I hope my research will also provide an evidence-base for states, international organisations, civil society organisations and refugee-led organisations that will support them in approaching this important task.

Evidence-based research in this area is critical because failed efforts to appropriately include displaced people in decision-making processes have the potential to lead to decisions that do more harm than good. Not only can tokenistic participation adversely impact responses to displacement through a lack of understanding of contextual conditions or a failure to consider relevant information that only refugees possess, but it can also diminish the agency and dignity of refugees and undermine democratic ideals of good governance.

You can download and read Dr Tristan Harley’s thesis in full here: Beyond Storytelling: Refugee Participation in Decision-Making Processes.

Dr Tristan Harley is a teaching fellow at the UNSW Sydney and a consultant with Act for Peace. Act for Peace

Act for Peace has decades of experience in working with our local partners to develop projects and advocacy that promote the agency and protection of displaced people. We’re committed to our own journey of transformation as we listen, learn, and provide our own vital contribution to a world where people uprooted by conflict and disaster find a place to belong. 

Explore more of our refugee-related research and publications here.

Banner image: Our local partner in Kenya, RefugePoint, supports refugees in Nairobi to rebuild their lives through food, medical, rent and livelihood support. Refugees in the program are supported by Community Navigators who themselves have lived experience of displacement, so they can better understand the challenges being faced by refugees in the program, and help find solution.

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