The Refugee Hosts project recently launched a new co-authored report titled “Religion and Social Justice for Refugees: Insights from Cameroon, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Mexico”. This report identifies and examines the roles that faith plays in supporting social justice for refugees, situating the Refugee Hosts research in Lebanon and Jordan into conversation with research conducted in Cameroon, Greece, Malaysia and Mexico by colleagues at Yale University. This piece summarises a number of the key points made in the report, as discussed in the Executive Summary of the report, which you can read in its entirety here. The report, and the Refugee Hosts-Yale partnership it builds upon, was made possible by the generous funding of the British Council Bridging Voices programme

Executive Summary: Religion and Social Justice for Refugees 

Religion plays a key role in motivating and framing diverse forms of support for refugees and asylum-seekers around the world. This report draws on over 300 in-depth interviews conducted with refugees, members of local host communities and locally-based organisations in towns, cities and camps in Cameroon, Greece, Malaysia, Mexico, Lebanon and Jordan to examine the roles that members of local faith communities, faith leaders and faith-based organisations can play in promoting social justice for refugees. This includes a particular focus on the roles played by individuals and communities who have themselves experienced displacement.

As the research findings attest, the promotion of social justice for refugees can range from offering humanitarian assistance, to diverse acts of advocacy, activism, and solidarity, all within political and social contexts that are often compromised and precarious. The findings also evidence a disconnect between what policy makers and practitioners assume that ‘refugees need’ and what different groups of refugees themselves consider to be essential requirements, as prerequisites to dignity and justice. The report presents and analyses these findings, tracing the implications of this project for future research in this field, and laying the foundations for a Policy Brief that will be published in 2020.

IMG_7246A view from the road, Jordan (c) Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Reflections on Researching Religion in Relation to Displacement

Focusing on the actual and potential roles of religion in promoting social justice does not entail dismissing the severity of the persecution, violence and discrimination that people experience on religious grounds, whether in countries of origin, in countries of first asylum or in countries of transit or of resettlement.

Cycles of violence, insecurity, marginalization and discrimination often continue or emerge in refugees’ country of asylum, including forms of violence that are linked to religion in different ways. Research must be grounded on a deep awareness of these intersecting processes and the precarious situations that people inhabit, navigate and respond to throughout different stages and spaces of displacement.

Whether studying experiences of persecution and/or ways of navigating and responding to precarity, the significance of religion to people’s lives must be viewed and examined in relation to various intersecting identity markers (including ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality) and structures of inequality and opportunity (including xenophobia, patriarchy, and homophobia).

Examining the diverse needs, rights and priorities of refugees around the world must involve being attentive both to refugees’ complex identities and the diverse power structures that create situations of violence and prevent people from finding solutions to their own problems.

Section One: Hosts, Refugees and Refugee-Hosts as Responders in Contexts of Precarity and Structural Violence

Locally-based actors – including communities, families, households and individuals for whom faith is significant in different ways – are key responders in situations of displacement. The people who ‘provide for’ refugees are often themselves either refugees or the descendants of earlier generations of migrants or refugees.

Religious community and ritual are often a source of support and comfort for refugees. In the Greek and Lebanon cases explored in this project, religious rights are not only conceived of in terms of accommodating the living: in both cases, the right to be buried as a Muslim emerges as a refugee right which must be fought for.

In Greece and Lebanon, members of refugee communities collect and distribute material support for other refugees, whether to ensure a dignified burial, or to provide food baskets to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Humanitarian responses that emphasize rights-based dignity in life could learn from local, refugee-led initiatives to ensure dignity in death too.

Acknowledging, and appreciating the ways that refugees and refugee-hosts promote social justice must take place in conjunction with acknowledging the responsibilities and duties that should be upheld by international actors, including states, UN agencies and INGOs.

Structural barriers can prevent people from practicing their religion and developing their own ways of responding to and managing life (and death) in displacement. For instance, for many Rohingya and Afghan interviewees in Malaysia a major concern was the absence of religious infrastructure within the refugee community. An important question that arises here and in relation to the right to be buried as a Muslim is: Is there a duty for state and non-state actors to actively support the development and maintenance of an ‘infrastructure’ for refugees to be able to practice their faith? Alternatively, is the duty limited to protecting people’s right to practice their faith?

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The original cemetery in Baddawi refugee camp, Lebanon (c) Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Section Two: From Fatalism to Structures of Mutual Support

Documenting the ways that refugees support other refugees does not seek to either claim that all refugees support other refugees, or to dismiss or ignore the diverse processes of exclusion, violence and hostility that exist within and across refugee groups.

However, the research confirms that tensions, hostility, violence and exclusion are not inevitable in contexts of displacement and diverse refugee hosting environments. Solidarity can and does emerge across different lines. It is important to identify which structures, policies and programmes create and reproduce tensions, and to examine when and how such tensions emerge in processes of displacement and hosting.

At the US-Mexico border, the expression of mutual support and solidarity was often contingent on the logistics of humanitarian response and on personal experiences. Faith-based organizations opened their doors to offer shelter, in solidarity with migrants, but had to triage beneficiaries based on family status or need, given the scarcity of resources to provide food and shelter. Migrants variously reported a general distrust of each other, or conversely, narrated how fellow migrants became a critical source of support when facing a fear of detention, theft or other forms of violence.

For refugees from the Central African Republic interviewed in Cameroon, a key priority was to convey their experience of flight, and for the intent listener to bear witness. With refugees directing the focus of the interviews, research can become part of a wider effort to create solidarity in the midst of migration and upheaval. As became clear in the research in Cameroon, having a story to tell is also a mode of faith: faith in the power of a story to emotionally connect people and organize experience in the midst of flux.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, narratives from refugees’ and hosts’ faith traditions play a role in framing the ways that the presence, needs and rights of refugees are understood and responded to. Religious interpretation is not only used to underpin perceived obligation for hosting but also to define its limits. In Jordan, for instance, interviews with refugees from Syria and with Jordanian hosts drew on stories from the Qur’an to explain the imperative to respond, but also to determine the limits of their response. Normative religious injunctions may not lead believers to uphold the principles of their faith in practice, and yet they are often an important part of the broader landscapes of displacement, a point which requires further consideration.

Screenshot 2020-04-30 at 12.08.01Refugee housing project from 1920s, Athens (c) Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

Section Three: Public and Private Dimensions of Response

Acts of kindness and solidarity may be viewed as ‘private’ acts which should not be disclosed to others. Discrete modes of supporting refugees are often grounded in religious belief and practice.

Amongst other things, this raises the question of how to reconcile many local actors’ preference for discretion with the increasing desire to better understand the roles played by local actors, including those motivated by religion, in promoting social justice for refugees. Interviewees in Jordan expressed a deep connection with religion, and yet public discussion of religious sentiments and principles was seldom openly acknowledged.

Organizational interviews conducted in Jordan generally supported the view that religion was appropriately contained (and, implicitly, controlled) within a private religious discourse detached from the secular humanitarian language that was the lingua franca of professional, technical response.

Public discussions of religious sentiments and principles may be limited due to a sensitivity that states may be monitoring religious activities in the context of the perceived role of religious rhetoric and affiliation in ongoing insecurity and conflict. At the same time, donors and international partners often expect discussions of refugee assistance to take place in ‘professional’ terms, in ways that marginalise reference to religious motivations, activities and contexts unless very explicitly prompted to address these.

Section Four: Institutionalized Responses to Refugees

There is a complex relationship between religion, social justice and institutionalized responses to refugees, from the local to the international. Research on the Mexico-US border with faith-based organisations, members of law enforcement, refugees and migrants, identified multiple meanings of solidarity, and diverse ways of expressing solidarity. These range from interviewees evoking and embodying a religious, sacred sense of solidarity on the one hand, and a secular, nationalistic language of solidarity on the other; both highlight a conceptualization of solidarity as standing together and readiness for collective action.

Listening to the voices of refugees and migrants is a prerequisite to bear witness both to their experiences of violence and discrimination, to their modes of responding to their own situations, and to their determination to participate in the broader projects of creating solidarity in the midst of displacement.

Migrants and refugees develop their own definitions of justice and how they believe that justice can be achieved. Different groups of migrants and refugees – such as people deported from the US, and female migrants – develop different definitions of justice, identify different paths for action, and hold different entities responsible for carrying out justice.

A theme arising throughout the report pertains to the centrality of faith and religion in processes of displacement. Greater attention must be given to the varying ways that religion is adopted, imposed, rejected, and negotiated as a key marker of identity by different stakeholders, including members of refugee, host and refugee-host communities.

An ongoing question is where the work between refugees and FBOs fits within current international refugee, humanitarian, and human rights law. The dynamic between law and faith is complex and both historically and geographically contextual.

Faith-based organizations on the US-Mexico border are coalescing to change the negative discourse around immigration, work for social inclusion, and engage in effective advocacy. In this regard, more attention must be paid to how faith-based organizations intersect with the state, multinational institutions, and other NGOs, including with respect to the extent of their social, political, and financial commitments.

Interviews conducted with lawyers working from within a largely Judeo-Christian framework point to the need to continue re-contextualizing refugee and human rights law by considering how legal traditions which are developed in relation to diverse religions have re-framed understandings of law and faith. Ongoing engagement seeks to reconfigure the relationship between the law, politics and the rights of people who have been persecuted, including through explicit engagement with Islamic principles.

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A Syrian coffee vendor on the outskirts of Baddawi camp (c) Fiddian-Qasmiyeh


Approaching social justice through a faith lens allows us to recognise how faith traditions may be embodied, practiced and embedded in diverse ways and spaces, in relation to, and sometimes in opposition to, xenophobic and hostile forces and structures. States and human rights frameworks have failed to offer meaningful protection to refugees, and a wide range of actors, including refugees themselves, faith-based organisations and local communities, have sought to fill the gaps that have not only been left by states, but have been created and manufactured by them.

Local and transnational actors are creating diverse ways of conceiving moral obligations towards one another in processes of displacement and of hosting, whilst attempting to hold state and international authorities accountable for their political failures.

Refugee-led, faith-inspired responses to displacement offer an important counter- narrative to the intersecting discourses of crisis and of burden, which often reproduce one dimensional representations of refugees (including in particular Muslim refugees) alternately as passive victims in need of rescue, as transnational objects unfit for European or North American citizenship, and as a political and social threat.

A key challenge is the importance of giving due acknowledgement to the work that is taking place on the local, neighbourhood and community level that is so often invisible, while simultaneously being attentive to the politics and potential risks underpinning the nature and rate of disclosure.

Acknowledging that humanitarianism is a response to systemic, political failures, highlights the importance of one of the foundational approaches underpinning this report: to focus on the ways that religion can promote social justice for refugees by addressing structural barriers that reproduce inequalities, exclusion, violence and marginalisation.

A theme arising throughout the report pertains to the centrality that is, can and should (or should not) be given to religion in processes of displacement. Greater attention must be given to the varying ways in which religion is imposed, adopted, rejected, and negotiated as a key marker of identity by different stakeholders affected by and responding to displacement, including members of refugee, host and refugee-host communities.

Recommended citation: Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Grewal, Z., Karunakara, U., Greatrick, A., Ager, A., Lombard, L., Panter-Brick, C., Stonebridge, L. and Rowlands, A. (2020) Religion and Social Justice for Refugees: Insights from Cameroon, Greece, Malaysia, Mexico, Jordan and Lebanon. Bridging Voices report to the British Council.



Suggested reading:

Featured Image: A man prays on the route to Baddawi camp, North Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2020

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