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Welcoming Refugees into Pluralistic Societies

Efforts towards refugee inclusion can move the global community forward on pathways towards pluralistic societies.

Carolyn McKee

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) most recent Global Trends Report tells us that there are 117.3 million forcibly displaced peoples across the globe as of 2023. Forcibly displaced peoples have faced persecution, climate emergencies, and an overall lack of safety in their home region. The number of displaced peoples has doubled in the last decade, quickly changing the social dynamics of many countries worldwide.  

The global movement of people has resulted in societal changes in Global Pluralism Monitor-assessed countries. Societies and institutions can choose to respond to these changes in ways that foster mutual respect and understanding among groups. Findings across Monitor reports indicate that refugees and migrants often experience xenophobia from local populations and exclusion from national programs and services. However, policy commitments, trends towards greater acceptance of diversity and civil society’s efforts to welcome newcomers and protect refugee rights offer hope for a more pluralistic future for refugees. 

Access to services and rights to political mobilization

All Monitor-assessed countries have some international and/or national protection for the rights of refugees and their equal access to programs and services. In practice, refugees are sometimes prohibited from accessing these services, falling into complex legal loopholes or lacking information that would enable them to meaningfully participate. Many countries do not collect sufficient data on migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, rendering their experiences invisible and limiting the ability of the state to improve outcomes for these groups.  

Three common areas where refugees’ rights are limited in practice are education and economic and political participation. The Global Pluralism Monitor: Malaysia report highlights that refugee children cannot access public education. The Global Pluralism Monitor: Bosnia and Herzegovina report discusses how, despite commitments to protect the right of refugee children to go to school, enrolment is low.  

Amendments to South Africa’s Refugee Act in 2017 (described in the Global Pluralism Monitor: South Africa report) included revoking refugees’ right to work in many sectors. Refugees and migrant workers in Malaysia are officially prohibited from seeking employment, forcing them to engage in informal employment which is often precarious and can be unsafe. Refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina live below the poverty line. 

Refugees and migrants are often unable to politically mobilize to advocate for their rights, especially in cases like South Africa where refugees do not have the right to political association and free expression. This lack of ability to actively participate has a negative impact on refugees’ sense of ownership and belonging in society and results in inequalities that undermine pluralism. 

Acceptance and trust

Pluralistic societies have high levels of intergroup trust and acceptance. This contributes to mutual recognition among groups where all groups feel they belong in a society and society belongs to them. However, refugees are sometimes seen as “outsiders” and can experience exclusion, discrimination, xenophobia, and sometimes violence.  

Germany is often rightfully celebrated for its role in protecting and welcoming refugees. However, its overall shift to institutionalized inequality and extremism have had a significant impact on refugees, specifically Muslims. The political party AfD, Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland), has negatively impacted the discourse and given space to Islamophobia and violence. As discussed in the Global Pluralism Monitor: Germany report, AfD politicians have personally called for violent responses to the “invasion” of refugees after 2015. The party has support, particularly among men and young people in East Germany. However, there have also been widespread protests against the party and right-wing extremists.  

The Global Pluralism Monitor: Germany report also indicates that groups seen as outsiders or newcomers are often mistrusted by German society, with young Muslim men experiencing the highest rate of mistrust. This mistrust can sometimes lead to violence and hate crimes against these groups, which have increased since the arrival of refugees in 2015. However, the report notes that there is a general increase in Germans’ acceptance of diversity recently which shows a promising trend towards greater societal inclusion. Alongside recent protests, this could signify greater acceptance for refugees and immigrants in the country. 

The Global Pluralism Monitor: Bosnia and Herzegovina report notes that 56 percent of surveyed migrants and refugees had pleasant experiences with the local population, while 26 percent said the local population had been unfair to them. For their part, 67 percent of Bosnians were comfortable with having refugees and migrants live in the country, so long as they left within six months (with 18 percent preferring they leave immediately). These data suggest that there is some level of temporary social cohesion, but the local population is unwilling to permanently welcome refugees to their society.  

Civil society

While in some cases, like Germany, organizations face hostile backlash to their efforts, overall civil society plays an important role in protecting and advancing the rights of refugees. One of the clearest examples of this is in Canada, where thousands of Canadians volunteered to resettle Syrian refugees to their communities in 2015 under the umbrella of religious and community organizations. Canadians supported refugee newcomers financially and provided social and emotional support and community connections for their first year in Canada, often building long-lasting relationships. This effort is being replicated in other countries, like Australia, which is adopting a community-based refugee sponsorship model with innovative streams linked to education and employment pathways. These models help build personal connections across differences and foster communities of welcome for refugees.   

Pluralistic responses to changing societies

So many in the world are “on the move,” searching for safety, dignity and belonging in a new society within or outside their home countries. New international conventions and national policies are being created to enable migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers to access justice and the services they need to improve their inclusion in society. However, we know that many refugees’ lived realities involve experiences of discrimination and exclusion after their difficult journeys fleeing conflicts at home.  

Many good practices for welcoming refugees have emerged in recent years as both societies and governments make concerted and coordinated efforts to welcome refugees. These pluralistic practices focus on breaking down policy barriers for refugee mobility and inclusion. There is a focus on centering refugee leadership and building connections between local and newcomer populations. These efforts move the global community further on a path towards pluralism for refugees and their broader societies.