Blog February 26, 2024

The Refugee Leader Promoting a New Approach to Refugee Rights

  • Justice
  • Justice for Displaced Populations

Champions of Change are advocates who have made an impact in their communities using a people-centered justice approach to improve equal access to justice for all and help create more peaceful, just and inclusive societies (Sustainable Development Goal 16+). An initiative of NYU’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC), this series puts a spotlight on individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary work to empower and inspire members of their communities.

Displaced populations often face discriminatory laws and experience limited access to justice services despite their urgent and complex justice needs. Without access to justice or a seat at the table, their rights are often violated or overlooked. Meanwhile, rising xenophobia globally is rendering abuses more common.

In this context, PathfindersNate Edwards spoke to Asylum Access CEO Sana Mustafa / سنا مصطفىabout her experience with the challenges of the global refugee regime and her organization’s  efforts to address them. Through this interview, Sana emphasizes the importance of ensuring refugee rights, the role of legal education and empowerment, and the need to shift power dynamics and center refugees in decision-making. She also highlights Asylum Access’ role in co-founding a refugee-led fund for refugees.

Nate: Please tell us how you came to work on refugee rights and what is the inspiration for your work.

Sana: I came into this work by my very existence; through my experience in demanding rights as someone who became forcibly displaced following the Assad regime’s war crimes in Syria.

My existence as a refugee made me aware of the rights that refugees lack.

I am someone who was born and raised in a very political family living under the oppressive Assad regime in Syria. As Syrians, we have been oppressed and deprived of our rights for decades, and I was born in this context knowing that we deserve better rights even as citizens. We fought, and we demanded that through the revolution in 2011.

My personal experience put me in direct contact with the question, “What does it mean, as a refugee, to be deprived of your rights as a non-citizen?” When I was in Syria, I was a citizen, and I was outside of the nation-state in the way we understand it—I became a stateless person and deprived of my rights because of it.

The sector calls us refugees, asylum-seekers or whatever they want to call us, but the fact is we are humans who are deprived of our rights systematically.

That is how I came about this work.

Nate: Given the deprivation of rights you experience as a stateless person and then wanting to do something about that, how did you choose Asylum Access as the best platform to fight that battle?

Sana: As a forcibly displaced person and human rights defender, I believe that rights provide the foundation and tools to ensure life with human dignity. That is the basic right that refugees are deprived of. We have no agency over our own lives. We have no agency over what we eat. We get pre-designed food baskets.

Many refugees in urban settings, or camps, experience deprivation of agency, and that basic deprivation of rights is what makes people dependent on the aid sector and keeps people in camps and in limbo for decades. My belief is that you can only address the refugee crisis by ensuring rights. We need to realize a comprehensive set of rights for people to gain dignity and agency.

Those rights include the right to stay legally and safely in a country, to move freely, work, and rights at work. And, of course, they also include the right to education and healthcare. Once any human has access to those basic rights, they have the agency to pursue their life and work, feed their families, thrive, study, and do whatever they want.

This is what we don’t see happening in the sector, but this is what Asylum Access does—fight for refugee rights. That is why I decided to join them. I am not a humanitarian. I do not believe in band-aids. I think humanitarian aid is important as a first step, but the problem is that it has become the “solution”—it has become the ultimate aim, and this I do not believe in. I am a human rights defender. I am an activist. I believe in rights. Asylum Access’s mission is to promote and realize the right to live freely, safely, and legally, to move freely, work and have rights at work, and go to school. For me, that was the mandate that made me join the organization.

Nate: In response to the deprivation of rights and the importance of accessing different rights and services like education and healthcare, what role can justice and legal empowerment play in overcoming obstacles and achieving those rights?

Sana: Legal rights and justice are the basis for people to realize their full rights. Oftentimes, legal rights and access to justice are provided only on an ad hoc basis, so change is not really happening.

Meaningful change occurs when legal rights and access to justice are provided systematically. And how do we ensure that access to justice and legal rights are systematic? We create an infrastructure for it and ensure that not only one person has access to it, but everyone does.

At Asylum Access, we go out of our way and do everything possible for one client, but at the same time, we engage with the system. We engage with the governments and other relevant stakeholders to make sure, first, that people know their rights, if they exist, and that people understand the law and they know the law. Second, we make sure they know how to implement and utilize the law, whether it’s the officials of governments or the refugees themselves.

We come across many officials who do not know about refugees’ rights. For example, Mexico is one of the signatories to the Refugee Convention, and therefore, people have the legal right to seek asylum in Mexico, but often neither officials at the border nor refugees themselves know that, and therefore, people are detained. So, there is a right that exists that few know about, and when it gets violated, peoples’ lives get wasted in prison and detention centers. What we do is, if there is a law, we ensure everyone knows about it on both sides, and implements it. And if there isn’t one—we advocate, we engage, and we challenge. We work with relevant stakeholders to create that change and make it systematic.

This gives refugees the tools to go about their lives. It’s not service provision of legal rights; it’s about systematic and long-term access.

Nate: With Mexico, you mentioned that awareness is one of the big obstacles you have encountered regarding a lack of awareness about the law. Please tell us about the other obstacles you face in your work.

Sana: Besides awareness of laws, one of the biggest obstacles is xenophobia, which falls under the bigger umbrella of peoples’ perceptions and mindset towards refugees. That’s not only in the Global South countries like Mexico, Malaysia, Turkey, or Lebanon, but something we’re increasingly seeing in Europe, the US, and Canada.

Xenophobia the biggest barrier to long-term, dignified, and sustainable solutions for refugees.

In any of those host countries, there exists an extreme right that’s against refugees and is working on demonizing refugees. They violate refugee rights daily. On the other side, there are governments issuing more friendly refugee policies. However, while packaged with the best intentions, those efforts result in “white savior” refugee policy that’s very racist, very colonial, very top down, and that deprives people access to their agency. In both cases, to an extent, you’re not honoring the human being.

I try not to use the word “refugees”; I try to use “forcibly displaced persons” or “persons of forced displacement” because regardless of the legal label, we are human first.

At the end of the day, you have humans who are deprived of their rights and have to leave their homes and are stuck in different domestic politics. Whether it’s straightforward xenophobia, racism, colonialism, or white saviorism, it all comes back to the perception, the mindset, and the values of the host countries. That is the biggest barrier.

Many, including those in the refugee response industrial complex, as I call it, often don’t act in ways that are respectful of our rights and dignity. The entire system, including the 1951 Convention and the aid architecture around it, needs an overhaul. In the absence of this, we will continue to find refugees in camps after 40 years, still dependent on food baskets, without aid agencies taking a bigger stand on rights. This needs to be approached thoughtfully, however. While we need to reassess the current system, given the current political climate, doing this now may risk losing what we already have gained.

Globally, refugees are majority black, brown, Muslim, and other minorities, but they are not treated as worthy of rights.

The hypocrisy of the world was apparent through the reaction to Ukrainian refugees compared with refugees of color from the rest of the world. We are not seen as deserving legal access to a settlement. People drown in the Mediterranean trying to arrive in Europe, whereas others have created a whole new category of legal residency for Ukrainian refugees. That’s how it should be for the rest of the refugees, but when we look at those explicit examples and continuous realities of how the sector, governments, and public deal with refugees, you see that it really boils down to racism. That is why mindset and perception are some of the biggest barriers we face in providing people with access to rights.

Nate: Is Asylum Access doing any work around narrative change? Can you talk about what that looks like?

Sana: By default, everything we do is about changing the narrative.

First, in our advocacy for refugee rights, we are constantly making the case, narrative, and demand that refugees are humans who deserve rights and that rights are the basis for ensuring peoples’ dignity and agency. Advocating for rights is very difficult in this sector. Again, it’s political. Very few people would disagree with feeding people and putting up tents, but many people, governments, and the public would disagree with giving people the right to work and rights at work. We are committed to changing that narrative by demonstrating that those interested in ending the refugee crisis and spending less money on the ongoing crisis must give refugees the tools they need to go out on their own and be independent.

A lot of donors do not want to fund advocacy work because it is not as tangible as food baskets and other things, so we constantly work with them to demonstrate that advocacy work is a must to reach long-term solutions. It is about promoting systemic change, dignity, and rights. That is what will get people out of the camps.

We need a narrative change aimed not just at politicians, policymakers, and domestic audiences, but also at donors: that funding advocacy work is as important as funding food and shelter.

Our narrative change work also revolves around the agency of refugees and how they are perceived. Refugees are perceived mainly as beneficiaries. We are people who are dependent on everyone’s help, time, money, land, and policies. We have no agency. We just receive. Unfortunately, actions of United Nations (UN) agencies, civil society organizations, and others’ communication and media appeals portray refugees as uneducated and poor, with ripped clothes and looking a certain way. I understand this is sometimes needed to get funds, but it also skews how we are perceived. This is why people see a refugee who does not look like this and say, “Oh you are not a refugee. Are you a refugee, really?” I get this all the time.

Being a refugee is a legal status. Would anyone say, “Oh you don’t look like a citizen. Are you a citizen or a permanent resident? Oh, maybe you look more like a permanent resident.” You could be a refugee and be a President or a worker on a farm. You could be poor. You could be rich. Anyone can be a forcibly displaced person. This is a narrative change that we at Asylum Access work on—to say people experiencing forced displacement have agency and dignity. They should be at the center of making decisions and receiving resources to change their own lives. That is a huge narrative change. You are telling donors and governments that forcibly displaced persons are with us in the room, and they are part of the solution. It is not a conflict of interest for them to oversee their own lives.

So, the first narrative change we are working on is about how rights are important and how the provision of rights is the long-term solution. The second is about the “who.”

Refugees are not who they have been portrayed to be, but a diverse sector of the population who must have agency and be at the center of making decisions about their lives.

And finally, the third narrative change is around ways of working. The current ways of working in the sector are very problematic towards refugees. They are not trauma-informed but condescending and racist.

Therefore, we are trying to create a narrative change around how to engage with populations who have lived experiences. How do we create equitable partnerships between different actors and stakeholders working towards addressing the issues of forced displacement?

This is considered radical for our sector. I am telling you that I want you to be trauma-informed and to have done your homework on how to interact with me and other people before coming to talk to me. I want you to learn the history that brought you to this moment before you come and work with me. Then, I want co-leadership over budgets, I want transparency, and I want to co-design and be part of decision-making. That is what we are demanding.

And really, that is not only the ethically right thing to do, it is the impactful thing to do because no one knows better about solutions than those who experience the problems. But somehow, in the refugee response sector, we manage to exclude those who experience the problem. Those who live far away from the problem—in all meanings of the word—are the ones who decide what the problem is, what the solution is, and how those people are going to receive those solutions.

Nate: You have talked about the mechanisms through which you are working—narrative change, awareness, changing ways of working, and advocacy. Can you bring this back to justice and access to justice specifically? How do you foreground refugees’ experiences in justice journeys in your work? Please talk about the role of refugee representation and leadership as well as data and evidence.

Sana: What does it mean to have access to justice? We think about refugees having access to justice through having access to more rights. Through our rights work and national advocacy engagement, we address how refugees in national contexts like Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia have immediate access to rights through the systems and policies within those governments.

We also understand access to justice in the wider context of our work through a radical redistribution of power and resources. We are working on that in a few ways.

One is in terms of access to power, the redistribution of power, and shifting power. We are doing this inwardly within our organization as well as outwardly in our work.

Asylum Access has been on an ongoing journey to ensure that we are representative of the communities that we live and work with and we are inclusive. Those who we have on our teams are able to influence the strategy and direction of the organization, and that is access to power. Also, we are ensuring our compensation and the way we distribute resources within our institution manifests the values that we preach.

Externally, our Global Systems Change work focuses on shifting power to local civil society organizations, including refugee-led organizations, through our twin strategies of:

  1. Building equitable partnerships with local civil society organization partners through capacity exchange and facilitating opportunities, connections, and resources, and;
  2. Advocacy towards key institutions of power, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), donor governments, and the World Bank, to enable more inclusive policy-making and funding strategies that center the priorities of those most affected.
  3. Through this work, for example, we developed a strong partnership with the refugee-led and Colombia-based organization Refugiados Unidos and facilitated the development of a funding relationship between them and the Hilton Foundation, which resulted in Refugiados Unidos receiving a USD 1 million grant over the past year, with the strong possibility of renewal for a second year.

Meanwhile, our advocacy alongside other partners in the refugee leadership movement with UNHCR last year resulted in, among other things, UNHCR agreeing to end its practice of using the term “persons of concern” to describe refugees. This type of language can contribute to “othering” and frames refugees as a burden instead of an asset.

We are going beyond representation. We are talking about shifting power, not just participation. We are advocating and providing tools. We have created multiple tools like our Partnership Guidelines on Equitable Partnerships. We are launching a 2.0 of this toolkit on how to create an environment, project, policy, or program that shifts power to forcibly displaced communities and centers them.

Another way we are working on access to justice is through the redistribution of resources. The way the emergency response sector has operated for the past six or seven decades is that the money sits in the Global North, and local partners get bits and pieces of it, but they are highly controlled and micromanaged in how they can work with the communities. That in itself is problematic. Money is power, and money is not going to the people who have the lived experience and are part of the community. We redistribute that.

This is why we co-founded the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative with five other refugee-led organizations, which established the first fund run by refugees for refugees. This “RLO-to-RLO” fund aggregates donor dollars and redistributes them to refugee-led organizations (RLOs). The fund puts philanthropic power in the hands of refugees and offers donors a way to overcome some of the structural complexities of funding RLOs directly. In fiscal years 2022 and 202322-23, Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI) disbursed USD 2.99 million to 17 RLOs in Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Uganda through the RLO-to-RLO Fund. The impact of this funding to community-based, refugee-led organizations has been transformative. Our RLO partners supported approximately 633,123 community members in total (including dependents and household members) through holistic and comprehensive support for entire families. This past July, RRLI issued USD 3.18 million in renewals for 16 of our RLO partners in line with our commitment to multi-year funding and RLO sustainability. These efforts have made RRLI the third-largest funding intermediary for RLOs in the world after just two years in operation and the largest refugee-led one.

This is one way we are making sure that some of the millions of dollars floating in the sector go directly to the people on the ground. This is not enough, however. In addition, we are working with other donors and funders to engage with donor governments to ensure the next 20 or 30-million-dollar grant actually goes to refugee- and locally-led organizations.

The redistribution of resources will inherently play a role in the redistribution of power. The more resources refugees and local actors have, the more sustainable they will be.

They will be able to come to Geneva and participate in policy discussions. Participation and money go together. You need to resource participation to have it in the first place.

By supporting access to rights within national contexts, supporting access to power and  shifting power in decision-making, and demanding and providing tools for radical redistribution of money, we believe that we are ensuring forcibly displaced communities have access to a more just world.

Nate: You noted the refugee-led fund—are there other milestones and accomplishments of Asylum Access that you would like to highlight?

Sana: Another big milestone is the leadership transition that the organization has been going through. Asylum Access has always been international, but our national organizations in Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia have always been locally led and run. For the last three years, we have been on a journey to become a refugee-led organization at the headquarters level—and we have become that in many ways.

We are deeply committed to achieving the meaningful inclusion of refugees and local civil society members within the forced displacement sector. We know structural racism and bias have led to the exclusion of these groups from strategy development and decision-making processes. We believe we have a duty to dismantle the structures that enable this exclusion —in the sector and within our organization.

We believe it is critical to not just think about ‘what’ your organization is doing but also consider the ‘who’ and ‘how.’ Our ‘what’ is a sustainable solution, a rights-based approach that allows people to rebuild their lives with dignity and stop depending on aid. Our ‘who’ is special: we are reflective and willing to learn and unlearn, and we’ve become increasingly more representative of the communities we work with. Asylum Access is committed to centering proximate leadership both by hiring local staff as well as people who have experienced forced displacement.

It’s an unending journey to be representative of the communities that we live and work with. We document our journey and share the lessons and practices on how to achieve that with other international organizations in the sector. I believe this is the future of the refugee rights and leadership movements. These movements must be led by those with refugee experience and uplifted by allies.

Many people ask, “Do I have no role as a non-refugee”? I say, “Absolutely not. We need you, and we cannot do this alone.” But first, you have to ask yourself what your added value is. Do you have an added value here? Examine it. Once you recognize your added value, then ask how you can bring it into this movement in an examined way that does not deprive people of power in the name of empowering them.

That examined allyship is something that is lacking in our sector. If we look at other movements, like Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, LGBTQI+rights, or indigenous rights, a lot of the allies have been doing the work to examine, “I am not a black person; what is my role in supporting black rights?” That examined allyship is critical. We need the same in our sector.

I believe any organization has to realize its values internally before it can realize them externally. Once you ensure you are actualizing your values in a way that they are part of your DNA, then I would not worry. Everyone wants to create an advisory board of refugees as representation or do an event and believes that this is how they are realizing refugee leadership. At the same time, however, they are not changing their policies, recruitment, compensation, a work culture drowned in white dominance, or leadership. Often, they will do the bare minimum to showcase they are doing something but not actually doing anything meaningful and impactful. That’s why, as the CEO of Asylum Access, I refuse to say something externally that we are not trying to do internally. I think it is hypocrisy otherwise.

Nate: What are your top three recommendations or lessons learned from your work that you want to share with other policymakers or stakeholders in this space?

Sana: We are in a time of big transformation and change. This is an opportunity for many to join. It is an invitation—this is really the time to do things differently, acknowledge the past, learn from it, and ask how we can move forward.

So, my first recommendation is to start this journey of examining and thinking about how you could show up differently.

It’s a very important time, and people have the opportunity to decide on which side of history they want to be. Do they want to be on the side of a people-led movement, people-centered leadership, philanthropy, and policy-making? Or do they want to continue doing the things that have not worked and  are ethically problematic? This is an opportunity to change.

Secondly, it is not impossible to make this change. I would invite people, especially policymakers, to leave behind previous notions of what has and hasn’t worked. This is an invitation for a radical imagination of something different. This is one of the biggest barriers I face when we talk about any solution. People say this isn’t going to work because we have these realities. And I say, let’s imagine something else. We did not create the first-ever fund by refugees for refugees because we followed the best practices in the sector’s past. We created it because we said that did not work, but could we imagine something different? It’s an invitation for radical imagination, joining this movement, reflecting on the past, and knowing this movement is the future.

The third one, I would say, is to work in coalitions. The status quo time is over.

No one organization should be receiving millions of dollars alone anymore. No one organization is going to succeed in an advocacy strategy alone. No one organization is going to succeed in delivering food and shelter alone. Work in coalitions with local- and refugee-led organizations and work on building inclusive and equitable coalitions and partnerships with these entities because this is how movement building happens.

Nate: Anything else you’d like to share?

Sana: I would just say, considering how much I emphasized that it is time for a change, change is difficult. So be ready, and I tell this to myself and my team: give yourself permission to make mistakes. Change is difficult, and it’s very uncomfortable. Even as an organization doing its best to realize this change, we make mistakes.

Accountability is important—acknowledging those mistakes—and allowing yourself to make those mistakes and not be harsh on ourselves is important. It’s a mindset shift. We are preparing ourselves for a bumpy, sometimes uncomfortable, journey, but we are going to be on that journey together.

With everything I say, people might perceive that I do not understand the realities and that it’s too complicated. I would say in response that I very much understand them. I have lived those realities, I have changed those, and because of that, I have shown that it is possible to do so, but it is difficult.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Originally published on LinkedIn.

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