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How those in power co-opt and profit from the experiences of refugees

Asylum seekers and refugees often face tremendous challenges when they arrive in a new country. Despite these challenges, they work tirelessly to build new lives for themselves and their families and often have innovative ideas for addressing the challenges they face. Individuals who come from refugee backgrounds are also in a unique position to assist them in rebuilding their lives due to their shared experience of seeking refuge. However, all too often, individuals in positions of power co-opt their voices and ideas.


The problem of co-opting the voices and experiences of refugees is not new. It is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history, and it is rooted in a power dynamic that privileges those with more power and resources over those who have been marginalized and oppressed. Those who work for councils, charities, universities, and other institutions may genuinely want to help refugees and asylum seekers, but they often fail to recognize that the expertise and insight that some asylum seekers and refugees bring to the table makes them equipped to a) propose practical solutions to tackle the structural barriers preventing them from fulfilling their full potential and b) taking a leadership role in implementing their proposals so they can empower themselves and others.


Instead, all too often, individuals in positions of power take credit for proposals put forth by current or former refugees by co-opting their proposals. This leaves the asylum seekers and refugees who made the proposals in poverty and destitution, while those who have co-opted their ideas and experiences extend the reach of their organizations and advance in their careers.


Let me give you an example. Suppose you are asked to join a task force aimed at supporting refugees and asylum seekers in finding employment. During the meeting, you propose to deliver a presentation to employers about the barriers refugees face when seeking employment, drawing from your personal experience of asylum and refugeehood, as well as your work with refugees and asylum seekers. Despite the group's initial enthusiasm for your proposal, they fail to acknowledge your contribution or involve you in the planning process. You are left feeling marginalized and silenced, with no recourse to challenge their behaviour without being seen as disruptive. Meanwhile, the same people who co-opted your ideas and proposals use their resources to apply for funding to implement them and are then celebrated for their accomplishments. Organizations and individuals must recognize that when current or former asylum seekers and refugees share their ideas and proposals and make it clear that they want to implement them they are not giving you permission to co-opt their ideas. Instead, they are inviting you to leverage your resources and capabilities to help them implement their proposal so they can empower themselves and their communities. Therefore, it is your responsibility to provide this support and ensure that these individuals are recognized as the leaders and experts that they are.


To break the cycle of co-opting the ideas and proposals of refugees, we must recognize the importance of empowering refugees to lead their own projects and initiatives. This means giving them a seat at the table when decisions are being made and listening to them without co-opting their ideas or proposals. It also means providing them with the resources and support they need to develop their ideas or proposals and bring them to fruition. Moreover, all organizations and individuals working with asylum seekers and refugees must acknowledge that it is unjust and unethical for organizations and individuals in positions of power to co-opt the voices and experiences of asylum seekers and refugees to fulfil their desire to feel helpful. This type of behaviour is exploitative and perpetuates a cycle of marginalization and poverty for those who are most vulnerable because it is the responsibility of those in positions of power to assist asylum seekers and refugees in navigating the system, not to exploit their experiences and use them to spearhead initiatives that often do not allow the beneficiaries to fulfil their potential. This behaviour perpetuates a harmful cycle of exploitation and undermines the agency and dignity of those who have already endured immense hardships.


Empowering refugees to lead their own projects will have tremendous benefits for everyone involved. Not only will it help us build the capacity of these individuals and their communities, but it will also promote a more inclusive and equitable society. By giving voice and agency, job opportunities and financial and institutional backing to those who have been historically marginalized to lead their own projects, we can begin to build a world that is more just, compassionate, and humane.