In his opening remarks during the 74th ExCom of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in October 2023, the High Commissioner Filipo Grandi outlined that, despite borders and policies restrictions, 108.4 million people have had no choice but to flee their homes due to climate change, persecution, war, violence, human rights violations or instability. This proves a reality, that people will always be on the move, but how they move depends on governments’ policies and procedures. When regular pathways are heavily restricted or closed, forcibly displaced people are prone to exploitation, abuse, and human rights violations by smugglers and traffickers.
For example, according to the Missing Migrants Project, to date, 28,189 migrants have gone missing in the Med since 2014, with over 2,500 missing in 2023 only. However, challenges that asylum seekers and refugees experience are not limited to the danger of death or human rights violations. Thousands of asylum seekers in the European Union wait for years to hear about their asylum claims decisions. In the UK for example, in August 2023, the asylum backlog reached record high, with 175,000 waiting for a decision on their asylum claim, living in limbo and uncertainty. Other more depressing and worrying examples are related to forced returns to countries of origin when they are not yet safe, like Denmark’s returning Syrian refugees.
All the above, accompanied with the rise of the right wing in Europe draws a gloomy picture for asylum seekers and refugees who have reached Europe, and those who will be forced to do so. In addition to cruel policies, in many instances, the EU policies also fell short of responding to the emerging and forgotten conflicts and humanitarian crises. EU responses lacked an emergency or early warning system and were taken by shock during certain events like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and the following humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the lack of holistic and concentrated approaches to humanitarian disasters made responses short-sighted and exclusive.
The above shows systemic failures in the EU to live up to the international obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees, especially because refugees have been excluded from spaces where decisions on their lives have taken place. In addition to the fact that governments should be accountable towards the affected communities, having refugees—regardless of their legal status—absent from designing policies, is a missed opportunity. Refugees have the solutions and the insights and their voice is crucial for a welcoming Europe. Earlier this year, in January 2023, over 100 refugee leaders from all over the EU gathered in a three-day summit to draw a picture of an inclusive and welcoming Europe. Participants crafted a roadmap that holds the key to solutions of the main challenges that refugees face. Listening to them, and transforming the scene in Europe based on their contributions would lead to more inclusive, relevant, and dynamic refugee responses and plans.
These challenges are underpinned by a fundamental issue, which is the lack of refugees' meaningful participation in creating policies and making decisions that affect their life in the host countries. The lack of avenues for participation and the tokenistic inclusion of refugees and instrumentalisation of refugee organisations and spaces have been counterproductive, and led to policies that cannot respond to the needs of displaced people, but in most cases put them in danger and limbo. History has shown that social movements most effectively bring change when they are led and organised by affected communities. When looking at the movements for women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQI+ rights, against apartheid, or for independence, there is a clear pattern: the leaders are representatives from their communities. We, affected communities, are best-placed to inform policy needs and implementation.
Participants in the summit attributed the lack of refugee participation to the lack of access to political participation and the deliberate exclusion from decision making. In cases when refugees and/or migrants are invited to participate, their participation is tokenistic and does not confer changes in the power dynamic or lead to actual changes. The importance of the meaningful refugees participation—and of course the migrants participation—in the different contexts, is the recognition that they are capable active participants and not ‘vulnerable’ people as usually referred to.
The key solutions that participants in the summit came up with are the increase in political engagement of migrants and refugees, and particularly the inclusion of young refugees and migrants in decision-making. Refugee participation should be sustained, ethical and funded. Refugee-led organisations or migrant-led organisations should receive stable, flexible, and long-term core funding. Another main factor in making sure that refugees and migrants are participating effectively and informing policy is to build their capacity. Refugees and migrants participation should never be instrumentalised, and they should be involved on an equal footing as partners in the decision-making process.
The Meaningful Refugee Participation pledge is based on the core belief that solutions to refugee problems should come from refugees themselves, and that policies are only effective when inclusive and allow refugees a say on their issues. Towards the Global Refugee Forum and beyond, meaningful refugee participation is the answer.
We have begun to see a shift already in increasing engagement of refugees, with more refugees on state delegations, on panels, and incorporated into dialogues and consultations on refugee policies. Nevertheless, these shifts have mostly taken place at the behest of certain champion states, NGOs, or other actors: we have yet to see a truly systemic change in the refugee response sector so that refugees like ourselves are routinely participating in all levels of strategising, funding, and implementing programs, policies, and other responses that influence our lives.
II—Financial and Economic Exclusion
Asylum seekers and refugees, forced to flee their home countries due to violence, persecution, and instability, embark on a daunting journey towards safety and security. However, the path to socio-economic empowerment is fraught with insurmountable obstacles. To appreciate the gravity of this challenge, one must understand the sheer scale of the number of people forced to flee their homes globally as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations. According to the UNHCR as of December 2022, this number stood at 108.4 million and continues to grow. Refugees are not just statistics but individuals with dreams, skills, and untapped potential. Yet, their aspirations for financial stability and economic self-reliance often encounter systemic and multifaceted barriers. This is also a reality even for those who find themselves fleeing to Europe.
The findings from the European Coalition of Migrants and Refugees (EUCOMAR) 2023 report also attest to the intricate web of challenges that impede the financial and economic empowerment and settlement processes of asylum seekers and refugees in their European host societies. Key identified issues included bureaucratic complexities, stereotypes, and systemic barriers such as experiences of intersectional discrimination, prejudice, exclusion, lack of recognition of migrants existing educational achievements and expertise, language barriers, limited financial literacy and lack of information, weak or non-existent social networks, and lack of support for migrant and refugee-led organisations.
The financial and economic exclusion of refugees and migrants is rooted in systemic oppression which manifests in various forms such as experiences of intersectional discrimination, prejudice and stigma embedded in policies, as well as in the labour market and financial service providers.
For instance, owing to discriminatory practices in the job market, many migrants and refugees are denied equal opportunities for employment and career progression. In many countries, despite their qualifications and skills, refugees are relegated to precarious, low-paid so-called ‘3 D—dirty, demeaning, and dangerous jobs’.
According to the European Summit report, this is particularly the case for racialised blacks and people of colour and indigenous migrants, women, undocumented, elderly, and uneducated migrants who might negatively self-select. This type of employment perpetuates instability and precarity in their lives.
Similarly, these systemic barriers and intersectional discrimination have a domino effect and further impact various other aspects such as access to the labour market, financial services and entrepreneurial ventures as well as recognition of previous skills, educational achievements and expertise.
Human Capital and Skills Recognition
Another critical aspect of refugees' and migrants' economic exclusion that came up in the findings was the lack of recognition of their skills and qualifications. It was highlighted that delays or non-validation of existing skills and expertise hinder access to suitable job opportunities and also limit access to high-paying jobs as well as career progression prospects.
Language is a fundamental tool for navigating a new host country. Yet many financial institutions use complex and inaccessible language and financial technologies. Thus, refugees' and migrants´ interaction with financial services is often hindered by these language barriers. This unfamiliarity with technical financial jargon is coupled with a general lack of trust in the financial sector due to experiences of discrimination. As a result, many refugees and migrants lack information and awareness about the financial systems and resources available to them. This lack of knowledge and understanding of the terms and features of financial products and services can lead to financial decision-making that does not align with their best interests. It may also lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the terms and features of financial products and services, adding to their exclusion.
Bureaucratic Complexities—Legal Frameworks
Access to formal financial services, a fundamental component of financial inclusion, remains a significant obstacle for many refugees. The European Summit report pointed out that refugees and asylum seekers experienced many bureaucratic complexities when accessing banks and financial institutions.
Participants reported experiencing prejudice from financial service providers who questioned their means of income. An OECD report also indicated that banks often assumed refugees and asylum seekers were in the country temporarily hence they classified them as high-risk clients. Thus, financial service providers were hesitant to open bank accounts, lend money to refugees and asylum seekers, or microfinance their entrepreneurial enterprises. Access to basic financial services, such as opening a bank account, is often restricted for asylum seekers and those with undocumented status in some countries. Unlike labour migrants and foreign students who usually possess proper identification documents and residency rights, newly arrived refugees often lack valid identity documents.
Additionally, stringent requirements such as fixed address, identification documentation, and proof of stable income often lead to the rejection of bank account applications, further contributing to financial exclusion. This limitation deprives asylum seekers of financial autonomy and stability, making it difficult to send or receive funds, save money, or access bank loans.
Moreover, the continued tightening of financial regulations, aimed at combating money laundering and terrorist financing, inadvertently works against the economic integration of refugees.
Even when host governments accept alternative forms of identification, international banks and financial institutions owing to a lack of knowledge and awareness of refugee issues and legal frameworks may still have reservations about accepting their applications.
Weak Social Ties and Networks
Studies have shown that due to stigma and prejudice, some refugees and migrants may find it difficult to create networks in the host country. Thus, they resolve to stick to their home country communities or ethnic enclaves which can also perpetuate a cycle of exclusion and poverty. Refugees with intersecting social positions such as women, disabled, LGBTQI+, undocumented, and unemployed, often find themselves without a support network to rely on and some might not have social security access as a safety net to fall back on. Consequently, they end up falling between the cracks, especially in times of crisis, as we witnessed during and post COVID-19 and in the current crises of rising inflation, conflicts, and wars. This absence of a robust safety net exacerbates the economic hardships faced by further marginalised refugees such as LGBTQI+ people, Black and People of Colour who may lack the support systems available to other segments of the refugee population.
Lack of Support for Migrant-led Organisations
Refugee and migrant-led organisations often face numerous hurdles from institutional and political to funding and personal. Administrative, language, and knowledge barriers affect their access to funding. They also compete with established non-community-led NGOs for limited funds, highlighting the need for increased transparency and consideration of refugees' and migrants' specific expertise.
Refugees and migrants often lack the knowledge and understanding required to navigate complex financial systems in host countries. This absence of awareness extends to legal frameworks for establishing organisations, setting up bank accounts, and adhering to tax regulations making it even more challenging to secure funding. The complexity of these systems necessitates seeking legal guidance, which is often costly and inaccessible for underfunded organisations led by migrants and refugees.
III—Asylum Reception and Integration Policies
When it comes to asylum reception and integration policies, many issues arise. Apart from policy challenges including lack of policy responsiveness, emergency response, and clarity about procedures, structural ones hang on too. In the European summit, refugee leaders reported difficulty for refugees in accessing the information on asylum and procedures, and the unavailability of data, in addition to language barriers, bureaucracy, work and residency rules and travel expenses. Added to that, the imbalanced responsibility-sharing within the EU countries of asylum seekers and refugees. Low quotas of refugee allocation paused an extra challenge.
Participants suggested solutions for the EU governments to uphold the rights of displaced people seeking asylum in Europe and called for trust within the displaced communities. This trust would pave the way to combating discrimination and will preserve the safety, justice, and rights of the displaced people. Access to information and simplified translated information on procedures would save lives. Participants reiterated the need for safe and regular pathways like community sponsorship and family reunification.
Negative narratives around refugees are an added layer to the problem. Participants recommended developing a positive media narrative of sponsored refugees and good practices and developing a refugee-led advocacy and policy dialogue strategy.
Despite the fact that the EU abides its own human rights convention, and is signatory to the Geneva Convention, the journey to realise these ideals by asylum seekers and refugees is far from straightforward. The European summit’s report illuminated the intricate challenges encountered by asylum seekers and refugee communities throughout the EU's asylum procedures, detention centres, and integration endeavours. The participants stressed that it is imperative to adopt an intersectional perspective to unveil the numerous layers of human rights transgressions that diverse groups of asylum seekers and refugees experience. Furthermore, it called for the need to conduct a thorough examination of the flaws, constraints, and potential biases inherent in the EU's approach to tackling these issues. The participants discussed that the process of seeking asylum, which is the initial and most pivotal point in the path of asylum seekers, is bound by challenges in the EU and navigating its complexities can be perplexing. As per the right to seek asylum, many asylum seekers often experience significant delays in the processing of their applications, resulting in a state of limbo characterised by prolonged uncertainty and heightened vulnerability.
Participants noted that the intersectional perspective highlights how specific groups may face additional hurdles during the asylum process. LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, for instance, may fear disclosing their sexual orientation in countries with less progressive attitudes, which can further complicate their claims. Similarly, individuals with disabilities may struggle to access appropriate accommodations or support during the process.
Variations in national laws and practices lead to disparities in how asylum seekers are treated. For example, some EU nations have violated the principle of non-refoulement by forcibly returning asylum seekers to perilous situations. Moreover, the right to legal representation is inconsistently applied, with some receiving comprehensive legal aid for a fair process while others have limited access to such crucial services. To create a more cohesive and all-encompassing asylum policy, it is essential to ensure secure and regular pathways for refugees. Participants also discussed the importance of safe access and regular pathways, highlighting the challenges faced at both policy and structural levels. They also referred to community sponsorship and family reunification.
The participants of the summit highlighted the need for a more unified and equitable asylum policy in the EU. This includes addressing the challenges of policy responsiveness, transparency, and structural barriers, as well as ensuring secure and regular pathways for refugees.
Detention centre conditions have been a subject of concern for the summit’s participants. The detention of asylum seekers—including children—can be prolonged, with overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and subpar living conditions , which infringe their right to liberty. This includes issues like overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and substandard living conditions, all in clear violation of international human rights standards, notably Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment. An intersectional perspective uncovers the varying experiences of detainees, particularly those belonging to vulnerable groups, as outlined in Article 24 of the EU Reception Conditions Directive. During the summit, women participants stressed the need for protecting women and children, as they are especially at risk in detention settings, where they may become victims of gender-based violence and abuse. Disabled participants expressed their fears of encountering obstacles in accessing vital healthcare, intensifying the suffering associated with detention. The Dublin Regulation, responsible for distributing the processing of asylum applications, has led to an unequal distribution of refugees among EU member states. This approach places a disproportionate burden on countries like Greece and Italy, where overcrowded refugee camps often struggle to provide essential services. The participants also highlighted that vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors and survivors of gender-based violence, are at a heightened risk within these challenging conditions.
Integration Challenges: A Rocky Road to Inclusion
Despite its significance in the asylum process, refugee integration faces obstacles due to inadequate integration policies. These challenges manifest in high unemployment, limited education access, and housing difficulties. An intersectional approach recognises distinct barriers for specific groups, such as specialised mental health support for torture survivors and tailored educational programs for refugee children. Discrimination based on gender, race, or ethnicity further hinders integration. Human rights-based integration policies should ensure equal access to work (the right to work and enjoy fair and favourable conditions of work, enshrined in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is often violated in the case of refugees the summit participants said), and education (refugee children's right to education, as emphasised in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is often thwarted by language barriers, discrimination, and lack of resources) and, similarly, equal access to housing (discrimination against refugees and migrants in housing and employment were highly mentioned and stressed during the summit by the participants—a clear violation of Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights further hampers integration and jeopardises the right to an adequate standard of living).
A critical analysis of the EU's approach to asylum seekers and refugees reveals several weaknesses and limitations. One of the key challenges mentioned in the summit lies in the lack of harmonisation and consistent implementation of asylum and migration policies across member states. This creates disparities in the treatment of asylum seekers, undermining the principle of equal protection under the law.
‘The EU's focus on border control and deterrence, rather than a primary emphasis on human rights protection, often leads to policies that prioritise security over individual rights’, said one of the participants. As a result, asylum seekers can face criminalisation, detention, and deportation, particularly when seeking entry.
Comprehensive data collection and analysis that consider the intersecting identities and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers and refugees are often lacking. This oversight hampers the development of policies and interventions that address the specific needs of different groups.
In view of the above discussion, it is patently clear that the challenges surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees within the European Union are undeniably complex, deeply ingrained, and demand urgent attention. The complex and interconnected nature of these issues was vividly explored across three pivotal domains: policy and political participation, economic exclusion and marginalisation, and asylum policies and regular pathways. The voices of summit participants resounded with a unified call for comprehensive, systemic changes to uphold the EU's commitment to human rights and solidarity.
With regard to the issue of policy and political participation, the clarion call is for a harmonised asylum policy. Participants emphasised the critical need for a unified approach, consistent implementation, and inclusive policies. They stressed the importance of recognising and responding to the unique vulnerabilities of refugees, underlining the imperative role of independent monitoring mechanisms to ensure that detention centres align with human rights standards. The plea for immediate action and systemic changes to address human rights violations echoes a key recommendation for a more compassionate and rights-centric asylum system.
Turning to economic exclusion and marginalisation, participants illuminated the financial and economic obstacles faced by asylum seekers and refugees. The recommendations presented a roadmap toward economic empowerment and inclusion. This includes a push for inclusive banking systems, cross-sectoral collaborations, and the development of fit-for-purpose funding programs. Establishing a dedicated European banking institution, support for entrepreneurship, and specialised micro-credit systems were pinpointed as crucial elements. The overarching message is clear: economic empowerment is a linchpin in the holistic inclusion of refugees, requiring concerted efforts across sectors and robust support structures.
In the sphere of asylum policies and regular pathways, summit participants underscored the necessity of a nuanced understanding of refugees and a challenge to negative stereotypes. The recommendations spanned from demanding accountability and transparency from member states to addressing economic challenges and fostering social inclusion. A comprehensive approach prioritising human rights in all policy decisions emerged as the central theme. The participants emphasised the importance of awareness, equal access to the labour market, training, language learning programs, special quota arrangements, and tax relief. The creation of support networks was highlighted as a pivotal step in enhancing the social capital, financial autonomy, and overall inclusion of refugees during their settlement process.
The consequences of inaction are enormous given the overwhelming surge of challenges faced by refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants in Europe. The times demand a united front, where policies are not just documents but living embodiments of empathy and where economic empowerment is not just a goal but a means to human dignity. Immediate and collective efforts are needed to ensure the EU is a living embodiment of its values and guiding principles centering on human rights, solidarity, and compassion. This call to action is not only a moral imperative but a commitment to the very principles that undergird the EU.
Maysa Ismael, Shaza Al Rihawi, and Miles Tanhira
Maysa Ismael is a programme coordinator with the Global Refugee-led Network. She has worked on refugees’ issues since 2010. In Damascus, Syria, she worked with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organization for Migration. In London, she worked in the field of freedom of expression, protecting civilians in conflict and women, peace and security. She is also a fellow with Beyond Borders' 1325 Women in Conflict fellowship, and a member of the steering group of the Refugee Journalism Project.
From co-founding influential refugee initiatives like Global Refugee-Led Network, the European Coalition of Migrants and Refugees, and Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders to shaping global dialogues on displacement, Shaza Al Rihawi is a passionate advocate for human rights and climate justice. A champion for refugees and displaced people, Shaza's voice resonates through prestigious platforms like Oxford University, COP28, and SDGs, calling for a more just and inclusive world.
Miles Rutendo Tanhira is a Zimbabwean-Swedish International Migration researcher and Founder of Queerstion Media. He is a peace and LGBTQI+ rights activist and a core team member of the European Coalition of Migrants and Refugees. His achievements include being one of the recipients of the European Parliament´s Intergroup on LGBTQI+ rights' Go Visible Award and being selected as one of the Human Rights Campaign´s Global Innovators. He has served on several voluntary boards, including the War Resisters International (WRI) from 2010- 2019 where he contributed to the Handbook for Non-Violent Campaigns 2nd edition.
 UNHCR, ‘What is the difference between population statistics for forcibly displaced and the population that UNHCR protects and/or assists?’ (UNHCR) <https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/insights/explainers/forcibly-displaced-pocs.html#:~:text=The%20total%20number%20of%20forcibly%20displaced%20people%20(108.4%20million)%20encompasses,protection%20and%20internally%20displaced%20people> accessed 1 December 2023.
 Missing Migrants Project, ‘Migration within the Mediterranean’ (Missing Migrants Project) <https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean> accessed 2 December 2023.
 Callum May, James Gregory, and Mark Easton, ‘‘I struggle not knowing what the future holds’ - Asylum backlog reaches record high’ (BBC News, 24 August 2023) < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-66603767> accessed 2 December 2023.
 Martha Bernild, ‘Syrian Refugees in Denmark at Risk of Forced Return’ (Human Rights Watch, 13 March 2023) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/13/syrian-refugees-denmark-risk-forced-return> accessed 2 December 2023.
 Eline Schaart, Pieter Haeck, and Jakob Hanke Vela, ‘Far-right leader Geert Wilders wins Dutch election’ (Politico, 22 November 2023) <https://www.politico.eu/article/far-right-leader-geert-wilders-wins-dutch-election-exit-poll/> accessed 1 December 2023.
 Global Refugee-led Network, ‘Refugee Participation Pledge’ (Global Refugee-led Network) <https://www.globalrefugeenetwork.org/refugee-participation-pledge> accessed 1 December 2023.
 Sara A Quandt et al, ‘Illnesses and injuries reported by Latino poultry workers in western North Carolina’ (2006) 49(5) American Journal of Industrial Medicine 343.
 Jaffer L Najar and Anila Noor, ‘New Voices for an Inclusive Europe’ (Second European Summit of Refugees and Migrants, 2023).
 OECD, ‘Responses to the refugee crisis: Financial education and the long-term integration of refugees and migrants’ (2016) <https://www.oecd.org/daf/fin/financial-education/Financial-education-long-term-integration-refugees-migrants.pdf> accessed 8 November 2023.
 UNHCR, ‘Financial Inclusion’ (UNHCR) <https://www.unhcr.org/what-we-do/build-better-futures/livelihoods-and-economic-inclusion/financial-inclusion> accessed 8 November 2023.
 Adèle Atkinson and Flore-Anne Messy, ‘Promoting Financial Inclusion through Financial Education: OECD/INFE Evidence, Policies and Practice’ (2013) <https://ideas.repec.org/p/oec/dafaad/34-en.html> accessed 6 November 2023.
 OECD, 34 OECD Working Papers on Finance, Insurance and Private Pensions (2014)
 UNHCR (n 11)
 Miles Tanhira, ‘The Invisible Outsiders Within: An Intersectional Analysis of the Lived Experiences of Transgender African Migrants’ Integration Process in Sweden’ (Malmö University Publications 2022).
 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1953.
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 Article 14.
 The Refugee Convention 1951 Article 33.
 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 2009, Article 16.
 UNHCR, ‘UNHCR stresses urgent need for States to end unlawful detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, amidst COVID-19 pandemic' (UNHCR, 24 July 2020) <https://www.unhcr.org/news/news-releases/unhcr-stresses-urgent-need-states-end-unlawful-detention-refugees-and-asylum> accessed 3 December 2023.
 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1953 Article 5.
 ibid Article 3.
 Directive 2013/33/Eu of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection (recast) 2013 Article 24.
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 Article 15.
 ibid Article 26.
 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 2009, Article 21.