Work and Equal Opportunities

Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the EU

Civic Participation and Representation of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the EU

Based upon the Amsterdam Treaty the harmonisation processes regarding the European Asylum Policy should be concluded by 2010. What are the conditions under which interest groups and refugee organisations can shape these political processes? What are the resources, opportunities and barriers for political participation of refugees and asylum seekers on national, local and transnational level? The project was committed to find answer to these questions by conducting comparative case studies in Austria, France and the Czech Republic. Within this project, which is co-ordinated by "asylkoordination Österreich", the ZSI is engaged in recording and analysing empirical data.

Project title: Civic participation and representation of refugees and asylum seekers in the EU

The research project 'Civic participation and representation of refugees and asylum seekers in the EU' (September 2006 - October 2007) was carried out by a team of researchers in Austria, France and the Czech Republic and coordinated by the asylkoordination österreich, an umbrella organisation of refugee assistance NGOs in Austria. It was funded within the Research Programme of the Austrian Ministry of Education, Sciences and Culture «New Orientations for Democracy in Europe» (NODE).

A changing context for refugee's participation in Europe

Since the 1990ies a new asylum regime at international and above all at European Union level is emerging: the transformations resulting from the process of European harmonisation of asylum and migration policies can broadly be characterised by shifts towards securitization, 'externalisation', and blurring of boundaries between asylum and migration. These policy changes go hand in hand with an erosion of the rights and living conditions of asylum seekers, mainly by restricting access to the EU. The restrictive trends are also reflected in a substantial decrease of asylum applications in EU countries, which have more than halved since 2002 and are the lowest in EU-25 in 20 years.

Processes of globalisation and trans-nationalisation of migration on the one hand, and Europeanisation of the asylum system on the other hand have significantly changed the conditions for refugee participation within the EU:
On the one hand, EU harmonisation has created new barriers, as obvious in the downgrading of rights standards for refugees within the EU (e.g. excluding them from rights accorded to non-EU long term resident immigrants i.e. third-country nationals) and the impacts of the Dublin II system: this institutional mechanism between EU countries to determine the responsibility for processing asylum applications has not only limited the choice of asylum country and freedom of movement, but consequently also hampered their chances of recognition (due to considerable differences in asylum recognition practices in EU countries) and social and political integration (due to disregard of family ties, language,…) of refugees. Despite legal harmonisation, the national reception conditions remain very diverse in practice, and thus also the opportunities for civic participation of refugees and asylum seekers.
Contrary to restrictive trends, EU policies also provide for new institutional settings, which encourage trans-national political mobilisation and organisation of refugees across borders and - though still to a limited extent promote participation in EU-policy making processes. Respectively, some initiatives to facilitate refugee-led advocacy at EU level have been put on the way, such as the recently created European Refugee Advocacy Organisation (ERAD).

Whereas many studies have explored these EU policy developments so far, less or no attention has been given to practices and strategies of civil society actors and refugees themselves, striving for counterbalancing these current processes of exclusion. This focus seems even more important as the public discourse has increasingly shifted towards negative stereotypes of refugees and asylum seekers: the more the figure of the post-war political refugee has been replaced by the figures of 'economic refugees', abusing asylum systems and threatening security, the more it legitimized 'deterring' control policies at the expense of human rights and favoured a hostile and often racist political climate against refugees and asylum seekers.

The kind of 'laboratory' situation with view to the parallel processes of building an internal asylum regime within the EU (beginning in the first phase of basic harmonisations since 1999-2004, and now in the second phase 2005-2010 following the Hague programme), and the progressive formation of an external refugee and migration regime (shift of border controls and circles of safe countries of first asylum at the EU peripheries, promotion of regional protection programmes, etc.) provides an interesting framework to study the role of non-state actors and refugees in these processes.

Research questions and approaches

Contrary to the dominant image of refugees as a 'victims' or 'threat', we focus on their role as actors of social and political change.
The project aims to explore ways in which refugees and asylum seekers (and especially women) actively participate and use channels of civic participation, at EU, national or local level.
Within these policy processes of an evolving EU asylum regime, which role can assume those affected by these asylum policies, and today largely denied refugee status and protection within the EU? How can they participate and improve their situation and status? The general intention is to improve understanding about processes and structural factors, which influence and promote political participation and representation of refugees in the EU.

The analysis focused on the political opportunity structures for refugee participation at different levels, in a national and in the EU policy setting. This includes mapping of legal-political, discursive and institutional regimes influencing access to political participation, including the role of 'gate-keepers' (advocacy NGOs, solidarity organisations etc.). Moreover, we analysed different current mobilisation and advocacy practices/processes (campaigns, …) of refugee self-organisations and NGOs, in order to assess the obstacles and also the potentials of refugees and asylum seekers political participation from an actors-centred view. Research approaches and methods rely on both transnational and collective actors centred 'political opportunity structures (POS)' approaches. It's in the making of the EU asylum regime that old distinctions between refugees and migrants are redrawn, which interacts with individual and collective strategies of auto-definition and representation of people forced to emigrate.
From this perspective, the basic right of refugees and asylum seekers to influence public perception, definition and decision making processes on their status constitutes a fundamentally political question. It was thus of interest which kind of 'frames' (human rights, etc.) in different contexts are adopted and contested.

We approached these questions by way of comparative case studies and field research in three EU countries (Austria, France, Czech Republic) and in Brussels: This includes semi-structured interviews with refugees and asylum seekers (activists and representatives of organisations) and with representatives of advocacy NGOs and RCOs (Refugee Community Organisations) operating at EU level, as well as participant observation (workshops, meetings, demonstrations, etc.). The case studies allowed for comparing different national political opportunity structures for refugee self-organisation and participation, and thus provide further insights about structural factors of access to the political process, and the role of EU policy frameworks in this context. Moreover, we hope to gain insights from in-depth interviews with refugee activists how their social and political capital (trans-national networks) influences participation at EU policy level; but also how they can cope with stigmatisation and exclusion.
Such an analysis permits not only to point out the capacities of refugees in 're-framing' political processes through these practices, but also possible ways of improving their democratic participation and representation in the EU.

A conference at the end of 2007 provided the forum to discuss results and experiences on refugee's civic participation, and furthermore raise awareness and enable exchange among researchers, refugee community organisations, advocacy NGOs and political decision makers on this important issue.

For further information:
Asylkoordination österreich,
NODE Research Programme,


  • Maga. Helene Trauner

Section: Work and Equal Opportunities

No partners added yet

Tags: participation, social inclusion

Type: Research

Program: NODE

Project Status: Finished

Start/End: 09/2006 - 10/2007

Project Duration: 14 months