How to be a Better Ally to Refugees on World Refugee Day

On World Refugee Day, the international community focuses global attention on the experience and resilience of people who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries. But as more people become aware of the scale and challenges of forced displacement, it begs a new question: what can people do, as individuals, to support refugees and people who have been forcibly displaced? To answer this question, we’ve outlined just six of the many ways to be a better ally to refugees year round.

  1. Educate yourself on refugee rights and issues and help dispel myths

Educating yourself on refugee rights and issues and helping dispel myths is critical to being an ally to refugees. Over 26 million people have fled violence or persecution in their home countries, and most refugees spend decades, even generations, confined in camps, prohibited from working, or otherwise prevented from rebuilding their lives. Policies like these prevent refugees from contributing their skills and talents to their new country, which in turn deprives host communities of the value they bring. Restrictive systems like these help perpetuate the false image of refugees as helpless victims.

There is also an abundance of misleading public messaging that makes it hard to build the political will to eliminate barriers for refugees. Misinformation can be blatant and malicious or subtle and even well-meaning, like the idea that refugees are victims that need help rather than people who have been denied their rights. You can self-educate using resources like the Refugee Studies Centre, the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, the Refugee Journalism Project, and podcasts like The Wait to help dispel myths about refugees.

  1. Value and center refugee leadership

Like other forms of allyship, being an ally to refugees involves listening, supporting and amplifying the voices and initiatives of refugees themselves. Rather than assume that refugees prefer charity from others, consider that there are likely already refugee-led aid, advocacy, and community programs worth supporting, both in your local community and around the world. When deciding what causes to support, do your research and support organizations, movements and services that center refugee leadership and staff. Valuing refugee leadership is critical to being a good ally to refugees: it recognizes the unique position of refugees to understand their own challenges and opportunities and implement effective solutions, and it puts power back in the hands of those who were forcibly displaced from their home countries.

We at Asylum Access have committed ourselves to centering refugee leadership and we hope to encourage other organizations in the sector to do the same.

  1. Directly support refugee-led businesses and initiatives

There are many ways to support refugee-led business and initiatives locally and globally. Wherever there are refugees, there are entrepreneurs, organizers, artists and service providers, which means there are ways to engage with refugee-led initiatives as customers, supporters, fans and donors. One way to be an ally to refugees in your local area is to look for nearby refugee-led projects and support them directly. Increasingly, individuals can also support refugee leaders around the world through projects like the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative. This project, convened by Asylum Access, establishes the first refugee-led grant-making fund that allows international donors to contribute to a pool of impactful refugee-led organizations directly.

  1. Respect refugees’ stories and trauma

An individual’s experience of being forcibly displaced is more than just a story, it is a deeply personal part of their life. Respecting refugees’ stories and trauma involves understanding that others are not entitled to anyone’s personal narrative, recognizing the risks around sharing stories about displacement, and creating a comfortable and validating environment when refugees choose to share their stories. Often refugees and people seeking asylum are asked to explain their experience to service providers as well as curious peers. But telling personal stories of displacement can involve reliving traumatic experiences of violence, loss, and fear. Similar to other trauma survivors, refugees are not obligated to share their stories with anyone. 

Stories around displacement can also come with significant amounts of risk — refugees may have been targeted with violence in their home countries due to their background or personal traits, and their narratives can provide information that may put them or their family in danger. If someone who has experienced forced displacement chooses to share their story with you, listen closely, respect their boundaries, use validating language, and know that if you have not experienced forced displacement, then it is unlikely that you can truly empathize with their story, and that is okay.

  1. Volunteer in your community

You can support refugees in your community by volunteering locally for refugee-led organizations or nonprofit organizations that provide support to refugees. While governmental services and respect for refugee rights varies by country, most communities where refugees live have formal and/or informal refugee support services. For example, in the US, voluntary federal government partners and nonprofit organizations provide services to refugees and offer various volunteer opportunities in legal aid, operations, communications and service delivery. 

As a volunteer, it is important to recognize your identities, privilege, background and history to avoid savior and colonial volunteerism. If you are unsure about whether you are practicing ethical volunteering, you can find more information on this topic from No White Saviors

  1. Use your political voice

You can use your political voice to call for a refugee response system that respects refugees’ freedom, dignity and autonomy. Follow and support refugee organizers and refugee-led organizations in their advocacy efforts, and stay knowledgeable about what political resources are available to you. Are you able to attend a demonstration in support of refugee rights? What groups or platforms do you have access to? Are you able to volunteer or donate to a campaign or representative that is working toward a better refugee response system? Are you a citizen who is able to vote or has sway with your government representatives? You may have more power and access than you think when it comes to standing up for refugee rights. Taking a stance and wielding your power is a meaningful and powerful gesture of allyship.