Residents walk over a landscape feature in a park alongside Mjolnerparken, a housing estate in Copenhagen that is on the Danish government’s “ghetto list.” The estate has a majority-immigrant population, which can contribute to feelings of stigmatization and isolation.(Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

As anti-immigrant sentiment sweeps the globe, involving immigrants in host countries’ democratic systems can be key to combating suspicion and division.

While most of the public debate surrounding immigration focuses on urgent matters like humanitarian aid and the socioeconomic and security implications of a country taking in thousands of people, migrants’ civic and political participation, though often overlooked, may be just as important an issue in the long run.

Migrants are often seen as passive recipients of aid, or as collective victims of the troubles in their home countries. When it comes to migrants, we speak about them, but often we do not speak with them. And very rarely do we remember that migrants have the potential to become dual political agents, remaining citizens of their home country while becoming part of their host country’s society.

Over the past two years, the organization I work for, International IDEA, conducted 638 interviews with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We found that the more politically inclusive a host country was, the more it did to protect the fundamental rights of migrants.

There are five main reasons why migrants’ participation in politics, beyond the mere act of voting or having voting rights, matters.

Two girls on a swing in a park alongside Mjolnerparken, a housing estate in Copenhagen that is on the Danish government’s “ghetto list.” The estate has a majority-immigrant population, which can contribute to feelings of stigmatization and isolation.(Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

First, participation ensures equal representation in their host country’s government. Migrants have to obey laws. They have to pay taxes. They contribute to society. Equal obligations entail equal rights. Additionally, if migrants are not allowed to exercise any sort of political rights, there is a high risk that local and national policies will not reflect their interests. Politicians and political parties are mainly concerned about the needs of their constituents. If migrants are considered among these constituents, their voices will at least be heard.

Political participation should not be viewed as a reward for a migrant’s successfully integrating into a host society. It should instead be part of the path toward integration. Voting and participating in political life helps educate migrants about their civil rights and introduces them to a political system that may be very different from what they know. When migrants are allowed to participate and they feel that they belong, the democracy they are now a part of will only improve.

We must also consider what constitutes a durable solution for how countries integrate refugees. In situations of protracted conflict where there is little to no prospect of repatriation or resettlement in migrants’ home countries, obtaining citizenship in their host country should be a priority.

Finally, political inclusion of migrants can prevent marginalization and limits the chances of discrimination and disenfranchisement of a whole segment of the population.

In practice, a key precondition for having political rights in most countries is citizenship. We have found through our research that about half of European states provide a fast track to naturalization for special categories of migrants, like refugees.

Outside Europe we have found cases where there is no clear path to naturalization — this is the case in Lebanon, for instance. And in other countries where there is a legal path to naturalization in general, legal ambiguities often lead to some refugees being excluded.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees says that states should facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees when this is possible. The international legal framework encourages it, but includes no mechanisms to enforce it.

Nigerian refugee claimants Abimbola Ogunyemi (left) and Esther Ogunyemi (right) shop for groceries with their four-year-old daughter, Nifemi, at the Welcome Hall Mission food bank in Montreal, Canada.
(Credit: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Now, being able to vote does not necessarily require citizenship. An example is Sweden, where any legal migrant with a legal residence permit is allowed to vote in local and municipal elections after three years of continuous residence in the country.

Yet in most countries, voting rights are limited to citizens and, sometimes, to a very particular category of noncitizens. For example, European Union member states allow voting in local elections for citizens of other member states living on their territory.

And eligible migrant voters still face a number of other challenges. They often lack information about, or an understanding of, their host country’s political system. They may feel marginalized, have a negative view of politics based on experiences in their home country, lack awareness about the importance of participating, or simply feel underrepresented. Language barriers can also make it difficult for migrants to effectively exercise any of their political rights in a new country.

A Somali refugee in Stockholm, for instance, said as much during one of our interviews: “It is very important to learn how the democratic system works. Many people like me don’t understand the meaning of ‘democracy.’ There’s no voting system in my home country, and the lack of knowledge of the Swedish language is a big barrier to the integration of refugees.”

Even if voting is out of the question, nonformal political participation can be valuable for both the host country and for migrants themselves. By participating in civil society, migrants can raise awareness of the situation in their home country and advocate for change. Meanwhile, that fight for a common cause can lead to their feeling more like an important part of the host society. Similarly, social media and technology can help refugees break down barriers between them and their new neighbors.

Simply put, ensuring that migrants have political rights and a clear path to naturalization, a country can improve the quality of its democracy. As one Afghan refugee we interviewed in Britain said, “If you can’t vote, you can’t have a say on the issues that directly affect your present, and your future, life.”

(This essay was adapted from a lecture given on Sept. 17 at the Athens Democracy Forum. It has been edited and condensed.)

Lina Antara is a democracy support professional specializing in electoral processes and human rights. She currently works as program officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, known as International IDEA, in Stockholm.