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Exclusion from the conversation: reflections from Afghan refugees

The challenge of increasing diversity and inclusion in global conversations about forced migration is widely recognised. Research and policy decision-making have tended to be led by actors who rarely originate from or represent the voices of people most directly affected by these decisions. There is, however, a growing call to recognise the value of inclusion and representation.

The participation of refugees as co-researchers has been identified as a potentially important means of increasing the sense of refugees’ ownership and responsibility, building their skills and capacities, enabling critical reflection on research processes and maximising local participation.[1] This has been reflected in calls to create pathways to share academic knowledge from the Global South[2] and debunk traditionally pervasive assumptions that such research is of a lesser quality.[3] In policy spheres, there have been movements to reflect refugee participation in international mechanisms of decision-making, such as the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees.[4]

Two of the authors of this article are Afghan refugees; we recognise and have directly experienced, along with our peers, the challenge of making our voices heard within research and policymaking. We were born as refugees in Pakistan to families who had left Afghanistan seeking greater security and better lives for us. Having worked hard to pursue an education and now working as professional researchers, we are committed to being a voice for our often voiceless and underrepresented community. As of 2022, there are 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide, with another 3.5 million internally displaced, and these numbers are anticipated to rise. This article is rooted in the voices of our peers, providing lived examples of the multi-layered barriers faced by Afghan refugees in this sector and our proposals for increasing the diversity of the conversation.

Challenges to joining the conversation

  1.  Barriers to education

Education is often seen to provide the foundational skills necessary to participate in research and policymaking. Attendance at a higher education institution and academic references are regularly cited as prerequisites for many job opportunities. However, accessing higher education is a major challenge for young refugees. In 2020, only 5% of refugees globally were enrolled in tertiary education, compared with a 39% enrolment rate among non-refugees.[5]

Lack of access to higher education is recognised by Afghan refugees to be a critical issue. The expense of university tuition is a key barrier to access, with many refugee families experiencing economic hardship and young people needing to find employment to support household income. Furthermore, in 2017 an estimated 600,000 to 1,000,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan were undocumented and therefore unable to access higher education. This contributes in turn to a lack of employment opportunities, economic security and thus educational opportunities for the next generation.

  1.  Hostile local research cultures

Even with an undergraduate or master’s degree, entering the research or policy sector is impeded by a lack of employment opportunities in Pakistan. Not only are there few research organisations, but visa and permit requirements are a major barrier for refugees. We have also noticed a clear research hierarchy within Pakistani universities, which makes it difficult to establish our position as researchers. Research supervisors often act as gatekeepers, determining what can or cannot be published and imposing their own perspective on research papers. This can result in the silencing of refugee perspectives within academia.

Despite holding a master’s degree with a distinction in data science from a Pakistani university, Bilal (26 years old) has noticed a distinct lack of opportunities to work as a researcher, and has faced two key challenges. Firstly, local refugee communities attribute little importance to research. This is often due to the fact that refugees have a limited understanding of what research can achieve and therefore do not view it as a priority. Secondly, host communities may view refugee researchers as a potential threat to local livelihoods, which increases competition for research positions and may give rise to prejudice in application processes.

This silencing is further compounded by the instability felt by refugee communities. Due to the nature of a refugee’s citizenship status, the personal risk incurred by entering into political or controversial conversations about forced migration means refugees may self-censor their work. This, combined with a lack of mentors or support systems at university, result in refugees not feeling encouraged to pursue research as a career path.

Nabi (33 years old) fled Afghanistan during the 1990s, and is currently working as a journalist, writing research articles for a local news agency. He loves writing due to the power and importance he attributes to sharing stories in the media. Despite this, he is highly aware of the censored nature of what he is able to publish as a refugee. He has faced personal threats when conducting research on certain topics and received a lack of support, even amongst his peers, for his work.

  1.  Lack of access to global platforms

In our experience, there are few opportunities in which refugees are afforded a voice in international conversations about research and policy. Despite declarations over the last decade requiring refugee participation in international organisations and networks, a number of barriers still exist. The high cost of attending international conferences or the lack of appropriate funding is one example. Likewise, travel restrictions placed on refugees can prevent access to such events. Setting minimum requirements for refugee participation therefore does not overcome every barrier. Efforts to increase access, such as removing travel restrictions or increasing education and employment opportunities, would provide refugees with more autonomy to attend and contribute to international platforms.

As a journalist and researcher seeking to showcase refugee voices, Arya (24 years old) was excited to have been invited to speak at an international education conference. However, her attendance was prevented by travel restrictions imposed on her as a refugee. In most countries, documented refugees are provided with the Geneva Convention travel document in lieu of a passport. On this occasion, however, the travel document was not granted, despite an official letter of confirmation from the international organisation holding the conference.

  1.  Widespread discrimination

While some challenges arise at a local or global level, discrimination is a barrier we have faced at every level. Globally, the stereotyping of refugees has contributed to continuing negative attitudes. Whether in the media, political discourse or research itself, refugees are frequently presented as vulnerable, dependent and a potential threat to host communities. This can affect integration and inclusion. Afghan refugees are often the targets of criticism and prejudice from host communities in Pakistan. This can have a knock-on effect on employment opportunities and access to certain platforms, both within and beyond areas of research and policy.

A second issue relates to language barriers. It is well recognised that academic publishing is dominated by the Global North, and it has been estimated that the average non-anglophone researcher makes approximately 60% of their journal submissions in English.[6] Although refugees are often multilingual, language can still be a major barrier to accessing and contributing to academic conversations.

Khalil (27 years old) cites discrimination as a key barrier to his career as a freelance researcher in Pakistan. He feels that his right to travel and work freely has been restricted by host community members and that he has been discriminated against due to his refugee status, with access to certain platforms and research opportunities denied him. Nonetheless, he continues to value research as a means to change these attitudes and build a better society.

How to diversify the conversation?

If Afghan refugees – and the many other millions of displaced people worldwide – are to have a meaningful platform from which to influence the research and policy decisions which affect our communities, then steps need to be taken to increase inclusion in such conversations. While we recognise that our list of recommendations is not exhaustive, it is nonetheless important: it is rooted in the experience of those who have been excluded from the conversation in the past, rather than those seeking to fix it from the ‘inside’.

Prioritise refugee education: The experiences of many Afghan refugees highlight that a lack of access to education (due to cost, documentation and references) is a major barrier to entering the fields of research and policymaking. Increasing access to education for refugees, and particularly access to higher education, is therefore a priority.

Establish awareness-raising initiatives to boost research engagement: We have noticed that local refugee communities do not tend to regard research as important, which only compounds the lack of refugee representation in global conversations. Increased information sharing and community workshops could act as a starting point to raise awareness of research findings and avenues through which to engage in research and policymaking.

Facilitate positive dialogue between refugee and host communities: Significant divides and prejudice among refugee and host communities in wider Pakistani society, worsened by Pakistan’s economic crisis, contribute to continued exclusion of refugee voices within the research sector. An increased focus on constructive dialogue could help to address this and encourage collaboration between refugee and host communities.

Implement participatory research methodologies: Providing opportunities for refugees to actively participate as co-researchers could not only provide employment pathways but also enable refugees to share valuable insights and refine research methodologies in a way which is most appropriate for their context.

Recognise the twofold value of removing language barriers in research: We welcome the increasing efforts to diversify academic publishing. A greater range of languages and pathways to publication will likely result in more refugee voices being heard in research. Distribution of this research is also important; addressing the issue of academic paywalls, as well as publishing findings in accessible languages, would further increase refugees’ engagement with the sector.

Combine requirements for refugee participation with practical support to implement them: Some declarations have been made to increase refugee participation in international networks, but there are barriers (including travel restrictions) which limit the success of implementing such standards. A dual approach is needed.

Enable networks for refugee collaboration and contribution: Refugees do not share one voice. We represent a diverse group of perspectives and experiences. Creating global networks through which refugees can communicate with one another could provide a platform for refugees not only to contribute to the conversation but to lead it.


Asma Rabi @AsmaRabii

Research Assistant


Noor Ullah @noor_ahmadzai10

Research Assistant


Rebecca Daltry @beckydaltry



Jigsaw Consult


[1] Horst C (2007) ‘Doing Research with Refugees: Issues and Guidelines’, Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol 20, Issue 4, pp673–674

[2]  Collyer F M (2016) ‘Global patterns in the publishing of academic knowledge: Global North, global South’, Current Sociology, Vol 66, Issue 1, pp56-73

[3] McLean R (2018) ‘Why Southern research?’, IDRC

[4] Harley T and H Hobbs (2020) ‘The Meaningful Participation of Refugees in Decision-Making Processes: Questions of Law and Policy’, International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol 32, Issue 2, pp200–226

[5] UNHCR (2020)

[6] Stockemer D and Wigginton M J (2019) ‘Publishing in English or another language: An inclusive study of scholar’s language publication preferences in the natural, social and interdisciplinary sciences’, Scientometrics, Issue 118, pp645–652

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