The term community is generally understood as group of people that share social ties, common perspectives, originating from the same locations or settings, or engage in joint action. Participants in a community may self-define as a community, although often times the labeling or characterizing of community may come from outside observers.

The question of what voices a community or communities encompass are fluid and sometimes hard to define. Refugee communities may be defined on characteristics as large as nationality, ethnic groups, religious affiliations, linguistic abilities, age, gender and/or a combination of these factors. Most often refugee groups defined by nationalities are in fact separated by the same factors that led to forced displacement – whether religious, ethnic, political, gender-based or other strife.

In some displaced contexts, refugee community groups may look like micro samples of their home country. For example, Pakistani communities in Thailand are divided by religion and sometimes geographic regions. In other contexts, organized displaced communities are only those of the majority ethnic group leaving all minority groups out and in isolation.

Understanding refugee communities

Community legal empowerment (CLE) programming seeks to facilitate the voices of refugee communities as both a means and an end. Used in the context of CLE, defining the dynamics of “community” is a crucial step to developing programming. For the purposes of CLE programming, the use of the term community stresses on the understanding that the delivery and its impact is for and by intended participants. Who and how the community is comprised should be identified by and tailored to its participants.

CLE programming should check assumptions made about refugee populations including that refugees live in a cohesive community. Refugee contexts often are made up of multiple refugee communities, depending on language, background or neighborhood, or it may have no discernibly organized community at all. Refugees may be slow to organize – even within national groups – for fear of discrimination or mistreatment in their country of asylum. If not used carefully, the assumption of community can lump groups of people based on general characteristics and ignores internal differences and individuals existing outside community frameworks.

Establishing what communities to serve in through CLE and other refugee response programming will be enriched through deeper understanding of refugee community structures. Additionally, thinking about how to do outreach and include those who may be isolated from traditional community structures will help ensure reaching particularly marginalized and vulnerable refugees.

Some questions to ask include:

  • Does the community elect a representative?
  • Are the representative truly representative of demographics of their community? (E.g. overrepresentation of males, certain ethnicity or privileged in some way)
  • Do the societal hierarchies of the home country remain in tact in the country of refuge? If you are not sure that a community leader is truly representative of women, children, young people, ethnic minorities, and other groups within the refugee community or communities, consider working with various representatives other than those formally presented to you.

The strength of communities in legal empowerment

Through CLE, the mobilization of information comes from within refugee communities. Using an empowerment lens, the focus is on what refugees are able to do and achieve. Community members identify and interpret the laws and policies in ways that are best understood and incorporated by their families, neighbors and communities. By enhancing the legal literacy of a community, refugees can begin to understand their rights and options under those rights. They can also start to demand accountability and take responsible action in both private and public spheres of their lives.

Peer-to-peer programming complements and can even replace the traditional lawyer-client model. Traditional legal aid models rely on lawyers to share legal information with their clients. Lawyers often can fail when the community lacks access to competent, multilingual legal advocates. Lawyers are often expensive and scarce. Language and cultural differences provide challenges when lawyers come from outside the community. And in some contexts, lawyering may simply not be the right fit to addressing refugee rights issues.

CLE seeks to fill in information gaps that may often lead to exploitation, abuse, and a lack of protection. For example, an employer can convince her worker that she has no rights to her wages because she lacks a work visa. The employer may even threaten immigration consequences if the employee seeks help. While a lawyer can explain whether she has a right to her pay, community legal advocates are closest to the community and can act quickly to help the employee seek out redress and help other potential employees from similar exploitation. Where refugees may not have access to court systems, direct community education and engagement can offer spaces to find redress for rights violations that otherwise go unaddressed.