Integrating Religion in the Governance of the Refugee Crisis

By: Jocelyne Cesari

January 12, 2023

Since the pandemic, religious communities have gained visibility and credibility in the management of global crises and when it comes to forced migration, international organizations are undoubtedly paying greater attention.

However, this awareness does not automatically translate into deliberate and efficient action that takes religion seriously. Besides the secular myopia that permeates most political actions (from national to international), three features of the dominant perceptions of religion specifically affect the integration of religion into the political management of the refugee crisis.

First, religion is usually understood through the beliefs of the actors or the creeds of the faith they endorse. As a result, there is the tendency to prioritize clerics or religious organizations to get a sense of the situations on the ground. What is often neglected are the religious interventions, connections, or motivations of seemingly “secular” states or groups. For this reason, the role of religion in humanitarian crises would be better captured if we paid attention to the situations where narratives, actions, or interactions between stakeholders are seen and presented as “religious” or contested as such by ”secular” and “religious” protagonists (for the theoretical background of this approach and its implementation in the study of religion and politics, see We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations).

Second, it is their capacity to articulate moral claims for global issues beyond national and partisan agendas that make religious organizations or communities politically relevant. In this respect, our focus should be on governance rather than government. It means closely examining the relationships between several components of civil society and the political institutions that finalize policies. By observing only the outcome of a policy, we are not able to grasp the “backstage” influences of religious groups on secular political agendas. In the same vein, there is the tendency to look only at the good (or bad) will or explicit moral and text-based arguments that religious communities use to justify their actions. This limited view prevents us from taking into account these particular communications (or lack thereof) that shape the situation at hand.

Third, it is undeniably a challenge to take into account several religious dimensions of the refugee crises that are simultaneously at play in any given situation:

  • The complex religious dynamics in major conflict zones that lead to displacement;​
  • The shifting religious identification and practices of forced migrants through settlement, resettlement, or return;
  • The humanitarian role of religious organizations;
  • The influence (positive or negative) of dominant religious cultures in resettlement countries;
  • The modes of engagement of religious actors or organizations at the international level.

As a result of these complexities, the refugee crisis sits at the nexus of state policies and transnational and international religious and political organizations. From this perspective, religion is not only the faith of refugees or of some humanitarian organizations. It also permeates three major components of the larger crisis and its management: a) the political crises that lead to displacement; b) the policies of the countries of settlement; and c) the international mobilization of secular and religious humanitarian organizations.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges.

Opens in a new window