Once upon a time, not so long ago, stakeholder engagement by scholars involved waiting until the end of a project, writing up an easy-to-read flyer, pouring out an op-ed in the paper and possibly organizing a dissemination workshop. Our stakeholder meeting at the 2018 Fundamental Rights Forum showed how times have changed. Over thirty activists, policy-makers, politicians have reflected upon our first insights, comparing them against their experiences, critically adding to them and thus crucially strengthening our research.
On the one hand, this comes with our research topic. The role of human rights in how cities receive and integrate refugees is simply too urgent, too topical, with too much happening to wait five years to share results. We want to make a difference in, and to local authorities as they struggle with these issues on a daily basis. But there is a second reason for our early and ongoing outreach to those with a stake in our findings. We, as researchers, have to learn from true dialogue with those ‘out there in the arena’ – migrants, mayors, municipal workers.
Of course, it is our job to see the big picture. To read through the piles of existing literature on the ‘local turn’ in migration management, the localization of human rights and its relevance to refugee reception and integration. To question existing and draw up new theories, formulate hypotheses, painstakingly gather data to only then draw out conclusions. In all these phases, however, there is so much to learn from those in the heat of things. Not as respondents, but as fellow researchers. People who also ponder upon why cities offer refuge, or refuse to do so, and what the role of human rights can be.
This is the reason why we have our much-appreciated stakeholder board with representatives of the human rights institutes, refugees, mayors, the EU research board and Fundamental Rights Agency to discuss findings every year. It was Friso Roscam Abbing, of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, who proposed the wonderful idea of meeting at the Fundamental Rights Forum, appropriately themed “Connect, Reflect, Act”.
Here, the question is not so much what insights we shared (on why local authorities differ, what discourses prevail pertaining to refugees, what role there is for networks). Rather, it is what insights we gained. Let’s give three. First, we witness a very high degree of interest in the role of local authorities in furthering human rights. Not only was the turn-out at our session relatively high, this applied to all the other sessions on local action for fundamental rights grouped under the hashtag #sharedneighbourhoods. Second, there is the role of narratives. All stakeholders actively search for a story to tell on human rights that can cross political divides and that serves as an umbrella for local inclusion. Finally, there is the importance of sharing stories, best practices and permanently reflecting on what works and why, with the inclusion of the people that the policies are aimed to help. Participatory and inclusive policy-making, including the voice of refugees, migrants and other disadvantaged groups has been a recurring theme among recommendations from our workshop participants. Here, we will continue to play a role. Not only for, but also with our stakeholders. Or should it be stakescholars?