On 6th June 2021, history was made in Bern, when Switzerland’s first Refugee Parliament sat for its inaugural session. A range of topics, from visas and travel restrictions, to education and employment were voted on during the session, with motions that passed then taken to the Swiss Parliament for consideration.
The project is organised by the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), who brought together around 75 refugee parliamentarians, members of the Swiss Parliament, and representatives of international organisations.
Age, gender, and diversity was a key consideration when forming the parliament, and the parliamentarians, aged between 18-60, come from 15 countries, live across 19 of Switzerland’s cantons, and are fairly gender-balanced, with women in leadership positions.
On 23rd October 2021, a training session was held for the refugee parliamentarians, with workshops run by politicians and experts in various areas, aiming to help ensure the Refugee Parliament is as effective as it can be.
Sherefedin Mussa is one of the project coordinators working for NCBI, and a member of the Refugee Parliament. In this interview, he explains how the project came to be, what has been achieved so far, and what comes next.
Interview with Sherefedin
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in the Parliament?
I come from Eritrea, and I have lived in Switzerland since the end of 2013. I am trained as a child social worker – I graduated this summer . I have worked for NCBI since August 2021, and before this, I volunteered with them for five years.
At NCBI, I lead the campaigning projects, and one of the biggest of these is called Unsere Stimmen [Our Voices]. This is a project from NCBI that was founded by refugees. The project is all about how refugees can raise their voices.
How did the Parliament start?
The Refugee Parliament is a part of the Unsere Stimmen project. There was already a youth session and a migrant session [in the Federal Parliament] in Switzerland, and we sent someone from Unsere Stimmen to see how they were, how they functioned, etc.
And then we came upon the idea: why don’t we do a refugee session? But the term “session” is often not known to refugees – “parliament” is better known – so we decided to call it a Refugee Parliament.
June 6th was the first session, and that was an historic day. More than 75 refugees took part, and I think this was the first Refugee Parliament here in Switzerland!
How is the project organised?
Structurally, there is a core team of refugee parliamentarians who are often employees at NCBI – because they must invest a lot of time – and then different working groups.
The core group sits with all working groups. For example, lobbying work requires meeting with members of the National Council, so the core group assists the Refugee Parliament in how they should do this.
There were different working groups, for example on the topics of refused asylum applications, people with F-level visas, education, and the right for children of those whose applications have been refused to go to school. I was in the education working group.
We made it so that before the 6th of June, when there was a vote, there were debates in the groups – what did we want? Each group had to make three recommendations at most. With some groups it was clear, with others it was more difficult. We always proceeded democratically – that means we had time to show recommendations were well founded, why they are important, and the possibility [to be implemented]. And then we asked politicians or experts how realistic the three recommendations were. When they said "forget that in Switzerland", then we’d ask what is possible.
How did you ensure engagement was meaningful and would lead to change?
On the 23rd of October, there was a training session in the form of various workshops – it was about expanding our knowledge, our method – that was the goal. For example, part of the workshop was about how to talk to the media. Because with the Refugee Parliament, we are often asked by the media to comment on a situation.
The first workshop was for everyone: how does politics work in Switzerland. When can you vote? What happens with our advances for people who escaped with an F visa so that they can travel in the Schengen area?
There was a workshop that UNHCR co-ran and was about the story of refugees in Switzerland. That was also very useful. If you know the history, then you can plan for the future.
Another part was about how to make a successful lobbying campaign. For example, a member of the National Council attended this workshop and helped lead it. All workshops were not only led by experts, but also someone from the Refugee Parliament.
The Agenda of the Refugee Parliament for 2022 was also agreed there. We found it very exciting and were able to have a say in it.
Do you know how the politicians got involved in the project?
The various groups discuss what they want and then tell the core group: ok we need a person who has this specialist knowledge. Then the NCBI finds the person who is responsible for integration at the cantonal level or at the national level. Or maybe someone who has done a lot of research in this area and who can help us.
But also, I fled to Switzerland eight years ago, and now I know a few people from the National Council. That was a dream in Eritrea that has now come true. Now I know the politicians; they are all friendly and polite; they want to support the people.
What were the biggest challenges to getting it up and running?
The biggest challenge was of course Corona; we couldn't meet easily. But we were also very flexible and very quickly decided on a platform to work with.
Another challenge is that not everyone has time. We also understand that and do not expect all Refugee Parliament members to always be free. There were a couple who started and couldn't continue, for example, because someone is taking exams. We don't say: ok, please come – but instead, we send someone to the person who can support him or her with their exam. We make sure our members are doing well and help them keep their motivation.
Another challenge is of course finding the right time for the specialists and politicians who support us. We'll suggest a date, maybe that'll work, maybe they're on vacation or otherwise busy. In this situation, we have to find a plan B. It's not easy work, but it's fun; it's productive. We have a goal, and we want to achieve it.
How did you feel being part of these discussions and being able to influence decision making in the country?
It was strategic and a lot of fun, although one meets new challenges. On June 6th, when we then had to select 10 priorities, that was done democratically with votes. We had red slips of paper; we had green slips of paper. I moderated, and there were recommendations that were very close to my heart, which were rejected, and I was disappointed and surprised. But that’s politics. It was a mega-historic day that we will all never forget.
How do you think including refugees in decision making can improve the lives of local communities and refugee communities alike?
In part, including refugees in political decision making improves the relationship between the local population and refugees.
For example, we had a workshop about getting active locally. What does it mean to be active locally? Becoming active locally is about how I can integrate with my surroundings. So it's not just topics that are highly political, but also topics that are really social.
What do you hope to achieve by taking part?
My wish, how things should go on, is that the Refugee Parliament becomes an advisory partnership for the federal parliament. And when the law changes, and when the integration agenda is updated in general, the federal government should exchange ideas with the Refugee Parliament and work together.
What is on the agenda for the next session?
At the moment, for example we had a campaigning session with Bildung für Alle and other organisations, on the subject of apprenticeship cancellations. When someone is doing an apprenticeship, and [their asylum application] gets rejected, then the person must give up their apprenticeship here in Switzerland. We made these proposals [to allow people whose applications are rejected to finish their apprenticeships], and now we have won in the National Council, and the session covered how we could win in the State Council.
And the second proposal, which I said at the start, is that people with an F-Visa should be allowed to travel within Schengen. So, in the winter, we will have an intensive lobbying campaign, for example, we have planned a letter-writing campaign to send to every member of the State Council. Then we will analyse who is in favour, who is against, etc., and try to convince the politicians. Now the Refugee Parliament has a compromise – a solution that works. That will be presented in the National Council by two members; then it goes back to the State Council.
On November 24th, we will have a hearing on the subject of the integration agenda and access to education. That will be in Zurich. There will be experts on the subject of the integration agenda, and refugees will present their recommendations – we are expecting up to 150 people to attend this event.
What would you ask world leaders?
A question to the parliaments of the world: It is tragic to see in the news, to notice how many refugees around the world are on the move, when they show the numbers – that’s really so tragic. Therefore, what I wish for, is peace for the whole world, and also in every country to have peace, that people can improve themselves in their own countries, so we prevent the need to flee.
My main concern is peace and justice in the world. I don’t know who is ultimately responsible for this, but I do my part.
Find out more about the Unserere Stimmen campaign and the Refugee Parliament.