Cultural participation of refugees

Policy recommendations to the European Commission on cultural participation of refugees

Based on the results of a Delphi survey with panel members in 9 EU member states, the experience of making 8 cultural presentations (in co-creation), in four European cities and the final conference of the project

Conclusions from the Delphi study

Many different interpretations of the concept of cultural participation, ranging from assimilation – teaching the culture of the new country so that the newcomers can fully assimilate it and adapt to it – to participation in cultural life in a way that is equal in that the thoughts, experiences and cultural expressions of refugees are considered to be just as valuable as those of the other participants/makers.


It is striking that in a country such as Sweden, where equal rights for women and men are paramount, and are seen as an achievement that is not under discussion, there is more evidence of assimilation than in a country such as Portugal, which has developed an active practice of co-creation in recent years.


Where cultural participation in a broad sense is used as a definition (participation in the broad cultural and social life of the new country), the emphasis is more on integration and in some cases assimilation. Where the definition of cultural participation focuses more on participation in cultural life, the emphasis is more on an active role of refugees and they are seen more as creators who have their own added value (co-creation).


It is striking that almost all Delphi respondents, when asked about the future of cultural participation of refugees, think more in the direction of an active contribution of refugees and of co-creation, than in the direction of general participation in the mainstream culture. Participating in the Delphi and thinking about definitions, goals, means and expectations regarding cultural participation and co-creation of refugees has clearly contributed to a clearer picture among the respondents on the question of what cultural participation is and how refugees can play a more active role in this.


Experiences with making the cultural presentations

In the project several cultural presentations were made based on the oral history interviews and in co-creation with fieldworkers and  interviewees:

  1. A video and dance performance about refugee life and the experience of the city at different locations in Paris.
  2. Four evenings on the different phases of refugee life linked to four different art forms in the red Star Line Museum in Antwerp,
  3. A cultural festival with plenty of space for cultural expressions of the different communities in Bochum with all kinds of follow-up activities in the LWL Industrie Museum Zeche Hannover.
  4. A theatre play combining music and theatre styles about the question from which people derive their right to exist in Turin.

The experiences with the making of the presentations learn that the sometimes static images about refugees and their cultures do not exist in practice. Refugees are individuals who develop their perceptions of art and culture and who make choices about which elements of the new cultural environment are important to them and which elements they want to preserve or transform from their original culture. Balancing between these different cultures and the related identities is a subject that is also strongly recurring in the Specially Unknown interviews.


Some conclusions form the Conference Oracle of Amsterdam

During the closing conference of the Specially Unknown project, entitled Oracle of Amsterdam, the subjects of cultural participation and co-creation were discussed extensively.


The participants looked at the various ways cultural participation has been understood and implemented: as providing access to refugees to the regular programs of cultural institutions, as organizing events which highlight refugee’s own art and culture and give refugees an opportunity to meet local people, and as artistic programs co-created together with refugees as curators, directors, board members and artists.
The later was chosen as the most preferable. It has the most potential to “make up (as opposed to
“break up”) societies”, because it entails equality on all levels and stages of diversity: staff, public and productions of the existing cultural institutions.

A core element of cities’ cultural participation policy should be to create conditions for co-creation with refugees. The purpose and the desirable result of co-creation is to create joint ownership”. And yet,  all agreed: co-creation is more about the process, than about the result.


General principle to approach this is: look and focus on the issues and topics that different groups have in common. Very concrete ideas have been offered to achieve this: more cultural abridgers from the 2nd generation of refugees, to establish connections between different groups; influencers with the refugee background in existing cultural institutions, as well as a “diversity officer” who can hold a mirror and ensure equality and diversity.


Based on these analyses and experiences the project Specially Unknown comes to  the following policy recommendations to the European Commission:


  • Storytelling is important. Stories make but also break up societies and social cohesion. It is important to realize that stories become narratives, and narrative become policies. And policies become public discourse and politics. The European Commission can play an important role in stimulating forgotten and undervalued groups to tell their stories and to make sure they are not only a subject of negative stereotyping in the stories of others. To maintain democracy in EU member states the stories of minorities should be part of cultural heritage.
  • Oral history can be an important tool of empowerment, platform to break silences, create empathy, build up self-esteem, help the healing after traumatizing experiences, and bring awareness of being part of local, national and European community and history . By sharing their stories refugees become mediators of culture, of traditions, experiences and feelings
  • Oral history can be
    • A starting point for future projects of co-creation and cultural participation of refugees;
    • A (scientific) source, in different professional networks, at conferences and in research to spread the ideas and new narratives as well as to create new international networks and exchange;
    • A part of education plans and didactics.
  • European cities, with the special attention to the cities with a colonial past, have a role in:
    • Creating room for listening, storytelling and exchange and promoting oral history as a tool;
    • Creating of new and promoting of the existing projects;
    • Co-working with other cities on these topics (joined projects).
  • The European Commission has a role to stimulate these cities to work on these issues by granting inspirational projects. Developing programs to stimulate oral history, storytelling and co creation by refugees the European Commission should bear in mind that:
    • Integration is not co-creation. Integration is usually one-sided. Integration could be co-creation, if it refers to all (both, two) sides, if both sides would need to integrate, not only one;
    • Co-creation is not only working together, but it is working on the principles of equality in everything, especially in decision making during the whole process;
    • A core element of city policy development should be: to help and motivate refugees to participate in culture and society, build up their self-confidence and motivation to use their talents and competences