Blog post by Manzoor Hasan and Arafat Reza*

As wars, conflict and persecution continue to force people to flee their homes, we seek the support of faith leaders and their communities. They are key in not only standing with and supporting refugees during their displacement, but in addressing the root causes that gave rise to their flight.

– UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

In his aforementioned statement, the High Commissioner for Refugees aptly captures the importance of including religious actors (for the purpose of this article, religious actors include faith-based organisations, local faith communities, and faith leaders) when responding to refugee crises. However, despite repeated emphasis being placed on this issue by informed observers for many years, on the whole, too little attention has been given to the role of religious actors as key stakeholders in refugee response, indicated by the scarcity of existing research on the topic. This article serves to fill this gap. It explores the factors that serve as  barriers to religious actors and identifies steps for enhancing their involvement in refugee crisis-response through reference to the work of other eminent researchers as well as the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), BRAC University’s extensive research on Rohingya refugees seeking refuge in Bangladesh.

The importance of including religious actors in refugee crisis-response

The low rate of literacy among the refugee population has made it at times difficult for relevant stakeholders to communicate with refugees and vice versa. As a result, in some cases, crucial messages are either not delivered to those in need, or incompletely understood.

Religious actors can act as a channel to deliver these messages as they are very much respected and trusted within many refugee communities. For instance, a survey conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action and UNICEF revealed that religious actors are one of the most trusted actors for communicating humanitarian information, with the percentage of surveyed refugees who consider masjid sermons their most trusted source of information for receiving messages increasing from 52% in 2018 to 70% in 2019.

Furthermore, in some settings, religious actors can significantly expedite the dissemination of messages, reaching a large number of refugees with minimal effort and in a very short time. For example, on a Jum’ah prayer alone, Imams can deliver a message to thousands of refugees in mere minutes, a feat that might take days or even months for other actors to achieve.

Moreover, because of the level of trust they hold among refugee communities, religious actors have a unique capacity to break down barriers that might hinder refuge crisis-response by other actors. For example, they can raise awareness to prejudices, misinformation, and rumours that hinder the success of initiatives undertaken for the benefit of the refugees; such as Rohingya refugee women and girls lacking important information due to expectations that they should remain in their shelters during menstruation. In this context, religious actors at various religious gatherings can convey to a large number of people that it is acceptable for women to go out in public and on their own during menstruation. Because of the high level of trust they have in their respective communities, they can help remove this stigma with greater ease and in less time than others. It can open doors for many women to attend relevant initiatives undertaken by various stakeholders and gain valuable information they might otherwise miss out on.

In this way, religious actors can pave the way for the effective implementation of many crucial initiatives.

Barriers to Religious actors fulfilling their role in refugee crisis-responses and Recommendations

1) Funding

In recent years, lack of funding has emerged as a major concern for actors working with refugees. Many organisations are struggling to survive in absence of adequate funding. People associated with these organisations have expressed fear that the situation will only worsen in the coming years. For example, in fiscal year 2023, there was a sharp 10% decline in the foreign funds supporting non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh. Given the circumstances, it has become very difficult for relevant actors to undertake initiatives aimed at enhancing the role of religious actors.

Similarly, it is increasingly challenging for religious actors themselves to secure funds for refugee crisis-response. A compounding issue, is that religious actors often have to overcome the negative presumptions of some donors as to their financial and reporting capacities.

Additionally, organisations who work with religious actors have indicated that the funds they receive for their work are usually for a short period of time, hindering their implementation of long-term initiatives with large numbers of religious actors and refugees. Consequently, their efforts often fail to produce wide-scale or sustainable change.

Thus, the donor community should make more funds available to enable the implementation of long-term initiatives for and with religious actors. 

2) Poor communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing

There is also a lack of collaboration and communication among organisations working with religious actors. From their own engagement with Rohingya refugees, the authors have observed wasted replication and duplication of efforts among organisations—a clear consequence of insufficient communication between organisations working in the same space and with the same Religious actors. Another ramification of this duplication is that it has prevented the work of these organisations reaching the maximum number of beneficiaries, instead reaching the same beneficiaries multiple times. The lack of knowledge sharing has undoubtedly hindered the ability of organisations working with religious actors to develop and improve, missing out on valuable opportunities to learn from each other when needed.

3) Lack of fiscal recognition

Furthermore, when other actors seek to engage religious actors in any of their activities, they often do not offer any payment in return. In most cases, religious actors are expected to do what is asked of them for free. When they are paid, the sum is negligible. Needless to say, it can be discouraging for religious actors to witness others being well-compensated for their contributions while they remain unpaid or underpaid.

So, it is crucial to ensure that religious actors are paid well for their time and efforts when participating in activities organised by other actors. However, this may make it difficult for new or small organisations that lack adequate funds to engage religious actors in their activities. When this is the case, an organisation could consider partnering with others, utilising each other’s networks to secure more funds, or exploring other ways to incentivise religious actors.

4) Role minimisation

Another concern is that the religious insights and experiences of religious actors is often sidelined when they work with organisations wanting to reach refugee communities. Their opinions are not solicited and they are expected to disseminate whatever is shared with them even if they do not agree with it. Indeed, this leaves very little space for religious actors to share their concerns or feel encouraged to work together with other actors.

Recognising the importance of engaging religious actors in responding to a refugee crisis is crucial. This recognition should influence the design of projects, allocation of donor funds, and attitudes of stakeholders. In particular, organisations should seek for ways to empower religious actors by providing them with adequate knowledge, training, and resources. This support will enable them to realise their full potential as key stakeholders. However, while engaging with religious actors, other actors should be receptive to their values and perspectives through dialogue and discussion. They should never try to force religious actors to embrace and disseminate ideas with which they disagree, even where they are being paid.

Emphasis must be placed on creating opportunities for religious actors to express their concerns and share experiences among themselves and with other actors and vice versa. This will contribute significantly in creating a suitable environment for different stakeholders to better understand each other, paving the way for more frequent and effective collaboration. For example, CPJ in collaboration with the World Faith Development Dialogues, Georgetown University organised a training session on rights and social cohesion for religious actors between 11th and 13th July 2023 at Mymensingh. The primary goal of the training was to assemble leaders and representatives from diverse faiths across various regions of Bangladesh, establishing a platform for discussing, debating, and sharing knowledge on topics such as human rights, gender, the existing laws of the land, and social cohesion.

In conclusion, this article has sought to contribute to a better understanding of religious actor engagement in refugee crisis-response and to inspire others to undertake further research aimed at bridging the gap in knowledge. Recommendations made to enhance the involvement of religious actors should encourage immediate and concrete action by relevant actors. Enabling and empowering religious actors as key stakeholders will lead to the development and implementation of more informed, inclusive, and effective policies for addressing refugee crises around the world.


Manzoor Hasan OBE is currently serving as the Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.

Arafat Reza is a Research Associate at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.