Involving Refugee Volunteers

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Involving Refugee Volunteers

By Rosanne Alexander and Gün Orgun (Volunteer Development Coordinators, Scottish Refugee Council) and Volunteer Scotland.

1. Firstly, ask yourself, what would be some of the positive outcomes of involving refugee volunteers in your organisation? For instance, will it help you provide services to other asylum seekers and refugees? Can it enable you plan joint projects/enter into partnerships with refugee support groups and organisations? Can the language skills of refugees be useful in making your organisation more accessible to a wider variety of people? How about advertising for Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, Tigrinya, Vietnamese or Kurdish speaking volunteers?

2. Spread this message throughout your organisation: Refugees and Asylum Seekers at all stages of the asylum process (including post-refusal) have the right to volunteer in the UK. Current Home Office Guidance (Permission to work and volunteering for asylum seekers Version 8.0, Published for Home Office staff on 22 May 2019) states that “it is Home Office policy to support asylum seekers volunteering for charities or public sector organisations.” Ensure that your volunteer recruitment staff are consistently trained, and embed this message in the volunteering programme of your organisation, as part of a wider ‘refugees welcome’ message.

3. Recruit with confidence, knowing that asylum seekers and refugees can obtain disclosures at all levels in Scotland, including PVGs. Most will have Home Office-issued photo IDs that Disclosure Scotland is happy to accept (ARC – Applicant Registration Card, BRP – Biometric Residence Permit or Convention Travel Document), and can provide letters from the Home Office, NHS or rental contracts as proof of address.

4. Make it explicit that you can be flexible with references – character references can be obtained from ESOL tutors, caseworkers at a refugee support organisation, lawyers or members of a faith group.

5. Recruit actively, seeking opportunities for meeting asylum seekers and refugees face-to-face in their own contexts and networks. Contact and visit your local refugee support groups and organisations, find out if there is a refugee support team in your local Council, or ESOL classes for refugees in local colleges.

6. Make it easy to engage with your programme: do not be over-reliant on online adverts, online volunteering registration forms and email communication. These methods can exclude anyone whose first language is not English, and who cannot afford regular access to the internet, including refugees. Ask applicants for their preferred mode of contact. Texting is a common form of communication.

7. Plan pathways to access volunteering in your organisation. Invite asylum seekers and refugees (using existing networks) to your events, then ask attendees to volunteer at ad hoc events, which can lead to longer term volunteering.

8. Create ‘refugee-friendly’ volunteer roles, support systems and progression routes: create volunteer roles that are suitable for an individual with limited English, with a view to the person progressing to other roles once their English improves and they are confident in your organisational context. You can ask current volunteers if they would consider partnering with or mentoring a refugee with (as yet) limited English at the start of their volunteer placement.

9. Make it explicit that you will reimburse expenses, and make sure you reimburse daily, easily, and when necessary, in advance. People in the asylum process receive only £5 per day to cover food, clothing, hygiene and travel costs. A return bus ticket is a significant, sometimes unaffordable cost. People in the asylum process cannot legally be paid, but expenses can be reimbursed, or travel tickets/tokens can be issued in advance. Many people with refugee status are on benefits, and will need to be reassured that volunteering will not interfere with their social security entitlements (Read the DWP guidance on volunteering and benefits)

10. Have a conversation with your volunteer about their individual life circumstances, and be flexible about volunteering times. Many asylum seekers and refugees have unstable living conditions, and requirements on their time. People in the asylum process have to sign in (often weekly) at immigration or police, as well as attending lawyer’s appointments and immigration interviews regularly. Newly-recognised refugees are often adjusting to mainstream benefits requirements, and may be trying to arrange for family members join them in the UK. Both asylum seekers and refugees are likely to have insecure multi-occupancy housing and change addresses frequently. They will often be attending English courses at college every morning or every afternoon – this is one of the requirements for receiving social security entitlements.

Further Information

Paper "Finding purpose through altruism: The potential of ‘doing for others’ during asylum”


Refugees are increasingly acknowledged as facing significant occupational injustice, and they experience multiple barriers to finding meaningful occupational opportunities. Occupation has enormous potential for enhancing the post migratory experience, but choice of occupation is important. People strive to move beyond simply ‘keeping busy’ to find occupations of real meaning that meet personal and cultural needs. This paper reports selected findings from a phenomenological study exploring the occupational experiences of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Data were gathered through a series of in-depth interviews with 10 participants. The findings reveal that participants held a preference for altruistic occupations, where altruism is the principle or practice of doing for others, which was expressed through, or a motivation for, a range of occupations. These occupational choices were prompted by kinship, empathy, learned behaviour and moral principles. The occupations appeared to promote connectivity, positive sense of self and a connection between past and present occupations, called here ‘occupational constancy’. In seeking occupations rich with meaning and purpose, the drive to ‘do for others’ might provide individuals with opportunities to live well in the here and now, and rise above the hardship and marginalisation of asylum and forced migration. In conclusion, I assert that doing of others can be particularly meaningful, and may provide opportunities for personal, social and cultural rewards.

Access to paper

Finding purpose through altruism: The potential of ‘doing for others’ during asylum

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