Involving refugee volunteers

For the Volunteer Organisers Network’s August event, Gün Orgun, part of Scottish Refugee Council’s Volunteer Development Team, discussed involving refugee volunteers.

Before we get into it, here are some key definitions you’ll need to know:

  • Person seeking asylum: someone who has made a claim to be considered for refugee status to a state which has signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
  • Refugee: someone whose individual application for asylum has been granted. They have been recognised by a designated authority as needing protection under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
Gün gave the following tips for involving refugee volunteers:
Know that refugees have the right to volunteer.

Refugees and people seeking asylum can legally volunteer in the UK. The Home Office has published guidance that clearly states: ‘It is Home Office policy to support asylum seekers volunteering for charities or public sector organisations.’ 

Refugees and people seeking asylum can also obtain any disclosure checks necessary for volunteering, including PVGs. Refugees and people seeking asylum have one of a few different types of identification, all of which Disclosure Scotland will accept: an Applicant Registration Card (ARC), Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) and/or Convention Travel Document.

Be clear on why you want to involve refugee volunteers.

When trying to recruit any group of people to volunteer, ask yourself: why do I want to recruit them to volunteer with us? Having a clear understanding of your rationale can help you persuade others in your organisation to provide support or funding for the recruitment of these new volunteers.

In the case of people seeking asylum and refugees, some possible benefits of recruiting them to be volunteers include gaining access to a wide range of language skills and making your services more accessible to refugees.

Remember that recruiting new volunteers not only benefits you, but your volunteers as well! Volunteering can provide them with an opportunity to develop or exercise their skills, meet new people and increase their wellbeing. This is particularly important for people seeking asylum, who are not allowed to take on paid work in the UK.

Understand the barriers that can prevent refugees from volunteering.

Refugees and people seeking asylum are often keen to volunteer, but face barriers that can make it difficult to volunteer. Here are some of the barriers often faced by refugees and people seeking asylum, as well as some tips for how volunteer organisers can make their volunteer programmes more refugee-friendly:

Unstable living conditions and competing commitments: New refugees and people in the asylum process are given a place to live, but they have no say in housing they receive, meaning that they could have to move to another flat or even another city at short notice. People in the asylum process are also often extremely busy, juggling a range of responsibilities like solicitor appointments, Home Office interviews, immigration reporting, housing inspections and ESOL classes. The immigration status of people in the asylum process can also change with little notice, adding another element of instability to their lives. 

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Have a chat with their volunteers about their circumstances and how volunteering can fit into their lives.
  • Be flexible about volunteering times.
  • Be understanding about competing commitments.

Social isolation: It can be difficult for refugees and people seeking asylum to integrate into a new society, tap into community networks, meet new people and feel comfortable in new spaces.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Be flexible with references and encourage refugees and people seeking asylum to contact ESOL tutors, case workers, a family friend, members of a faith group, lawyers, and/or a contact from their home country about being a reference for them.
  • Create a buddy programme wherein existing volunteers partner with or mentor new volunteers to welcome them into the programme, introduce them to other volunteers and give them one-to-one support.
  • Offer to be a reference for volunteers so that they can look for additional opportunities.

Poverty: People in the asylum process have their housing and utilities covered by the Home Office, but their living allowance is very small. They receive around £39 per week per person, which must cover all of their expenses, including food, clothing, hygiene, cleaning, travel, and more.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Pay travel expenses in advance or reimburse expenses on the day of volunteering. This reduces putting any additional financial strain on refugees and people seeking asylum.
  • Explicitly state on all advertisements that travel expenses will be paid in advance or on the day. This increases the chances that refugees, people seeking asylum and others experiencing poverty will apply to volunteer.

Internet access: Many refugees and people seeking asylum do not have regular access to the Internet.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Advertise volunteer roles in multiple ways: online, in print and face-to-face at community events.
  • Offer multiple ways for volunteers to apply: online, by phone, by post, or via an informal face-to-face chat. This enables people without regular Internet access to apply for your volunteer roles.

Learning English: Some refugees and people seeking asylum will have English as their first language, but many do not and are in the process of learning English.

-> Volunteer organisers can:

  • Design roles to support English language learners. Consider if you have any roles that use minimal English, or if you could create a buddy system where you pair a volunteer who’s learning English with another volunteer who is more fluent.
  • Offer multiple ways for volunteers to apply: online, by phone, by post, or via an informal face-to-face chat. Long, complex application forms are not accessible for people learning English.

If you’d like to have a more in-depth discussion about how to dismantle barriers facing refugees and people seeking asylum, you can reach out to the Scottish Refugee Council’s Volunteer Development Team at volunteering@scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk, or book one of the Scottish Refugee Council’s training sessions.

Build relationships with refugees and people seeking asylum.

Reaching out to and building trust with new audiences takes time! Take things step-by-step. For example, start out by inviting a local refugee support group to attend one of your events, or to be involved in a one-off volunteering opportunity. Then, try and encourage people to apply for longer-term volunteering at your organisation. 

Actively recruit refugee volunteers.

The most effective way to recruit refugee volunteers is to advertise your opportunities in places that they frequent, with organisations that they regularly interact with or with networks that they are a part of. For example, you could reach out to:

The Scottish Refugee Council also runs monthly Volunteering Information Afternoons where organisations can meet with refugees and people seeking asylum and chat with them about volunteering opportunities.

And don’t forget – clear “we welcome refugees” messaging on your volunteer advertisements and other communication channels (website, social media) goes a long way towards making refugees and people seeking asylum feel welcome at your organisation.


Question & Answer

The event included a Q&A portion with some great questions from attendees:

Q: What is a ‘New Scot’?

A: ‘New Scots’ is how the Scottish Government describes people seeking asylum and refugees in Scotland.

Q: What is the legal status of Syrian New Scots?

A: Syrian people and those affected by the Syrian crisis who came to the UK through the Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme arrived with refugee status, and did not seek asylum here. This means that they were already granted refugee status elsewhere, usually at a refugee camp, and then made their application for resettlement. Those who came to the UK through this scheme are also different from those seeking asylum in the UK in that they are directly supported by local authorities’ resettlement workers, and arrive with immediate access to mainstream benefits and social housing.

Q: Are there any special recommendations for recruiting refugees and people seeking asylum as board members?

A: Gün advised using the same inclusive practices as for other volunteer roles,  such as offering shadowing opportunities and upskilling people first before taking them on as board members.

Q: What’s the status of the UK Government’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan?

A: It’s early days yet, so a lot is unknown, but Afghans have already started to arrive in Scotland. You can check the Scottish Refugee Council’s website to keep up-to-date with the latest on Afghan relocation and resettlement. Individuals and organisations can also join the Scottish Refugee Council’s network for people from Afghanistan arriving in Scotland by emailing Reza.Karimi@scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk or completing a form to register your offer of support for new Afghan arrivals. For those interested, Scottish Refugee Council has also launched a new training course on welcoming and working with Afghan families.


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