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Integrating Volunteering or Volunteering for Integration? How Volunteerism Can Help the Social Inclusion of Migrants and Refugees in Europe

Author: Arina Tikhomirova (2021)

Arina Tikhomirova holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This In Focus article is an excerpt from her Master Thesis discussed in March 2021 under the supervision of Professor Pietro De Perini.


Since volunteer groups were explicitly mentioned as stakeholders in their own right in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, volunteering has acquired more attention and credibility as a tool for transparency, participation, and inclusion. In fact, United Nations yet pronounced 2001 as the International Year of Volunteering, trying to promote and facilitate volunteerism. Since then, the UN General Assembly identified volunteering activities as an important component of any strategy aimed at “poverty reduction, sustainable development, health, <…> social integration and, in particular, overcoming social exclusion and discrimination” and recommended to integrate them in all the relevant agendas for social development.

At the same moment, while it is recommended to implement volunteering into various strategies, vice versa, volunteering appears to be an effective tool for the inclusion of people from marginalized or vulnerable groups. Volunteering is a right of everyone and an activity that everyone has to have access to. Due to its social nature and infusion with values such as solidarity, mutual trust, and belonging, volunteerism promotes civic participation, community engagement, and social cohesion. It allows anyone to utilize “knowledge, skills and social networks, for the benefit of themselves, their families and their communities” while also broadening these networks and gaining new skills. This is especially important in enabling people to play a more full and satisfying role in their societies and enhancing their personal well-being. According to the European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers, nearly 80% of European citizens feel that voluntary activities are an important part of democratic life in Europe.

Therefore, engagement in volunteer action can play a crucial role in the integration and inclusion of newcomers, refugees and migrants, who often remain excluded from social life in their receiving societies. And today, many organizations across Europe engage tens of hundreds of volunteers to assist less-privileged and vulnerable groups like migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. Not underestimating the significance and value of these activities, it should be noted that there are not so many projects that reverse the focus. The phenomenon of migrant volunteering remains a rather neglected integration tool when it has a big potential. By means of volunteer work, migrants and refugees can be active in the life of hosting society, using their knowledge and skills to provide help, participate in the design and delivery of services addressed to them, their families, and their communities. Otherwise, the common role of passive recipients of aid and services can even harm the overall integration and inclusion goals.

And studies report that when migrants are not sufficiently integrated into their host communities, more anti-immigration sentiment arise in society.  Local residents often start to get concerned about increased competition for jobs and housing, which provokes defensive behaviour from their side or just general social unrest. Such consequences become a great obstacle for building an inclusive and diverse society. For example, as the Diversity Barometer showed, in 2018, three out of ten native Swedes have never interacted with non-European migrants. Social contacts can largely depend on the negative attitude of the host society towards migrants and, in turn, increase discriminatory practices, marginalization or segregation.

So, what do governments take into focus when designing their integration policies? A comparative assessment of current integration policies in several European states provided in the 2019 Issue Paper on Human Rights Aspects of Immigrant and Refugee Integration Policies has shown that the majority of integration strategies are limited to the language training (mostly introductory courses) and civic education course; not all countries provide sufficient help in the field of employment. Overall, there is a lack of programs that assist migrants beyond short-term support, which follows the arrival phase. However, integration does not stop after a particular moment. It is a long-term process aimed at full economic and social inclusion. This process requires the involvement of different stakeholders (national and local governments, civil society organizations and the private sector) and proper follow-up measures. And with certain conditions, volunteering can become one of such measures, a complementary part of the integration programs, which brings benefits to both migrants and refugees volunteers and to their host communities.

The conditions include several points. First of all, volunteering projects for migrants and refugees should not be aimed at filling in the gaps in the labour market or substitute traditional employment for less-privileged groups. Secondly, people cannot be forced into taking volunteering opportunities due to the very nature of volunteerism. Insisting too strongly on volunteer participation among migrants (as opposed to regular employment) or turning volunteerism into an obligation for third-country nationals risk to reinforce “a paternalistic approach to integration <…>, or even taking advantage of barriers they may face in local labour markets”. As a part of the integration measures, volunteering should stay a freely undertaken activity that facilitates the inclusion of newcomers, allowing them to actively participate in social and cultural life, gaining new social connections and experiences. Moreover, migrant volunteer programmes have to be specific and comply with the individual integration plans that are built around the knowledge, skills and aspirations of the individuals.

When designing a migrant volunteering project, it is also important to keep in mind that migrants and refugees face many barriers and sometimes experience discriminatory or inequitable practices that affect their choice to undertake volunteer labour. Among the main obstacles for participation can be named negative connotations that exist around the image of volunteer work (as an unpaid non-prestigious labour), the distress of newcomers caused by the arrival in a new society, language and cultural barriers, long working hours or time-consuming jobhunting, troubles with documents, mental health problems and traumas sustained during the migration journey. Such issues can also turn into an obstacle to communication between people, which is a regular component associated with volunteering activities. At the same time, a number of these obstacles can be overcome via volunteering activities.

Accommodation in a new society means a lack of familiar social connections and networks, which, in its turn, leads to a greater decline of participation in social and civic life and higher risks of exclusion. Volunteering is one of the ways to gain new social connections (within the migrant groups as well as in the broader community). Communication with locals also helps to learn or practice the local language. As an integration tool, volunteering is closely connected to employment and education, which considered being key dimensions of integration. Volunteer activities give a chance to learn new skills, receive knowledge in a particular field and gain professional experience, which sometimes turns out to be a deciding factor when applying for a job.  Moreover, volunteerism is a helpful practice for fighting against prejudices and stereotypes and eliminating discrimination and stigmatization as it provides a peaceful platform for dialogue between native-born citizens and newcomers. Being a value-based activity, it helps to build social trust and mitigate some of the negative sentiments around the topic of migration, breaking an image of refugees and migrants as “welfare abusers and free-riders”.

Within all the migrants and refugees groups, volunteering opportunities can be more beneficial for some more vulnerable subgroups of persons – for instance, women and young people. Both are highlighted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as those to be especially taken into account when planning developmental programs and creating inclusive opportunities. Women and youth are highly exposed to the risks of poverty, violence and discrimination, especially when having a migrant background, while the importance of their integration into society for joint development and resilience cannot be underestimated. For them, volunteering has immense potential as a mechanism for gaining professional skills, facilitating employment and overall economic integration while being entertaining and fun. Volunteer activities do not require a full-time occupation or high qualifications, which is highly valuable for those who have other responsibilities or lack professional skills, yet preparing them for the future career. The most important is that such opportunities are not abused by employers or volunteer organizations to get no-cost labour and take advantage of participants' skills without appropriate compensation.

Several projects that exist or once existed in European countries can be cited as a good example of promoting and implementing migrant volunteerism for integration. And these good practices have a number of distinctive features. First, they fill in the gaps in the existing integration policies by providing important follow-up measures to achieve the long-term goals of inclusion. Secondly, they create a migrant-welcoming environment, targeting programmes for specific groups and encouraging newcomers to undertake volunteering opportunities. Such projects recognize migrants and refugees as equal contributors to common social well-being. They work with local communities and newcomers, assessing the needs on both sides. Good practices tailor approaches to their volunteers regarding the talents, skills and aspirations of the participants. Importantly, some of the recognized practices have focused on the engagement of migrant women and young refugees, presenting volunteerism as a fun learning opportunity, which helps social inclusion and labour market integration.

For instance, the “Volunteering for Social Inclusion – VSI” has become one of the pilot projects which promoted volunteer action as a tool for social inclusion of young people. It took place between 2011 and 2013 and was carried out by the Danish Red Cross and the British Red Cross. The project’s target group consisted of young people between the ages of 17 and 25 in Denmark and Scotland and young refugees of the same age who have recently received residence permits. The VSI worked a lot with the participants' reflections on social inclusion and volunteering, their motivation and obstacles for voluntary service, as well as provided direct volunteering opportunities. In total, 135 young asylum seekers and refugees took part in the VSI project workshops in both countries, out of which 84 showed interest in volunteering following the workshops phase, and 54 tried voluntary service through the VSI project.

Figure 1. A quote from the VSI project's report, p.30

Another found good practice is the “SMART Volunteering for Female Migrants” project, which was carried out between January 2018 and December 2019 in collaboration between organizations from six European countries: Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. The SMART project is another example of targeting more vulnerable groups of persons, namely, migrant women. It was aimed at the development and implementation of innovative practices that will increase the participation of women in the socio-economic life of their receiving societies and support female migrant entrepreneurship. To achieve that, the project also involved voluntary CSOs/NGOs and organizations from the business sector, analyzing their experience. The inspiring success stories of the participants are available on the SMART’s website.

Speaking about labour market integration via volunteering, in 2016, a social-artistic NGO in the Belgian city of Ghent managed to organize volunteer work for 80 asylum seekers during summer festivals in and around the city. Because of such a success, this initiative was turned into a project called “Refu Interim”, which has become a part of Ghent’s strategy on integration. The Refu Interim helps refugees to find volunteer work in the cultural, social and leisure sectors. In her TED Talk “Bridging the gap between refugees and employers,” project coordinator Farah Laporte explains in detail Refu Interim’s work and discusses the benefits it brings to the local community, employers and newcomers.


To conclude, volunteering activities provide migrants and refugees with benefits that are not always accessible for them in the general integration programs. Of course, volunteerism cannot serve as a basis for the state-run integration policies, but it can be a helpful additional practice, which provides a follow-up mechanism to introductory courses and fosters social inclusion of third-country nationals. Experience has shown that when feeling their help and participation is welcomed. Newcomers become agents of social change and active contributors to their new societies on the same level as native-born citizens. And not to forget, volunteerism has been already recognized as an effective tool for social inclusion and a helpful integration practice in many documents, including reports of the UN agencies and plans of action among different European institutions (e.g., in the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027). Hopefully, in the upcoming years, projects related to migrant volunteerism will receive solid support from the EU and national governments, which will eventually lead to better integration results and actual inclusion. 

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