Refugee volunteer

© Najeeb Mirzada and British Red Cross

A new report reveals what it is like to volunteer as a young refugee or asylum seeker – and also what stops many from doing it in the first place.

Refugees and asylum seekers flee traumatic situations, and usually arrive confused and grieving for what they have left behind. They often speak little, or nothing, of their new country’s language. They may be alone or with limited family support. Their new country can seem alien, with different customs and culture.

As Student Volunteering Week shines a spotlight on young people and volunteering, new research shows that volunteering can help refugees and asylum seekers slot into their new society. For refugees like this 20-year-old, it can even empower:

“When I am doing something to help others, I feel better myself. You know, when you help, you feel that they need you – you feel a bit important, you feel better, and it gives you a bit of confidence.”

Big benefits
The report by the British Red Cross and Danish Red Cross focuses on refugees and asylum seekers aged 18 to 25 years, in Scotland and Denmark. We asked them what encourages or deters them from voluntary work.

Many cited the community benefits to volunteering, like this young refugee:

“When I want to be with Scottish people through volunteering, it’s because they are people from here – they know things better about here, and then you discover things about the country.

“Because when you know the traditions and culture, you feel a bit more part of the country – you feel more inside the country. You don’t feel too much an outsider like before. I don’t want to live like a hermit. …[You] can make a lot of friends, meet a lot of people.”

Beyond social networks, volunteering offers an opportunity to practise the language. Emotionally, it keeps minds busy and adds structure to daily life. Practically, it introduces skills that refugees and asylum seekers feel are useful for future employment. It sounds like a no-brainer.

Some obstacles
However, the report reveals barriers that stop volunteering in the first place. These include language issues, a lack of self-confidence, and shyness.

Volunteer in tracing and messaging service

© Hannah Maule-Ffinch and British Red Cross

These obstacles are present in both Scotland and Denmark, especially for asylum seekers, who are struggling with insecure status and a stressful asylum process.

But the report also highlights where social conditions differ in each country – and how this can have a big impact, even for recognised refugees.

Differences between countries
In Denmark, every new refugee receives housing and a minimum amount of money to live on, as well as compulsory lessons in Danish and Danish society, free of charge, from day one.

In Scotland, there is a bigger struggle to meet such basic needs. Many refugees cannot take language lessons because of long waiting times. They can work or apply for state benefits and housing, but there are often delays and difficulties in the process.

This can cause a level of destitution and homelessness among Scottish refugees that is not seen in Denmark.

‘I don’t know what is going to happen’
Unlike their Danish counterparts, many Scottish refugees in the report did not have the time or energy to volunteer. They were too busy and stressed trying to find a solution to these everyday problems and needs.

“I have to go to the housing services every Monday to see whether they are going to take me to a hotel or whether they are going to give me a place to live,” said one young male refugee. “I don’t know what is going to happen. If this housing matter settles somehow, and I get settled, I will be able to relax and to concentrate on other things…”

Yet these problems create other ones: to volunteer, you usually have to fill out an application form. With little social support or language skills, this can be difficult. And when you finally jump that first hurdle and find somewhere to volunteer? You need spare money to get there.

Looking to the future
By looking at the social structures that prevent volunteering, we can think about how to get people to participate and reap all the benefits – both to society and to refugees, like this young man, with his whole adult life ahead:

“I want to volunteer. I want to volunteer in a kitchen, I want to learn more about that kind of work – and maybe have the opportunity to get a certificate. I don’t want to work ‘here and there’, but to do something purposeful for my future.”