Exploring the frames of altruistic action. A comparative analysis of volunteers' engagement in British and French pro-asylum charities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sociology


Over the last decades, in a context in which the living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees are becoming increasingly difficult, many charities have dedicated themselves to the support of these groups across Europe. A large part of the activities of these organisations depends on the involvement of volunteers who participate in altruistic actions such as: legal aid, advice and support in terms of access to services (housing, schools, welfare, etc.), language or educational support (in particular children's support), fundraising, therapeutic or moral support. This study focuses on the case of the volunteers engaged in the support of asylum seekers and refugees in order to explore questions which remain underexplored in the literature on collective action.
This research project seeks to analyse what motivates volunteers to engage with charities that support asylum seekers and refugees, as well as how they define their engagement and reflect upon their experience. In particular, the study wants to analyse whether and how these actors distinguish between altruistic action and social or political protest. In doing so, it seeks to explore how the frontiers between different forms of engagement in society are constructed and negotiated. Looking at immigration and asylum politics 'from below', it also aims to analyse how public debates and policies on these issues are reflected in the forms of engagement in support of asylum seekers and refugees.
The project is based on a comparative approach and on qualitative research methods: we will interview 140 volunteers with different profiles and who are active in two contrasted contexts (Britain and France). We will also interview key representatives of the main pro-asylum charities active in these two countries, and we will analyse press reports and charities' archives. We will undertake this empirical research in the cities of London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Paris, Lyon, and in the region of Lille-Calais. This will allow us to develop an in-depth analysis of why and how people engage in altruistic action in support of asylum seekers and refugees. This will also enable us to analyse whether differences in terms of the life trajectories and personal values of volunteers, of organisational cultures of pro-asylum charities, of national cultures of volunteering, of relations between civil society actors and public authorities, as well as of immigration and asylum politics lead individuals to define their engagement in different ways.
This approach and these methods will give us new data and perspectives on the ways ideas that relate to altruism, solidarity, humanity, care, or compassion are constructed and experienced. They will also enable us to develop original perspectives on the consequences in civil society of policies and public debates in the field of immigration and asylum. This research is timely in a context of intense debates and rapid policy changes on immigration and asylum, both at the national and EU levels. It is also timely in a context of funding shortages to civil society organisations.

Planned Impact

This study aims for impact in three areas:
- Improve the experience of volunteers working for the support of vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees
It has been raised in our discussions with representatives of pro-asylum charities that many volunteers find their experience difficult in emotional terms, due in particular to their feeling of disempowerment in relation to the living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees. This issue has been also raised in the literature and in the ESRC funded research project on the strategies of asylum advocacy in the UK and US (see Case for Support). Our study will collect first-hand data on the difficulties expressed by volunteers and make concrete proposals to improve their overall experience, in particular through the reflection on the trainings offered to volunteers and through the exchange of best practices.
- Increase the effectiveness of charities and facilitate the dialogue between different organisations
We aim to provide charities with in-depth analysis on the contribution of volunteers in the pro-asylum sector. We also aim to better connect the needs of organisations and volunteers. Objectives identified during our discussions with charity representatives include: identify the needs of volunteers; learn why people choose to volunteer; think about ways to include volunteers more effectively in the structure of the charities in the long-term. These objectives are particularly timely as charities are increasingly dependent on the work of volunteers, in a context of funding shortages. Our study could increase the effectiveness of charities by providing evidence on volunteers' motivations and inclusion in the organisational structure of charities, and by encouraging a reflection on mechanisms to involve volunteers more effectively in the strategic orientations of charities. Also, the international comparison could serve as a platform to exchange best practices and to reinforce the construction of international networks in the pro-asylum movements. This objective is particularly important in the context of EU harmonisation of immigration and asylum policies.
- Improve social cohesion and increase active citizenship
The project will contribute to an evidence base on the daily activities of charities and individuals engaged in the support of asylum seekers and refugees. This new data could prove influential in shaping policy debates about the role of charities, and in increasing the social and political recognition of these actors. We expect to contribute to policy debates on the funding of the Third Sector, and we expect more generally to challenge preconceptions in the public space about the role of charities. In doing so, the study should contribute to debates and initiatives that aim to promote active citizenship and a sustainable and inclusive civil society.
The following groups will benefit from this research:
- Charities and the volunteers who are involved in them
The project will engage directly with ten pro-asylum charities, and we have discussed our research design and strategy with key representatives of these organisations: Refugee Council, Refugee Action, Migrant Help, British Red Cross, and City of Sanctuary in the UK; France Terre d'Asile, Forum Réfugiés, Secours Catholique, Croix Rouge Française, and Cimade in France. We will involve key charity actors in the advisory group as well as in the end-of-project symposium in order to discuss our findings and their implications, as well as to encourage reflexivity.
- Policy-makers and the public at large
The project will engage with groups and actors beyond those participating directly in the study. Our interim and final reports will outline the findings of the study as well as its policy implications. Our impact plan is based on a diversity of dissemination strategies that aim to inform at large and to foster discussion between different groups and actors in society.


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